A flatlay of some of James Baldwin's most notable works.

Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

Philip Roth, as we learn in Blake Bailey’s essential new biography, was a labourer who spent his days turning sentences around until they gleamed. “The idea that you don’t have to work all the time,” he once told a journalist, “that’s news to me.”

He dabbled in other forms – short stories influenced by Salinger and Capote, even drama (“Nobody has written worse plays than me. Maybe Henry James”) – before settling into the medium he perfected, becoming a modern American master of the novel.

Thirty-one books in 52 years were the result of a work ethic that “stops my brain spinning like a car wheel in the snow.” Which might leave the new reader wondering where to begin with an author whose recurring subjects were sex, America and … Philip Roth. Start here.

Portnoy's Complaint (1969)

Portnoy wasn’t Roth’s first novel, or even his first hit – that was, in both cases, 1959’s Goodbye, Columbus – but this is the book that supercharged his stardom, shifting almost half a million copies in hardback. What, after all, sells better than sex? These are the filthy, fizzing confessions of a young man, Alexander Portnoy, obsessed with a certain subject: “chasing it, sniffing it, lapping it, shtupping it, but above all, thinking about it.”

 

This “wild blue shocker,” as Life magazine put it, made us realise that when Roth gets his engine running – peppered with italics, punctuated with exclamation marks!, breaking the rules of ‘proper’ literature – you don’t read it so much as jump aboard and hold on for your life. “Portnoy wasn’t a character for me,” Roth said, “he was an explosion.” Perhaps this energy is why – unlike much comedy – more than half a century after publication, Portnoy hasn’t aged: it’s still funny, still shocking. And through the controversy that followed its publication – “a mixture of bile, sperm and self-indulgence,” said one critic – it stands as a totem for the freedom of literature to say whatever it wants to as loud as it can.

The Ghost Writer (1979)

The Ghost Writer introduced us to Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s alter ego – a successful and self-regarding Jewish writer, with an eye for voluptuous women – and although it’s a great novel in its own right, it’s best considered as the opening salvo of the trilogy that continues with Zuckerman Unbound (1981) and The Anatomy Lesson (1983).

In these novels Zuckerman toils with the consequences of a success so outstanding “it was as baffling as a misfortune.” Zuckerman’s books, like Roth’s, see him accused of antisemitism (“Is there anything in your short story that would not warm the heart of a Julius Streicher or a Josef Goebbels?” asks one correspondent). Later he is the author of a controversial smash hit autobiographical novel Carnovsky – an analogue for Portnoy’s Complaint – which leads him into a world of money, media attention and young women mistakenly sending him photos of themselves intended for John Updike.

With the trilogy, Roth simultaneously invites comparison with Zuckerman and repels it: Roth is and isn’t Zuckerman, who is and isn’t Carnovsky. Great fiction doesn’t get more seriously playful than this.

Patrimony: A True Story (1991)

Roth dazzled us with a hall of mirrors in the Zuckerman trilogy, but proved he could still deliver a straight story with this memoir of his father. Despite the multiple controversies Roth’s books attracted, his father’s pride never wavered: he even signed copies of Portnoy (“From Philip Roth’s father, Herman Roth”) to hand out to fellow passengers on a cruise.

Roth repaid the loyalty with this beautiful tribute, published just over a year after his father’s death. Patrimony is unsentimental about the brute facts of Herman’s final years, and the brain tumour that killed him. The energetic style is tempered, but recognisable: “After all that he had weathered without bitterness or brokenness or despair, wasn’t eight to ten hours of brain surgery really asking too much? Isn’t there a limit? The answer is yes, yes absolutely, yes to the thousandth degree – this was asking too much. To ‘Isn’t there a limit?’ the answer is no.”

With Patrimony, Roth did his father justice, did him proud, and honoured his promise to himself to fix him in memory for good. “You must not forget anything.”

American Pastoral (1997)

With each new book, Roth sought a “breakaway” from the last. His 1995 novel Sabbath’s Theater was the ranting sexual odyssey of an elderly erotomaniac, so with his next book – considered by many critics to be his best – he wrote about a good, innocent, all-American hero.

Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov has it all: money, looks, sporting prowess, and the fruits of America’s 1960s boom. But the worm in the bud is his inaptly named daughter Merry, whose radical politics lead to a world of terrorism and family fracture. The book sizzles with high-speed arguments between father and daughter, until the narrator (our old friend Nathan Zuckerman) is forced to confront an unwelcome truth:

“The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.”

American Pastoral was both a literary and a personal triumph for Roth, winning him his first, long-awaited Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The Plot Against America (2004)

Roth’s last major novel repeated the success of his first, bringing in readers outside his usual fanbase, and becoming the first of his novels in almost two decades to reach the New York Times bestseller list. The Plot Against America is a counterfactual history of the Roth family, imagining its troubled existence as Jews in an America led by populist president Charles Lindbergh.

For a Roth novel, the style is unadorned (“relax the language,” he wrote in his notes), and the book seems even more timely now than it did when it was published, speaking of antisemitism, populism, unreliable opinion polls, and a nationalist president who cries ‘America First!’

Presidents, of course, come and go, but Roth’s work will continue to be read. Not that he wanted to change the world with his books. “What I want,” he said, “is to possess my readers while they are reading my book – if I can, to possess them in ways that other writers don’t.” The work of a lifetime, fully achieved.

  • Philip Roth

  • 'Superlative... definitive and genuinely gripping' SUNDAY TIMES

    'Utterly engrossing' EVENING STANDARD

    'Compulsively readable... Beautifully written... Definitive' OBSERVER

    Appointed by Philip Roth and granted complete access and independence, Blake Bailey spent years poring over Roth's personal archive, interviewing his friends, lovers, and colleagues, and engaging Roth himself in breathtakingly candid conversations. The result is an indelible portrait of an American master and of the post-war literary scene.

    Bailey shows how Roth emerged from a lower-middle-class Jewish milieu to achieve the heights of literary fame, how his career was nearly derailed by his catastrophic first marriage, and how he championed the work of dissident novelists behind the Iron Curtain. Bailey examines Roth's rivalrous friendships with Saul Bellow, John Updike and William Styron, and reveals the truths of his florid love life, culminating in his almost-twenty-year relationship with actress Claire Bloom, who pilloried Roth in her 1996 memoir, Leaving a Doll's House. Tracing Roth's path from realism to farce to metafiction to the tragic masterpieces of the American Trilogy, Bailey explores Roth's engagement with nearly every aspect of post-war American culture.

    *A 'BOOKS OF 2021' PICK IN THE OBSERVER, GUARDIAN, FINANCIAL TIMES, SUNDAY TIMES, EVENING STANDARD AND NEW STATESMAN*

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