Philip Roth: The Biography, by Blake Bailey

sophronisba's review against another edition

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On Tuesday morning, I was a quarter of the way through this biography, contemplating Bailey's take on Roth's first marriage. As best I can tell, neither Roth nor his first wife covered themselves in glory during this marriage. But I was beginning to be a little annoyed that Bailey seemed to not quite understand how unkind and self-centered Roth's behavior toward his wife was. He seemed much more forgiving of Roth's excesses than his wife's. The perils of an authorized biography, I thought. But I was beginning to actively dread the Claire Bloom section.

Then this news broke. This, of course, casts an entirely different light on Bailey's portrayal of Roth's wife and, in fact, all the women in the other biographies. I find myself in the perverse position of wishing to reread and reevaluate all of them, and yet also not wanting to read another word by him.

Should this book be read? I think it should, though not right now, and perhaps I will even finish it myself one day. Roth was, despite his many faults, an important writer of the twentieth century, and Bailey had access to sources that no one may ever see again, or at least not for a very long time. But it can never again be thought of as definitive, and I think it should be read with an eye toward what we are willing to forgive of men we consider geniuses, and how we determine who these geniuses are in the first place. Because it seems to be the case that the gatekeepers who anoint our brilliant writers are often themselves men who treat women very badly indeed. It is just possible that this clouds their judgment when they consider misogynists who happen to construct sentences well.