Finished the Philip Roth biography

I finished Philip Roth: The Biography and returned it to the Palm Beach County Library. Adding to what I wrote in my previous post on this massive book (Philip Roth biography: faith in psychotherapy), I am awed by how much work the guy was able to produce despite physical pain that necessitated a lot of opiate/opioid consumption (and that was in the old days, before every American needed a steady supply of opioids).

Roth’s last lover might have been Elizabeth Warren or perhaps one of her cousins:

… Back in May 2006 [when Roth was 73 years old]… helped him find the thirty-three-year-old Kaysie Wimberly [a pseudonym] … the two found each other refreshing and had a good time together. Roth called Kaysie by her childhood nickname, Little Feather (she was part Cherokee)

As Roth gets older, the sex partners described in the book receive progressively more cash (but possibly this is due to inflation?) and assistance with their own literary careers. But they’re mostly sweet and loyal and many of them reappear when Roth is sick and/or dying. The decisions that Roth came to regret the most, and regarded as his worst choices, were two marriages (the first covered in the previous post). The second was to an actress and was also childless. From page 569:

“She’s behaved abominably about money and I’ve had to pay her off to get rid of her,” Roth wrote his old friend Charlotte Maurer. [a prenuptial agreement did not protect Roth, but resulted only in additional litigation regarding whether it was unconscionable] “She’s hysterical, irrational, deceitful, and, above and beyond everything else, a blameless victim responsible for nothing. The last finally got me down.” … In May, Roth composed the following directive: “To my executors and those planning my burial: It is my strong wish that Claire Bloom be barred from my funeral and from any memorial services arranged for me. All possible measures should be taken to enforce this.”

His ill-advised marriage to Ms. Bloom resulted in Roth’s being denied the Nobel Prize for Literature, according to the biographer and some of the sources. After securing her family court cash, Bloom had trashed Roth in a memoir and that “tainted” Roth’s reputation with various awards committees, including for the Nobel. When Bob Dylan won in 2016, Roth said “It’s okay, but next year I hope Peter, Paul and Mary get it.”

[There is no Oxford comma in the name of this group; Peter and Paul are still alive. Roth’s perspective does not seem to have taken into account that Bloom might have earned the cash that she sought. Living with a somewhat disabled old guy who was on and off a ton of painkillers is no trip to Disney World. And Bloom had a daughter from one of her previous marriages. Stepkids are statistically a big source of conflict and, certainly, Bloom had not concealed the existence of this girl from Roth.]

If Roth was willing to give money to the girlfriends and hated giving money to his family court plaintiffs, he apparently loved helping friends in need. When Veronica Geng was poor, sick, and dying, for example, Roth paid her medical bills and whatever else she needed to be as comfortable as possible. Roth was an important friend and ally (before that word became limited to the 2SLGBTQQIA+) to writers trapped behind the Iron Curtain.

Roth was contemptuous of Twitter (“So everybody’s just shouting, right?”), but eventually adapted to email. He chose to end his life in 2018 rather than accept 3-6 months of additional “life” that would be spent mostly in a hospital bed.

What about his literary legacy? Roth occupies an incredible 9 volumes within the Library of America so we can’t rely on them to pick out the novels that are actually worth reading. Of the ones that I’ve read and can remember, I would pick American Pastoral as the best (a choice also for the great writers Richard Ford and Lorrie Moore and many others quoted in “What Is Philip Roth’s Best Book?” (NYT)). Some of the other serious writers talk about Sabbath’s Theater, Patrimony, The Human Stain, and Nemesis (I can vouch for the last two).


  • “Philip Roth Left More Than $2 Million to His Hometown Library in Newark, N.J.” (Wall Street Journal, 10/30/2019): Mr. Roth didn’t leave all of his estate to Newark entities; it couldn’t be learned exactly how he allocated the rest of his money. His will left all of his assets in a trust, which isn’t publicly available. The executor of his estate, Perley H. Grimes, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Mr. Roth did leave “a substantial amount” to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, said Joel Conarroe, a longtime friend of Mr. Roth and former president of the foundation, which had awarded Mr. Roth a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1959. The royalties from Mr. Roth’s book sales will go to the Guggenheim Foundation, said people with knowledge of Mr. Roth’s bequests. The twice-divorced Mr. Roth, who had no children and was predeceased by his parents and older brother Sandy, also left bequests to friends and other people in his life, friends said. Mr. Roth’s total estate is estimated at about $10 million, according to people with knowledge of his holdings. (Some words are more valuable than others; compare Roth’s lifetime earnings from scribbling to the $137 million that the former Tesla elevator operator who heard the n-word earned in one lawsuit.)

8 thoughts on “Finished the Philip Roth biography

  1. I’ve read the American Pastoral precisely in order to “get it”, to get why it’s so praised. While in no way unlikable, it didn’t awe me and I also didn’t quite get the point he was trying to make. Were the characters just people, destinies, or allegories? If the latter, who stands for what? Is it a drama of personal or national reach?

    I’ve enjoyed Portnoy’s Complaint enourmously. And also The Dying Animal. Here’s a quote from it:

    “At best they stoically think, Yes, I understand that sooner or later I’m going to relinquish sex in this marriage, but it’s in order to have other, more valuable things. But do they understand what they’re foresaking? To be chaste, to live without sex, well, how will you take the defeats, the compromises, the frustrations? By making more money, by making all the money you can? By making all the children you can? That helps, but it’s nothing like the other thing. Because the other thing is based in your physical being, in the flesh that is born and the flesh that dies. Because only when you fuck is everything that you dislike in life and everything by which you are defeated in life purely, if momentarily, revenged. Only then are you most cleanly alive and most cleanly yourself. It’s not the sex that’s the corruption — it’s the rest. Sex isn’t just friction and shallow fun. Sex is also the revenge on death. Don’t forget death. Don’t ever forget it. Yes, sex is too limited in its power. I know very well how limited. But tell me, what power is greater?”

  2. Based on these entries, I’ll give Roth the posthumous benefit of the doubt and a second chance
    with a reading of American Pastoral. Amazon just asked $6.71 including delivery for a “good” used one with no writing or highlighting and got it. Your observation that he was a good friend to writers trapped behind the Iron Curtain moved the needle for me. I can only hope that if we are ever trapped behind the Silicon Curtain in America, someone out there will do likewise. Where else on this Earth can most of us hope to go?

  3. FWIW in books, I am embarked on Winston Churchill’s 6-volume narrative of WWII, presently mid-1941 and Hitler has blundered into war with Stalin. Churchill despised Stalin but supported him as the enemy of the arch-enemy Hitler.
    It’s a story of another world but what times he lived in, largely shaped by his implacable opposition to the Nazis.

    • Blundered is a wrong word. Hitler attack was long expected by many in Soviet military in 1941 for longer then few years, it blunted military opposition to Stalin as Hitler was perceived as a greater evil and realization that intro-Soviet unity and strong leadership were paramount in the coming war even at expense of far from optimal knee-jerk reaction Stalin’s command stile and mortal danger to those who disagreed with him. Interesting, the biggest Soviet traitor in WWII, general Vlasov, was Stalin’s favorite whom Stalin promoted despite Vlasov’s prior military failure.
      Sacrificing personal and communal interests for “common good” was trendy in the early years of USSR. Even myself, comrade Trotsky, organizer and first commander of the Red Army, supported Stalin’s attack on Finland for being good for world proletarian revolution, despite being hunted down by Stalin at the same time.

    • I know Hitler planned the invasion for years, but he blundered in underestimating the perils of the campaign. He had either bluffed or quickly conquered several nations and he expected the Soviet Union to collapse under a quick strike. The winter and the sacrifices of the Soviet people battered the German armies to destruction.

    • I would think if weather was involved it was mostly late fall weather that made Soviet roadways hard to traverse. So thank Global Warming. Cold weather affects both sides the same. Over – spread forces and long vulnerable supply lines was major Wehrmacht handicap. Smart soviet officers used them to strain and route leading part of Wehrmacht, which was overall compensated by drone soviet officers who on orders of Stavka and Staling kept sending waves of soldiers with rifles and revolvers at German positions. And of course by heavy and medium tank counter-punches that lacked continuity due to logistic handicaps, poor quality and breakdowns, insufficient maintenance and not enough fuel and ammo supply tracks but nevertheless put Wehrmacht on defensive for duration of several days and wan some intermediate battles. Overall it looks like Wehrmacht lost most of its elite troops, mostly to rear action of Red Army officers who faked being successfully zombiefied and thus survived, in 1941 / 1942 that can explains quick retreats starting 1943. Some historians point to probable insufficient fuel supply to the Wehrmacht but it seems unlikely – complete surrounding of Wehrmacht troops by Red Army are rare, Wehrmacht retreats were very quick and a lot of fuel needed to execute quick retreat from also fast moving Red Army troops.

  4. How does it work in American divorce courts when a British(non-American) ex-wife sues the American husband?

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