The life of Philip Roth, one of the great American authors of the 20th century, was long and painful. Three new biographies hammer this home, says Michael Gorra in The New York Review of Books. When he was lugging a sack of potatoes during basic army training in 1955, something in his back popped: the next day he couldn’t walk. He used a steel back brace for a while, and from middle age he had to work at a standing desk, with “long periods of lying on the floor”. In 1967 his appendix burst. In 1989 he had a quintuple heart bypass. Eventually he had 16 stents and a defibrillator in his chest. A botched knee operation in 1987 led to insomnia that his doctor treated with large doses of Halcion – sleeping pills that in Roth’s case caused panic and near-suicidal depression.
This didn’t stop him writing 31 books, including Portnoy’s Complaint, which made him a national celebrity. Nor did it dampen his libido. He wed “only the most difficult of his many lovers, and the most vengeful”. First was the “unstable” Chicago-born divorcee Maggie Martinson, in 1959 – she told him she was pregnant and would only agree to an abortion if they got hitched. Later he learnt she’d paid a pregnant woman to urinate in a cup, then taken the sample to the pharmacist. Roth in turn slept with Playboy’s Miss July 1956. He split up with Martinson in 1963. “You’re dead,” he said to her casket at her funeral in 1968, “and I didn’t have to do it.”
He was “compulsively unfaithful” to the English actress Claire Bloom, his second wife. She left him in 1995, then published a damning memoir, Leaving a Doll’s House. Roth, never a man to let anyone else have the last word, wrote I Married a Communist in retaliation. All his fiction was enciphered autobiography. The man who emerges, says David Remnick in The New Yorker, is nevertheless a “literary genius, constantly getting it wrong, loving others, then hurting them”. Roth mellowed in later life – he died in 2018 – but he always filled the seats in his University of Pennsylvania classes with “particularly attractive undergraduates”. For him, “outrage was part of art”. Ultimately, he couldn’t help himself.