It was an early sign of Roth’s growing propensity to design and steer his own image. At Yaddo, the woodsy artists’ retreat to which he had fled to escape the wearying clamor of celebrity, he met Alan Lelchuk, a 30-year-old writer inspired by Roth’s trespassing iconoclasm. Roth, who had mentored the progress of Lelchuk’s “American Mischief” toward its ultimate success, had once again happened on a compliant confederate. Because Saul Bellow and the influential Philip Rahv had both dismissed “The Breast,” the plan was to rebuff and rebut his critics in a significant literary venue. A carefully prepared interview, wholly Roth-generated, was to appear in The New York Review of Books, with Lelchuk as supportive interlocutor and Roth in full command of the defense. But since no king will respect either his valet or his vassal, Lelchuk, like Miller before him, was soon to be disposed of: He too, Roth concluded, was a crappy writer. “He needs an English teacher,” he said.
Yet another relationship was doomed to darken: Richard Stern, whose close friendship of five decades Roth had long relished for its omni-devouring intellectual rowdiness, a mind much like his own, and for the robustness of Stern’s literary voice. Though Roth heartily acknowledged him as a peer, Stern’s reputation was static and nearly invisible. His unspoken underground frustration as he witnessed his friend’s high-voltage public soaring finally burst into a mutual thrashing: Roth had disparaged Stern’s last novel, and Stern retaliated. His own prose, he told Roth, had always been “barer, quicker, less intense and striking than yours,” but “yours perhaps errs in the direction of excess, beating a subject to death or boredom.” And Joel Conarroe, whose ubiquitous presence became nearly a family affair (her “other son,” Roth’s mother affirmed), was from early on an all-purpose champion and affable enabler. “What’s my next assignment, boss?” he once joked. But for Roth there was no joking about a public letter Conarroe had signed, intended to protest the revocation of Amiri Baraka’s honorary post as poet laureate of New Jersey. Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) had published a poisonous ditty implying that the Jews were behind the destruction of the twin towers. “A ranting, demagogic, anti-Semitic liar, and a ridiculously untalented poet to boot,” Roth thundered, lashing Conarroe for being a liar himself: He had concealed from his friend his endorsement of the letter (though he later withdrew his signature). The breach was patched up, but the nature of the outrage remained unforgiven.
“I have chosen to make art of my vices rather than what I take to be my virtues,” Roth commented in a rare unironical admission that he had virtues. The range and depth of his self-effacing philanthropy — his lavish personal generosity to individuals — has never been visible, but his “Writers From the Other Europe,” a 17-volume collection of Eastern European writing unknown to English-speaking readers, continues to widen public perception of the universe of contemporary literature. In the ’70s, it was his vision of Kafka that drew Roth to Prague, then under Communist rule, where he championed dissident Czech writers — Milan Kundera and Ivan Klima, among others — and quietly arranged for an Ad Hoc Fund for their succor and support. For this crime he was hounded by the secret police. Europe’s oppressive travail took hold of and consumed him: He became intimate with the brutal death camp histories of Primo Levi, Aharon Appelfeld and Norman Manea, a Romanian writer who endured both Transnistria and the Communist regime of Ceausescu. It was the force of Roth’s fame that enabled him to facilitate the passage of Manea to a much-honored American literary life.
Some may think that whether Roth is or is not a Jewish writer is too narrow a speculation, too “parochial.” It’s a free country, after all, and its citizens are at liberty to define themselves as they prefer. Definition imposed is tyranny. But there is something else hovering just to the side: the paradox that rises, willy-nilly, from the welter of contrariness Bailey unveils. As the great conductor of the tumultuous orchestra that was his life, the careful supervisor of every aspect of his career, the architect of Newark’s grand municipal celebration of his 80th birthday, the meticulous designer of his own funeral, Roth at times unwittingly advanced what he most railed against. Even so sovereign a will as his could not overcome the vagaries of fallout; out of repudiation came emphasis on the thing repudiated. In his attempts to smother Bloom’s score-settling invective he made it all the more publicly memorable. Of the little ceremony at his graveside, most remarked on was the absence of any hint or vestige of Jewish usage or coloration. Yet in 2014, when the former defamer of the Jews received a dramatically vindicating honorary degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary, he was moved to think how gratified his parents would have been.
But his father and mother and older brother were long dead. With old age and the accelerated suffering brought on by heart failure, he confessed to loneliness and terror. “It’s the damn poignancy of everything that rocks me a little,” he told Conarroe. He was fond, in a grandfatherly way, of other people’s children. At his burial, Julia Golier, the mother of two of these children, read a melancholy passage from “American Pastoral”: “Yes, alone we are, deeply alone, and always, in store for us, a layer of loneliness even deeper.” Was Roth, who had begun under the wing of Henry James, unconsciously invoking James’s elegy for his own life? “This loneliness,” James had reflected, “what is it still but the deepest thing about one? Deeper about me, at any rate, than anything else: deeper than my ‘genius,’ deeper than my ‘discipline,’ deeper than my pride.” Though Roth wrote in solitude, he was rarely alone. While he lingered at the brink of death, his hospital bed was ringed round with young adorers, veritable disciples, former lovers, friends reclaimed, and more intimate friends whose loyalty was steady and seamless. He lay, like the biblical David, a dying king, a maker, if not of psalms, then of a tower of sardonic, tempestuous and tragic imaginings. Despite the flood of stricken mourners, he belonged to nobody, and nobody belonged to him.
How do we know all this, and with such palpable immediacy, as if touching bone? The biographer’s unintrusive everyday prose is unseen and unheard; yet under Bailey’s strong light what remains on the page is one writer’s life as it was lived, and — almost — as it was felt.