Among the dozen or so figures who dominated American writing in the half-century following the war, Philip Roth stands as the great defier of his times, and of time itself. Author of The Counterlife, a novel built on realising parallel possibilities, as well as the counterfactual The Plot Against America, he was a chronology scrambler, a walking, wanking paradox. His life, as recounted in a pair of slightly divergent but equally depressing new biographies, took the form less of an arc than of a loop-the-loop, or perhaps a set of interlocking cycles. Breakthrough would be followed by stasis or regression or starting afresh. Sometimes he resembled Benjamin Button, sometimes Phil Connors of Groundhog Day, but more often – and this is the depressing part – Peter Pan. It turns out, as we might have feared, that the brilliant author of Patrimony, Sabbath’s Theater and – I suppose – Portnoy’s Complaint was for the most part a tedious guy, a perennial blamer and grudge-bearer, cocky yet clueless and averse to self-reflection. I wrote ‘pathetic’ in the margin many times.