ITo grow up, as Sigmund Freud probably wrote somewhere, a boy must rebel against his parents, and for some time now modern culture has rebelled against his literary parents, that Mount Rushmore of 20th century intellectual masculinity: Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, John Updike, and Philip Roth. Last month, two British newspapers announced that Roth “could face cancellation” due to details about his personal life included in two new biographies. That Roth possibly canceled himself three years ago when he died is beside the point: the quickest way to prove one is good these days is to vilify the bad, and death is no hiding place.
Since his death, all of these men have come under fire, primarily for their attitudes toward women – Mailer was hugely popular in his heyday, but he’s probably best known for all of that now. stab-his-second-wife clumsiness; Updike is regularly ridiculed as a “misogynist”; and Bellow’s female characters are often rickety at best or foxes and shrews. Now, inevitably, it’s Roth’s turn.
“New Biographies of the Great American Novelist Highlight Roth’s Predatory Behavior and Sex Obsession,” read one headline, though, as the headlines say, “Philip Roth Was Obsessed With Sex” is quite up there with ” The royal family are snobs. ” Who would have guessed such a thing from the man who wrote a novel about extreme masturbation (Portnoy’s complaint) and another about a man turning into a giant breast (The breast)? As for his behavior with women, it is not necessary to read the new biographies to know him. Roth’s ex-wife, Claire Bloom, wrote about their relationship in her memoirs: Leaving a dollhouse, 25 years ago. You can also read Roth’s not exactly contrite reaction to Bloom’s complaints, his 1998 novel, I Married a Communist, in which the protagonist’s vicious wife was clearly based on Bloom.
This side of these authors hardly went unnoticed in his life. Second wave feminists, including Kate Millett and Germaine Greer, took on Mailer, and David Foster Wallace described Updike as “A penis with a dictionary of synonyms”. Roth anticipated his posthumous fate in his 2007 novel Exit Ghost, in which his long-time protagonist Nathan Zuckerman rages against lewd biographers who destroy the reputations of the dead. So the stories are not revealing, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be reexamined. They are not irrelevant, but are they the whole story?
I was never a Mailer fan, but went through a Roth and Bellow phase after college, in reaction against the all-English (and goyish) focus of my literature degree. Roth’s American trilogy is probably my favorite of all these books, and in them his libido is largely in the shadows. This is not something that can be said for my second favorite series, the Updike’s Rabbit books. But enjoying a novel does not depend on the approval of deliberately flawed characters or its equally imperfect author. There are many things that make a book good (elegant writing, emotional truth, narrative voice) in addition to its morality. “Roth’s misogyny infuses everything he writes,” according to Meg Elison, a novelist recently described by the Times as “Reexamine Roth”. This is typical of the all-or-nothing approach that is popular today, where if you don’t like everything about a public figure, then you can’t like it at all.
“Seen from today’s point of view, Roth’s books are on the wrong side of MeToo,” said Sandra Newman, an American novelist. Seen from today’s point of view, everything from the past is on the wrong side of the modern moment, because that is how time works. I hate to give uncomfortable news here, but I don’t think many of Charles Dickens’s novels will pass the Bechdel test. Seen from today’s point of view, The Merchant of Venice is on the wrong side of many things, but it is still a stupendous work.
I didn’t always enjoy the lust and rage in Roth’s books, and I probably love his poignant historical books (American Pastoral, The plot against America) more than the tirelessly sexual. The books may reflect the era in which they were written, but they also show us the author, and no one can accuse Roth of ever hiding who he was: American, Jewish, sex-obsessed, death-obsessed, funny, angry, wise , profane, imaginative, cruel. That’s what readers always liked about him. Narrowing it down to one aspect of his biography is like reading the York Notes version of his books. There is a difference between considering the past and seeing only one color of the rainbow.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism