Tuesday, October 19

Philip Roth, acclaimed writer and questioned for his obsession with sex and his misogynistic reputation | People

The director Isabel Coixet, who directed Elegy, a film based on a play by Philip Roth already featured in The weekly country in November 2019, some peculiarities about his meeting with the writer in the months prior to filming. In that interview they held in the studio attached to their magnificent house in New York state, the director’s heartfelt praise for the writer was not lacking. They were sincere, but Coixet explained that he had also rehearsed them because the agents of the one who has been considered one of the great American storytellers of the 20th century had warned him not to skimp on praise and not to think of praising another writer in their presence.

Coixet then wrote about the American author: “You read me your book. Three times [en referencia a Roth]. You would stop at a paragraph that you particularly liked and you would say to me: “Isn’t this great?” (…) You always stopped at the scene when Consuela, the protagonist of The dying animal, he bit Professor Kepesh’s cock. You made a strange noise with your teeth, you looked at me as if waiting for me to be scandalized. You asked me how I was going to shoot that scene ”.

In a few sentences, the greatness and depths of a writer who was also a person and cultivated dark sides were portrayed. Now, almost three years after his death, which occurred in May 2018, a new biography that will be released on April 6 has an impact on those other edges of Roth that go beyond books such as Portnoy’s lament or the trilogy formed by American pastoral (1997), I married a communist (1998) and The human stain (2000). The new biography, signed by Blake Bailey, Philip Roth: The Biography, has received rave reviews from British newspapers such as The Time and it raises the question of whether there has ever been a writer in American literary history more sexualized than Roth. And the British newspaper’s response is blunt: “Roth makes John Updike and Saul Bellow look demure.”

The book recounts that the first day the writer visited London in 1958, he went to see the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum and then set out for Soho to seek the services of a prostitute. Also that when he taught at the University of Pennsylvania, students who enrolled late in his seminar, where there was an excess of applications, ended up being valued for selection both for their physical appearance and their intellectual gifts. Another detail about his personality is glimpsed when he relates that during his long relationship with actress Claire Bloom, with whom he ended up marrying in 1990 and from whom he separated in 1994, Roth told him at a certain point that due to his heart problems his relationship she should be chaste from then on. But that in reality he could not accept impotence as a permanent condition in his life, he stopped taking all beta-blockers and had sex with at least two women, but he hid his decision from who his partner was.

Philip Roth and Claire Bloom at their Connecticut home in 1983.
Philip Roth and Claire Bloom at their Connecticut home in 1983.Magnum

Blake Bailey also points out in his biography that Roth enjoyed playing the role of pygmalion with his friends, telling them what to read, how to speak or behave and that as he got older his lovers became younger and younger. She came to boast of her achievements with phrases like “I was forty and she was nineteen”, when she recalled the affair she had with one of her students at the University of Pennsylvania. A pattern that was repeated with the writer Lisa Halliday who became his lover when he was 69 and she was 25. They met when she worked at the Wylie literary agency, and was responsible for the writer’s affairs, and when their relationship it’s over turned into a bomb-proof friendship. In fact in the first Hallyday novel, Asymmetry, one of its parts narrates the adventure between a young woman (Alice) who works in the publishing world and a famous author, eternal aspiring to the Nobel (Ezra Blazer), and Roth was delighted with the publication.

According to his biographer, Roth in private life was either loved or hated. For example Mia Farrow, with whom he had a brief affair, defended him tooth and nail. As did many of her lovers who ended up becoming friends. But the same did not happen with the two women who were his wives who at different times made public horrifying accounts of two really disastrous marriages.

His first wife was Maggio Martinson. He maintained that he was trying to break up with her in 1959 when she deceived him that she was pregnant. Roth agreed to marry as long as she aborted. They divorced in 1963 after four years that they described as “histrionically unhappy.” His relationship with his second wife lasted 14 years and when the divorce came in 1993 he accused her of “cruel and inhuman treatment”. She recounted her version in 1996 in a memoir focused on their relationship that was very unflattering to Roth, Leaving a Doll’s House (Leaving a dollhouse). He portrayed him as selfish, manipulative, vicious, adulterous and a misogynist who portrayed women in his works as manipulative or submissive and rarely credible. A vision that, according to critics, improved in his latest novels, although his obsession with the male ego never waned.

The life of Philip Roth passed like this, in struggle: he fought to be considered a serious novelist and not a fanatic of sex – a theme present in many of his books -, he fought against his critics, his ex-wives and against his own physical decadence. Also against the fear of not being able to write the next novel. And he even struggled to enhance his image by counteracting criticism with agreed interviews or indicating to biographers which old friends of his should speak with questions that he himself prepared. He did not get the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he was considered one of the great writers of the 20th century. The doubts about his quality as a person or about the fears that gripped him were left to the private sphere.


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