May 22, 2021

THE ROTH BIOGRAPHY SCANDAL:

We were already in the middle of a cultural skirmish over Blake Bailey’s Philip Roth: The Biography—the key issue being, Was Roth a misogynist?—when both book and biographer spilled over from the review pages to Page One. “Sexual Assault Allegations Against Biographer Halt Shipping of his Book,” the New York Times announced in April. Several women accused Bailey of predatory behavior. At a Louisiana private school where he had once taught English, he was said to have “groomed” eighth-graders for later of-age seductions to rape. And a woman said that Bailey had raped her at the home of a mutual friend who—in one of the scandal’s myriad ironies—was a book reviewer for the New York Times. In no time, W.W. Norton yanked the book out of print. An 861-page tome proudly displayed in the window of my local independent bookstore just days earlier had been abruptly cancelled. “The Roth bio goes meta,” the novelist Lucinda Rosenfeld posted on Facebook.

The knock on the biography, as expressed in the New Republic among other legacy organs striving for wokeness, is that Bailey went soft on Roth’s sexual history. The magazine’s reviewer, Laura Marsh, echoed the prevailing view that Roth regarded women as necessary evils to service his outsize ego/libido, and he was a philanderer who stretched the limits of May–December romances to… whatever you call it when he’s 73 and she’s 29. Then dropped the manna from Roth-hater heaven: Of course Bailey was okay with Roth’s “misogyny”—he’s a perv himself! Which somehow “proved” Roth’s guilt as well. As if he chose Bailey as his authorized biographer because he saw him as a kindred spirit.

Plenty to unpack here. Starting with the old lit-crit canard, Can you separate the artist from his art? It’s been a longstanding question about Roth, but now must also include Bailey, his benighted Boswell. Before all this, Bailey had written acclaimed biographies of John Cheever, Richard Yates, and Charles Jackson (author of The Lost Weekend). Do his transgressions—which, if true, are inarguably disgusting—negate those books, too? No one has said that. Perhaps because while Bailey’s previous subjects shared a common masculine pre-1960s malaise, none of them polarized readers like Roth did for the entirety of his 31-book, 55-year career. Posing a second question: Can we separate the biographer from his subject, when it comes to women?

Roth himself knew a thing or two about cancelled authors: The Tourist — Philip Roth’s Czech KGB file:

Kundera would dramatize this in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which his protagonist Tomas is demoted from doctor to window washer, as would Klíma in his novel Love & Garbage, about a writer who composes essays on Kafka in his head while working as part of a cleaning crew. Klíma’s novel is strewn with meditations on the nature of waste, on the things that are carved and discarded. The garbage here is more than just metaphoric. Kundera called it “Totalitarian Kitsch”––“the absolute denial of shit.” Klíma called it “jerkish,” a propagandized pidgin whose shrinking lexis was suitable only for communication between men and monkeys. And it was this piffle that W.H. Auden described in a hotblooded octave he fired off after the events of August 1968:

About a subjugated plain,
Among the desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.

To counteract this, in 1975, Roth helped launch the Penguin paperback series “Writers from the Other Europe,” which published 17 titles (mostly by Czech and Polish authors) until 1989, the first two of which were Vaculík’s novel The Guinea Pigs and Kundera’s collection Laughable Loves. According to Roth, the goal of the project was to “bring together outstanding and influential works of fiction by Eastern European writers … who though recognized as powerful forces in their own cultures are virtually unknown in America.”

Kundera, who’d defected to France that same year, quarreled slightly with Roth’s description of the “Other Europe,” which (in Kundera’s mind) conflated the history and intellectual tradition of central Europe with the Russo-influenced states of the East. Kundera was himself trying to straddle the perspective required of a Czech writer who was now living in another country and writing for an international audience. He was worried that Roth was unknowingly reinforcing the Soviet Union’s effort to bisect Europe, as well as contributing to American notions of there being “two worlds.” Kundera was also concerned that such a diverse set of writers would be grouped together as a single cringing minority, whose works were more significant for being samizdat than being innovative fiction.

Roth may have been guilty of knowing less than he could have about regional history, but he wasn’t guilty about fetishizing the sufferings of others. As a serious, blood-conscious Jew, he was all too aware of the impending threat of persecution, something that Klíma affirmed in his memoirs: “However much he [Roth] had managed to evade it in a free country he harbored a feeling of solidarity with those being persecuted in a country that had been deprived of its freedom.”

I wonder if Roth ever thought that censored authors would become an issue in America?

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