Thursday, August 17, 2006

"...adulterous, callously selfish, and financially vindictive"

In the late 1990s Philip Roth published I Married a Communist, the second novel of his "American trilogy." To my mind it was the weakest book of the three: the first, American Pastoral, was not only the best of the trilogy but one of the better American novels of the decade, and The Human Stain was fine.

I Married a Communist was widely "known" to be an allegory, set in the McCarthy era, of Roth's real-life marriage to and divorce from Claire Bloom, which was apparently very messy, unpleasant stuff. Roth's novel was in retaliation to Bloom's 1996 memoir, Leaving the Doll's House.

I may revisit Roth's trilogy at some point, but I've written this much so far only to give some context for the real object of this post: Roth's reaction to an essay about literary biography in the New York Review of Books by John Updike which rehearses some of the allegations Bloom made about Roth--"...adulterous, callously selfish, and financially vindictive" is not nearly the whole of it--in her memoir.

Updike's essay is available free only to subscribers, but Roth's complaint and Updike's brief reply are available here. There's a lesson about clarity in writing--and the (mis)perceived slight--in there.

Sticks and stones may break one's bones...and words can be pretty hurtful, too.

--Marshal Zeringue