The death of Philip Roth at eighty-five is symbolic of the continued tearing down of walls that have kept the old guard safe from too much judgment or criticism. The famously perverse Roth, whose perversity found him becoming a legend after the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint in, fittingly, 1969 (also the year Interview was started before it had to end), hadn’t released an incendiary novel since, perhaps, 2001’s The Dying Animal (but that was just more stock old man/younger woman fodder). Like his filmic foil, Woody Allen (most ostensibly in Deconstructing Harry), Roth has faced his reckoning as an influence in the contemporary world. And also, just as Allen has come to rely upon in his later years, Roth’s final novels, including 2008’s Indignation and 2010’s Nemesis, were set in the 1940s and 1950s–the decades that clearly fucked both men up irrevocably–a means for him to bask in the past so as to avoid his constant out of touchness with the literary realm of the present (all franchise-based as it is).
What is even more interesting about Roth’s trajectory is that he (so he thought) was at his best when he was suffering. In that classic Jewish male way, he truly believed that, as his now ex-wife and theater and film actress Claire Bloom put it of their initial marital bliss, “Perhaps too much harmony had become an obstacle to his creativity.” Bloom would speak to this very problem while writing a tell-all novel called Leaving A Doll’s House (which yes, should be read as an “homage” to Roth’s death), published in 1996. Bloom–whose spurning by Roth is also the loose basis for Harry Block’s (Allen) ex-wife, Lucy (Judy Davis), in Deconstructing Harry–saw firsthand just how much neuroses went into Roth’s “process.” This reached a crescendo when the novel he thought would be his masterpiece, Operation Shylock, was a critical and commercial failure. It was this, paired with going on a book tour for it, that sent him into a deep depression afterward, one that was, naturally, taken out upon the “little woman,” expected to be an emotional punching bag as was usually the case when a female agreed to ride the wave of loving a twentieth century writer (Zelda knows).
As his mental state improved, Bloom’s was infected, compounded by personal matters pertaining to her career and her daughter, Anna, who Roth had “forbidden” from staying with them (maybe he feared being tantalized Woody Allen-style). When the divorce eventually came–which was no matter for Roth, who had insisted upon a prenup that Bloom’s lawyer called “unconscionable, the most brutal document of its kind he had ever encountered”–it came with all the same malice that tinged Allen and Mia Farrow’s, which is inevitably why Bloom had to release her emotions into a book, so as to put them somewhere that could solidify and pay adequate tribute to the trauma she endured.
One reviewer of Leaving A Doll’s House, Patricia Bosworth, wrote at the time of the book’s release, “How was she able to live with so much duplicity? Ms. Bloom is never able to explain … why she didn’t kick him out or just leave herself…” Again, it really is quite drastic how much women’s attitudes toward abuse and understanding it has come. For as any longtime verbally or physically abused woman will likely corroborate, there is always this hopeful belief that he will change, he doesn’t mean what he’s saying, he’s just in a bad mood. Bloom phrases it as follows: “Which was the real Philip Roth? The chasm between his words and deeds was immense.” But women are becoming increasingly less susceptible to pretty words, especially those that come from misogynistic male writers. And while, sure, it is requisite to honor the work of an important and prolific author like Roth, looking back at Leaving A Doll’s House is all one needs to comprehend that being an asshole as an excuse to create works of “genius” is evermore going the way of the dodo. How you live is who you are, and who you are always comes across in the literature you create. If you are a sniveling and pathetic chauvinist that targets younger women with father issues (Bloom expounds on Roth’s penchant for dating women who grew up without fathers), in addition to talking about all your weird sex fetishes, it’s probably not going to end well for you anymore, legacy-wise.
So crack open the old memoir and be defied to find anything joyful in the “pleasant neuroses” of a man that toyed with emotions for sport, in somewhat the same way Alexander Portnoy’s own therapist did after coining the mental malady of Portnoy as follows: “A disorder in which strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature…” Does that make being a bastard right? Ask Claire Bloom.