Writer Blake Bailey spent 10 years working on the authorized biography of Philip Roth. Finally, weeks ago, it was published, to much acclaim.
Cynthia Ozick…the gold standard… was ecstatic.
Days later it was condemned and terminated by the publisher, W.W. Norton. Book and author, cancelled.
After the best of times for an author, came the worst, when Bailey, highly regarded biographer as well for Richard Yates and John Cheever, found himself accused of being a sexual predator, of grooming 8th grade students, and even of rape—all of which he denies. Objecting to the publisher’s quick hook are dozens of literary luminaries. To no avail.
This is a hanging without a trial, they say, and with that, all our heads are in the same noose. Agreed.
(Others judge and fault Bailey instantly, because this is the year for it, 2021.)
Plus, guilty or innocent, a book ought to live on its own merits, not the author’s. Dostoevsky was an anti-Semite. Are we to quit reading him?
The shelves are full books and plays…good ones, even great ones…written by individuals less than stellar.
I have my own list, starting with Shakespeare and Thomas Wolfe and Knute Hansen and Celine.
But I particularly like it when Mordecai Richler names them in his novel, “Barney’s Version” – Lewis Carroll, he writes, “beloved by generations of children, wasn’t the guy you wanted to babysit your ten-year old daughter.” Onward to others flawed in different ways – Simenon, Odets, Malraux, Frost, Mencken, T.S. Eliot…and more, of course, who should never be cancelled but were no saints.
Treachery and lechery were everywhere. Fame was the honey.
Nor was Philip Roth so perfect, either. Which is partly the point. By banning Blake Bailey’s biography of Roth, we are being deprived of the full picture about a novelist that the mavens refer to as the most important writer of our times – and this is where I come in to disagree. Weeks ago, on PBS, they said the same thing about Hemingway.
It depends who’s in season.
Towering above them all…according to the luminaries…is Saul Bellow. I didn’t care much for him, either, and in this novel of mine, I call him a kvetch.
Everything he covers in “Herzog” …his most popular…I’d heard from the old-timers on the steps of 5050 Saint Urbain Street, Montreal.
Roth himself offers Bellow the top spot; the highest respect. Figures. Both wrote as Jews but sold their Jewishness with an asterisk.
Their views on Israel were Zionism Lite.
They spread their superficial Yiddishkeit as if it were expertise…and therefore served as false witnesses.
To be fair, I never gave either of them a chance, and since this is about Roth, I must say as a kid born in Toulouse, France, a month after Hitler invaded, I could never identify, nor sympathize, with a writer born in Newark, New Jersey. He was born and raised in America …. the place my family ran towards, the Gestapo at their heels, from 1940 to 1945, finally arriving in Montreal (later the United States) destitute. What’s his beef?
Roth is said to have been an angry writer. It’s what gave him his juice. Good. A writer needs this. Yet angry about what, except the usual things. Turned down for the Prom?
I know. He goes much deeper.
Perhaps an anti-Semite in the schoolyard?
Deeper than that, too. Sure.
But all of it happening in America. Not Europe, where the French Underground up in the Pyrenees stuffed cotton in my mouth so that I shouldn’t make a sound and give us all away.
To real Nazis.
My memoir will have to rescue me if any of this sounds like a gripe.
Because I only intend to distinguish Roth’s world from a world where so many were forced to flee their homes and for years remain trapped in Barcelona with false papers…so that at any moment we could be snatched up and put away as escaped Jews from Vichy. Meanwhile, Roth’s world was Newark.
Which can sound awfully Ozzie and Harriet to anyone peeking in from the outside.
Neither father nor mother in Spain could speak Spanish and the other giveaway was that a man and a woman with only two children could not possibly be Catholic.
(Thanks to my sister Sarah for that and so much more information.)
My first impression of America, arriving at Penn Station NYC, was to behold a country where people did not have to whisper.
For me, the word for America has always been… gratitude.
No wonder, then, that I could never take Roth seriously…not his books… and certainly not his anger…and nobody ever says, “We’ll always have Newark.”
But given the reviews, I would like to know more about Philip Roth. I want to be corrected. He may truly be the best. Enough people say so.
Too bad about Blake Bailey. Really, the book ought to be set free.
Roth deserves another chance. We all do.
New York-based bestselling American novelist Jack Engelhard writes regularly for Arutz Sheva.
He wrote the worldwide book-to-movie bestseller “Indecent Proposal,” the authoritative newsroom epic, “The Bathsheba Deadline,” followed by his coming-of-age classics, “The Girls of Cincinnati,” and, the Holocaust-to-Montreal memoir, “Escape from Mount Moriah.” For that and his 1960s epic “The Days of the Bitter End,” contemporaries have hailed him “The last Hemingway, a writer without peer, and the conscience of us all.” Website: www.jackengelhard.com