When the novelist Philip Roth died a few days ago, I thought, briefly, about re-posting an ancient piece of mine from The American Spectator. But de mortuis nihil nisi bonum and all that. Then I picked up The Daily Mail, and figured I might as well hop aboard the bandwagon. I came to Roth via the film of Goodbye, Columbus, with Ali McGraw and Richard Benjamin, who rather spoilt the book for me, and then read Portnoy's Complaint, and thereafter whatever review copy I was obliged to digest for my BBC artsy endeavors. As to the oeuvre, the defining Philip Roth anecdote comes to us courtesy of Hermione Lee, a great literary biographer with whom I used to shoot the breeze on the Beeb's "Kaleidoscope" half a lifetime ago. Hermione was rather too adoring a worshiper of Roth's undoubted talent for my tastes, but there was a droll moment in one of her interviews with him in which she suggested that as a creative artist he had something of an over-reliance on autobiography - for example, the similarities between "the deaths of the parents, which are so important in the last two Zuckerman novels, and the deaths of your own parents". Roth replied:
The best person to ask about the autobiographical relevance of the climactic death of the father in Zuckerman Unbound is my own father, who lives in Elizabeth, New Jersey. I'll give you his phone number.
Funny. Like many famously Jewish writers, Roth had no faith, and his novel Indignation posits a grim vision of the afterlife:
Is this what eternity is for, to muck over a lifetime's minutiae?
Yet Roth spent his actual lifetime mucking over the minutiae, and never more so than during his marriage to the actress Claire Bloom. One morning, he handed her the manuscript of his new novel, and then went out for a walk. Miss Bloom opened the binder:
Almost immediately I came upon a passage about the self-hating, Anglo-Jewish family with whom he lives in England. Oh well, I thought, he doesn't like my family...
A few pages on, she reached a passage about "his remarkably uninteresting, middle-aged wife, who, as described, is nothing better than an ever spouting fountain of tears constantly bemoaning the fact that his other women are so young. She is an actress by profession and ...her name is Claire."
Claire decided it was time to write her own book. I considered their contrasting treatments of the same source material in this 1996 column for The American Spectator. The point I make about the power of flat, prosaic memoir versus the conceits of fiction is one that became very relevant to the publishing industry a few years later - after a spate of famous literary hoaxes in which aspiring writers, often at the behest of agents and editors, had decided that various whimsical fiction scenarios would be more lucrative if passed off as autobiography. At any rate, from one brief marriage came a ho-hum novel, and a rather extraordinary memoir. Here's what I wrote twenty-two years ago:
Henny Youngman puts it best: "Take my wife. Please." There it is in four words, one of the most indestructible artistic traditions: the need of the creative soul -- whether novelist or stand-up comic -- to co-opt his spouse into the act and to saw her in two or more pieces. With Youngman, at least there's a punchline. By contrast, with Philip Roth, in his novel Deception, the line is: "I wouldn't say my wife's a tedious, whingeing, middle-aged drag ...but she is."
In Deception, Roth creates a writer called "Philip" who has a studio flat in London and is married to a dreary actress called "Claire." At the time, Roth had a studio flat in London and was married to an actress called Claire. So much for the novelist's powers of imagination -- which, in this case, seem largely confined, in Miss Bloom's words, to "the depictions of all the girls who come over to have sex with him - in the most convoluted positions, preferably on the floor". They are young exotic beauties from Eastern Europe, where evidently Roth is regarded by the local maidenhood as some kind of Milli Vanilli-scale heartthrob.
Claire Bloom was generous enough to chalk up such scenes to "fiction", but, re all that stuff about "Claire" the dreary middle-aged actress married to the writer named "Philip", decided to set the record straight. At a stroke, Miss Bloom's Leaving a Doll's House (Little, Brown, $23.95) has revived Roth's decayed notoriety in what People calls "the most buzzed-about celebrity memoir of the season."
Claire Bloom isn't really a celebrity. You may remember her from Chaplin's Limelight or as Lady Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited or even from a stint on "As the World Turns", but her various achievements have never coalesced into an integrated public personality. She is one of the most beautiful women of our time, with exquisite bone structure and big, deep eyes. But it's an austere, distant beauty. "I have always been very private," she assures every interviewer, and yet she's come up with the most public evisceration of a famous author since ...well, most profile writers cited Nora Ephron's Heartburn, but that's an unsatisfying comparison: For one thing, Carl Bernstein was too busy with President Nixon to get around to trashing Nora in print.
By contrast, the Bloom/Roth marriage has now been written up from both sides, and what's striking is how much more persuasive the solid working actress's showbiz memoir is than the great novelist's work of fiction. By comparison with his banal roman à Claire, her account has the sharper crises -- as when Roth demands Bloom's teenage daughter be banished permanently from the house and dispatched to a youth hostel -- and the more telling details: in the ensuing divorce, he graciously returns her china, cosmetics, fax machine and all the various mementoes of their love, including the plastic figure from atop their wedding cake. On the other hand, he offers her a hundred grand in alimony, and, to offset it, demands via fax (presumably to her returned fax machine) compensation for a small portable space heater he purchased for her kitchen, and for the "five or six hundred hours" he spent reading film and stage scripts sent to her. The latter he billed at $150 per hour, which is pricey, but, in fairness to Roth, a lower hourly rate than his divorce lawyer.
Female revenge is big at the moment. It's powered this fall's biggest movie -- The First Wives Club -- as well as last winter's -- Waiting to Exhale. In both cases, theaters have been packed with women cheering on their sisters. But, as revenge dramas go, they're pretty tame stuff -- and, in most cases, just strategies for getting their men back, or getting other men who are mostly the same as their predecessors. Even the scene where Angela Bassett dumps her husband's clothes in the street and torches them lacks the precision of the baronet's wife in England a year or two back: she took the best bottles from her philandering husband's extensive and lovingly curated wine cellar and left them as presents on the doorsteps of the neighboring villagers, and then went through his wardrobe and carefully cut out the crotch from every pair of trousers in every one of his expensive Savile Row suits. After that, it surprises me that the so-called "women's audience" goes along with such lame affirmations of sisterly solidarity as The First Wives Club -- or, come to that, that their leading ladies do. For, over the years, the powder room at SAG and Equity has surely crackled with far more robust tales. Imagine a First Wives Club with, say, Claire Bloom and Mia Farrow. Whatever you think of these women, they've changed irrevocably the public perception of their ex-husbands -- or, in Mia's case, ex -co-adoptive-caregiver-living-across-Central-Park. For example, I've always been fond of Woody's hommage to his Bogart obsession, Play It Again, Sam, but, in light of his recent travails, there are now all kinds of unnerving associations in lines like "Here's looking at you, kid."
Miss Bloom was an unintended beneficiary of the split with Mia (in Mighty Aphrodite, she landed the role of Woody's mother-in-law which, in his recent work, had tended to go to Maureen O'Sullivan, Mia's real-life mom), she seems remarkably similar to Allen's characterization of Miss Farrow in Husbands and Wives: "passive-aggressive." She insists her book isn't an act of revenge, but on the jacket blurb she's happy to license a sneer from her chum Gore Vidal: "...A terse tell-all style of such candor that she even makes -- inadvertently -- her last husband, Philip Roth, into something he himself has failed to do -- not for want of trying -- interesting at last." The jacket tells its tale as much as anything inside. The two male friends she turns to for enthusiastic endorsements are Vidal and John Gielgud, neither of whom has any reputation -- how shall we put this? -- as a ladies' man. Inside, her personal odyssey has a kind of tragic neatness: she loses her virginity to Richard Burton; then she marries Rod Steiger, followed by Hillard Elkins (producer of Oh, Calcutta!), followed by Roth. Less a series of relationships than of disastrous star turns: the Womanizer, the Father Figure, the Sexual Sadist, the Mental Sadist. Professionally, too, she has come full circle -- from Charlie Chaplin to Woody Allen, very different funnymen but with a shared preference for child-women. Given her experience with actors, authors, and producers, one hopes her next husband is a logger or accountant.
"It is both shameful and courageous," she writes, "to take a record from life and use it as a means to an end. The painter Claude Monet, to his own shame, looking at his adored young wife on her deathbed, could not help recording the changing color of her skin and the dissolution of her once-beautiful face. But he went on to use this image in his work."
Just so: artists make art from what they know, which means they cannibalize what, to anybody else, would be the most intimate experiences "Artistic" is a word loaded with associations: neophyte writer John-Boy Walton was "artistic," which, in TV shorthand, means uniquely compassionate, uniquely sensitive, uniquely blessed with insight and feeling. A third-rate British novelist (that narrows it down to a few thousand) once told me of an affair he was having with the wife of an insolvency lawyer: "We belong together!" he roared, and contemptuously dismissed his rival. "He has no soul." So she left the lawyer, moved in with the soulful artist, and, after six months of mental and physical cruelty, fled gratefully back to the non-soulful solicitor. Far from being possessed of especial sensitivity and compassion, the distinguishing feature of the great writer's approach to the opposite sex is self -preoccupation and immaturity: he's John-Boy without the literary flourishes. "A Jewish man with parents alive is a 15-year -old boy," wrote Roth in Portnoy's Complaint, "and will remain a 15-year-old boy till they die." But Roth's have died, and he's still a 15-year-old boy: for all the talk about his depression and inner demons and unwillingness to have his creativity constrained by domesticity, in the end he left Miss Bloom for another woman -- a younger woman and a friend of hers, too. "I could be his Muse, if only he'd let me," sighs a typical Roth female character in the epigraph to his My Life as a Man.
In the closing pages of Leaving a Doll's House, the great man, having devastated his ex-wife and reduced her to a one-room rental in New York, sends her a note: "Dear Claire, can we be friends?"
They meet in a restaurant. They order coffee. There is a long silence. Then he launches into twenty minutes of impersonal, superficial banter. Eventually, she interrupts: "Philip, why do you want to be friends with me?"
A smile teases his lips: "Oh, perversion..."
Does it sound familiar? The coffee, the silence, the banter, the teasing smile? We've read the scene in a hundred novels, including a few by Roth; we've seen it in a thousand movies, including a few with Miss Bloom. It is the final transformation of their relationship, from life to art. Philip has become "Philip" and Claire "Claire": he's not capable of being her ex-husband, only of playing him -- auditioning the moment for some great work as yet unwritten. Marriage is ultimately only the research experiment for the great man's art, and, if in the process of dissection, the poor laboratory mice die, well, it's in service to a greater cause.
I'm not being entirely metaphorical here. As writers go, Claire Bloom could have done worse than Roth. In 1994, George Steiner wrote, as one great thinker on another, "The thinker inhabits fictions of purity, of reasoned propositions as sharp as white light. Marriage is about roughage, bills, garbage disposal, and noise. There is something vulgar, almost absurd, in the notion of a Mrs. Plato or a Mme. Descartes, or of Wittgenstein on a honeymoon. Perhaps Louis Althusser was enacting a necessary axiom or logical proof when, on the morning of November 16, 1980, he throttled his wife."
Althusser is the noted French philosopher, though these days he's not noted at all for his philosophy but only for his resolution of the conflict between his calling and his domestic arrangements in that hotbed of French intellectualism, the École Normale Supérieure. "I pressed my thumbs into the hollow at the top of her breastbone and then, still pressing, slowly moved them both, one to the left, the other to the right, up towards her ears where the flesh was hard ," he wrote. "Hélène's face was calm and motionless; her eyes were open and staring at the ceiling."
Take my wife. Please.
~from The American Spectator, December 1996. Mark will be back with a more congenial literary work later today - the concluding episode of our latest audio adventure, His Last Bow: An Epilogue of Sherlock Holmes. You can also enjoy Steyn's take on The Time Machine, Jekyll and Hyde, The Prisoner of Zenda and more in our Tales for Our Time sampler.
For more on our Tales for Our Time and Mark Steyn Club special features, please see here.