In response to:
One Cheer for Literary Biography from the February 4, 1999 issue
To the Editors:
In your February 4, 1999, issue, John Updike, commenting on Claire Bloom’s 1996 memoir Leaving the Doll’s House, writes: “Claire Bloom, as the wronged ex-wife of Philip Roth, shows him to have been, as their marriage rapidly unraveled, neurasthenic to the point of hospitalization, adulterous, callously selfish, and financially vindictive.” Allow me to imagine a slight revision of this sentence: “Claire Bloom, presenting herself as the wronged ex-wife of Philip Roth, alleges him to have been neurasthenic to the point of hospitalization, adulterous, callously selfish, and financially vindictive.” Written thus, the sentence would have had the neutral tone that Mr. Updike is careful to maintain elsewhere in this essay on literary biography when he is addressing Paul Theroux’s characterization of V.S. Naipaul and Joyce Maynard’s characterization of J.D. Salinger. Would that he had maintained that neutral tone in my case as well.
Over the past three years I have become accustomed to finding Miss Bloom’s characterization of me taken at face value. One Sara Nelson, reviewing my novel American Pastoral, digressed long enough to write: “In her memoir, Leaving the Doll’s House, Roth’s ex, Claire Bloom, outed the author as a verbally abusive neurotic, a womanizer, a venal nutcase. Do we believe her? Pretty much:Roth is, after all, the guy who glamorized sex-with-liver in Portnoy’s Complaint.” Mr. Updike offers the same bill of particulars (“neurasthenic…, adulterous, callously selfish, and financially vindictive”) as does Ms. Nelson (“neurotic, a womanizer, a venal nutcase”). Like her, he adduces no evidence other than Miss Bloom’s book. But while I might ignore her in an obscure review on the World Wide Web, I cannot ignore him in a lead essay in The New York Review of Books.
Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut
John Updike replies:
Mr. Roth’s imagined revisions sound fine to me, but my own wording conveys, I think, the same sense of one-sided allegations.
March 4, 1999