For a couple of days the Bob Dylan song has been haunting me, The Times They Are A Changing, above all, these verses: “Come, writers and critics, who prophesy with feathers, keep your eyes open, the opportunity will not be repeated, and do not speak too soon, because the roulette is still turning, and it cannot be said, who will get, because the one who loses now will be the one who wins later, because times are changing. “
Dylan, who won the Nobel Prize that novelist Philip Roth resisted so much, is one of those voices that speaks to me when I’m thinking about something. And, for a few days, I have been thinking about Roth, one of the writers whose books have accompanied me from time to time. For example, in 2003 when it came out in the United States The human stain, and they gave it to me because the small university town where the action took place was supposed to be the town where I had been a teacher for two years (although in the novel the place bears the invented name Athena). Not everyone was enthusiastic about the town and its university’s association with Roth, or the novel’s theme: a professor fired after being accused of being a racist.
Roth started writing a little before I was born, and it was on everyone’s lips in 1968 when the film based on his novel came out. Goodbye columbus. Being such a contemporary, explosive writer, I didn’t read his work until college, when a brilliant professor and great feminist thinker, Nancy K. Miller, had us read Heritage: a true story, on the decline of the health of Herman Roth, the father of the writer. We read it along with other books, among them, Maus by Art Spiegelman, and the voices, accents, and vocabulary of those parents, frail and old, immigrants and survivors of the pogroms and the Holocaust, mixed in my head.
Roth’s portrait of Herman is brutal and tender, funny and unforgettable. It is a book that I have read again, and it has not lost its force. He is not the cartoon father of another of Portnoy’s lament (1969), although I confess that both the father and the mother of that book also left their mark on me. How to forget the mothers and neighbors of the family in Newark, all, according to the novel, obsessively, hopelessly, and openly in love with their children, whom they called “Lover boyWithout hesitation? The crushing love of a mother is an unavoidable theme in Roth’s work, but I couldn’t finish The regret. When the child grows up and begins to associate with women, he loses me. The female characters were absurd to me, and the plot too.
I am reminiscing about those readings because just a few days ago I bought the e-book of the new, authorized biography, which had the collaboration and blessing of Roth, by Blake Bailey, Philip Roth: The Biography. It has been a bestseller in the United States. He had ordered it in advance and was looking forward to it after seeing superb reviews from writers such as Cynthia Ozick in the New York Times. She said that Bailey’s prose is everyday and discreet, that it does not intrude, and that it reveals Roth’s life as he lived it, and how he felt it.
I had barely started reading the new book when I saw the news that Bailey, the author, had been accused of rape and sexual harassment, and that the publisher had frozen the distribution of the second edition of the biography. In less than twenty minutes, the biography of the biographer had eclipsed that of the biographer. I lived it live.
Laura Marsh, magazine editor New Republic, writes that the subject of biography was extremely important to Roth. He saw it as the way to settle scores with his ex-wife Claire Bloom, and to shape his legacy. Roth had won many awards, but not the desired Nobel, and had to be content with a plaque in Newark. According to Marsh, long before Bailey appeared on the scene, Roth tried to convince great pens and friends to write his life, such as the biographer Hermione Lee, or Judith Thurman. He finally hired Ross Miller, a professor at the University of Connecticut, but things did not work, and in 2012 he began his relationship with Bailey, who has published a billet of more than 900 pages. Since the accusations against him were made public, Twitter has been filled with terse comments, such as the title of one of the Whims of Goya, type “Roth and Bailey: Such for which”.
The stain is spreading. Times keep changing. My first novel, published in November 2020, features both Roth and the canceled filmmaker Woody Allen. Will the sacred monsters of my childhood remain monsters, period? It is not known how the Bailey thing will end, but I suppose there will be a legal epic ahead. As a writer of biographies, as a reader, and as a woman, I will follow the topic with interest. So far, no one has made Roth’s biography disappear from my e-reader. I’ll see if I want to continue reading. Or not.
Soledad Fox Maura is a professor at Williams College, and the author of Round trip. The life of Jorge Semprún (Debate).