THE CRIME OF LITERARY VENGEANCE
Claire Bloom, Leaving a Doll's House, Little, Brown, $ 23.95
11:00 PM, Dec 8, 1996 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
Roughly four-fifths through Patrimony, a memoir of his father and one of his best books, Philip Roth recounts his aged father, then in the grip of a tumor pressing against his brain and the victim of several small strokes, having, in his own word, "beshat" himself at Roth's country house in Connecticut. Roth has to clean up his father's mess, and indeed the old man himself. When Roth finally puts his father to bed, the old man pleads, "Don't tell the children." Roth replies, "I won't tell anyone." His father adds, " Don't tell Claire." Roth, reassuringly, answers, "Nobody."
Then how come I know? I know, of course, because Philip Roth broke his promise to his father. He wrote about the sad befouling incident, including his promise not to tell a soul. He wrote about it because it was, as they say in the trade, good copy, rich material. He broke his promise -- a fairly sacred promise, one might have thought -- because he is a writer. And writers, let there be no mistake, aren't quite human.
Those who live by the sword, the Bible reports, die by the sword. For writers, change "sword" to "word." In classical and Elizabethan drama, vengeance was a major subject and a great theme. As we move closer to our time, vengeance becomes less an action of the characters in plays and novels and more a part of the psychological motive behind the works themselves. Consider, for a moment, the following paragraph from the introduction to Conceived in Malice by Louise DeSalvo, a study of literary vengeance in works by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, Djuna Barnes, and Henry Miller:
Every biography and autobiography I read while working on this project described revenge operating as an important motive in the creation of a literary work, and it seems a nearly universal phenomenon in the lives of writers. Richard Aidington, H. G. Wells, Rebecca West, Anthony West, Anais Nin, Violet Trefusis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Roy Campbell, Christina Stead, Antonia White, Colley Cibber, Alexander Pope, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the prime minister turned novelist Benjamin Disraeli, Henry Gauthier Villars, Colette, John Cheever, Mary Cheever, Jean Rhys, H. H. Munro ("Saki"), Ford Madox Ford, Violet Hunt, Henry Fielding, Bernard DeVoto, Marcel Proust, Anne Sexton, Gustave Flaubert, Nathaniel Hawthorne -- all wrote one or more literary works to take revenge.
In a case of the victimizer victimized, Philip Roth has now been the target of a notable act of vengeance. He himself dropped lots of people from so- called real life into his novels -- a whole cast of University of Chicago characters appears in Letting Go, and his first wife, who committed suicide, takes a pretty good clubbing in more than one of his books. Meanwhile, he has been used as a character in at least one novel I know, Janet Hobhouse's The Furies. There, it must be said, he gets off fairly easily. He is given the name Jack and is the lover of the young married narrator, who of him remarks: "I was anomalous in his life, amusing as long as I didn't step or make him step out of his range of comfort." The Roth character is cautious, selfish, manipulative, a bit of a rat if the truth be told, but what the hell, it's a big city out there.
No one is likely to say that Philip Roth gets off fairly easily in Leaving a Doll's House, the memoir of the second Mrs. Roth, the English actress Claire Bloom. "I hope he'll understand that it's a book about a wonderful man," the author told a reporter from New York. "A remarkable, brilliant man with whom I was very fortunate to live all those years. I wouldn't have missed those years for the world." My guess is that, after the appearance of this book, as deliberate an act of literary vengeance as one is likely to find, Roth would be delighted to have missed those years -- would be pleased to trade them in for the equivalent in hard time at Leavenworth.
Miss Bloom takes the aging boy novelist, as they used to say at my old racquetball club, on tour. His self-protectiveness, in her version, comes to seem not merely introverted, or even anti-social, but mean, small-hearted, really quite vicious. "Philip," she reports, "always gained the upper-hand in any argument. . . . There was a deep ambivalence in Philip toward full commitment. . . . He would do things only his way, and do them as and when he wished."