Skip to content
 

Leaving a Doll’s House, by Claire Bloom

I read Leaving a Doll’s House, the autobiography of actress Claire Bloom, and, as promised (see P.P.P.S. here), here are my reactions.

Bloom’s book is famous because of its chapters on her relationship with author Philip Roth. Actually, though, it throughly covers all her life, with a bit more than half of the book taking us from birth to the mid-1970s, and the rest going to the mid-1990s and focusing on the Roth relationship. She had an interesting life, and I don’t think the Roth material would’ve worked so well without the background on her earlier experiences. Sometimes when people write autobiographies they skip entire chunks of their lives (that’s what Bertrand Russell did, for example), so I appreciated that she straightforwardly went through it all.

The book is well written. Her style is more analytical than storytelling. Her goal seems to be, first to get down the facts of her life and second to try to figure out the motivations of herself and the people close to her. Telling stories or entertaining the reader is not really the goal. Don’t get me wrong: I found the book readable and interesting. It just was clearly an autobiography in the sense of a biography written for herself, rather than a journalistic or novelistic telling of a life.

You won’t be surprised that, after finishing Bloom’s book, I felt pretty angry at Roth. Not so much for the affairs and the prenup—I guess all that comes with the territory if you marry “Portnoy”—but for the way he was so cold to Bloom, and especially the way he was so destructive of her relationship with her teenage daughter. That part was really horrible! Of course this then pushes the question back one step, to why Bloom stayed with Roth for so long, which is a question asked by many people who read her book; see for example this thoughtful review by Jonathan Yardley. All I can say is that this is not unique to this particular couple. People staying with each other too long . . . that happens all the time.

I do get the impression from everything I’ve read about Roth (including Bloom’s book) that he could be a very charming person when he wanted to be. Indeed, when he wasn’t handing Bloom creepy letters, he’d say all these nice things about how he loved her, needed her, etc. I guess that part of this was him being manipulative, telling people what they wanted to hear to get things out of them, but I wonder if part of it was a kind of surfeit of sincerity. All of us have a mixture of positive and negative thoughts within us, but we usually perform some operations of averaging or truncation: with our friends we will typically average over time, suppressing our annoyances and masking our peak emotions in order to present an equanimous, positive aspect; with our romantic partners we will truncate the troughs so we can present some mix of emotions ranging from acceptance to joy. Roth, it seems, was not much of an averager or a truncater. The result was that his friends got those peaks, and I guess the learned to handle the troughs. Being married to someone who acts this way, though . . . that’s another story. But then I think that Roth, knowing this about himself, could use these peaks and troughs manipulatively. I guess if I’d known Roth personally I would’ve liked him because I would’ve focused on the good stuff, the things he could deliver in a friendship that nobody else could, and maybe the bad stuff wouldn’t seem so relevant to me because I could just ignore him when he was acting like an asshole

I wanted to get some other takes on Bloom and Roth, so I did some googling and found this entertaining and thoughtful review by James Wolcott. He mentions that Nobel prize thing that we discussed in our earlier post.

I also came across this excerpt from the recent Roth biography by the now-disgraced Blake Bailey. This was useful in getting Roth’s side of the story.

Bailey starts by describing Bloom’s autobiography as “scurrilous,” which at first I thought was unfair, but then I looked up the word, and it literally means, “making or spreading scandalous claims about someone with the intention of damaging their reputation.” That seems fair enough! The claims can all be true and it’s still scurrilous. So I learned something. I always thought of “scurrilous” as a bad thing, but it doesn’t have to be bad at all. Someone could write a fair-minded biography of some villain like Mao Zedong or Jack Welch or whatever, and to the extent that these people really did bad things, the biography could be scurrilous, without any implication that this is a bad thing.

Anyway, I guess the reviews of Bailey’s book were accurate in that it really doesn’t make Roth look good. He gave Roth just enough rope to hang himself. For example he quotes Roth as describing Bloom’s bedroom in London as “slightly whorish.” I think the “slightly” makes it even worse! If Roth had just called the room whorish, you could say it’s old-school hyperbole, but “slightly” makes it sound like he really thought about this one! Also Bailey mentions that Bloom had stuffed animals on her bed, and I’m like, OK, so what’s your point here? Anyway, when it comes to the facts, Bailey/Roth are pretty much on the same page as Bloom: Roth was only rarely committed to the relationship, Bloom put up with his antics (the troughs were worth it because the peaks were so great), thus Roth had little motivation to be reasonable with her—so he wasn’t.

I also went back to Claudia Roth Pierpoint’s book on Roth to see what she said about all this. I agreed with Pierpoint when she wrote that Bloom in her memoir was “contending against herself—struggling to be less passive, more independent, a better mother—as much as against the frustrating men in her life.” Indeed, that struggle is a lot of the reason that I found Bloom’s book interesting to read—including all the pre-Roth chapters. But I disagree with Pierpoint when she says, “None of the men come off well, with the possible exception of Yul Brynner.” I thought several of the men came off well! Richard Burton, Rod Steiger, and, yes, Brynner—they’re all portrayed positively. None are portrayed as heroes, but they’re portrayed as good, if complicated, men. Pierpoint also reports that Roth “thought of bringing a lawsuit” against Bloom. That sounds pretty piggy of him, especially considering how easy he got off with that prenup. But I guess that brings us to the mysterious bit that Bloom still expresses many positive emotions about Roth, even at the end of her memoir, after the way he treated her, after the way he treated her daughter. It’s that charm again.

The thing that keeps bugging me is, when thinking about Roth, should I add the charm or subtract it? What I mean is, after reading all this material, I think a lot worse of Roth as a person. But then I can go in two directions. One direction is to add the charm, to say that despite his nasty behavior, he had many loyal friends—Veronica Geng, even!—and that implies that he was not such a bad guy after all. The other direction is to subtract the charm and say that, without it, nobody would’ve put up with him at all.

This sort of moral calculus is nothing unique to Roth, of course. It comes up with any celebrity, whether it be Albert Einstein or Michael Jackson or Joan Crawford or LeBron James or whoever. When someone is famous and talented, you hear all sorts of things about them. Or, to look at it the other direction, I’m being manipulated by Bloom to take her side and get angry at Roth—and I do get angry, even though I know I’m being manipulated. Of course, it’s possible to get manipulated to legitimate ends.

Anyway, I’m glad Roth wrote his books. Learning about his good and bad sides as a person can help us understand his work. And I’m glad Bloom wrote her book: I can’t imagine it was easy to open up like that, she had an interesting life, and I feel like a lot of the criticism of her book came because people just didn’t want to hear bad things about a literary lion. A charming guy who couldn’t keep it in his pants, fine; a creepy dude who wrote creepy notes and tried to manipulate the best friend of his wife’s daughter, that’s something that many people just don’t want to hear about.

P.S. How is this relevant to statistical modeling, causal inference, and social science? In many ways. First, we’re making inference from incomplete and noisy data. Second, we’re embracing variation (of people’s behavior over time) and uncertainty. Third, we’re distinguishing between evidence and interpretation: in particular, Roth/Bailey take issue with Bloom’s interpretations but they don’t really contest her facts.

P.P.S. As I wrote earlier, I think Philip Roth’s writing is ok, but it doesn’t move me that much. I’d rather be writing about George V. Higgins or Veronica Geng or John Updike (sorry!) or just about anyone discussed in that book by Anthony West, or Anthony West himself, for that matter. But Philip Roth gets lots of discussion, I notice it, and it sucks me in. So here we are.

P.P.P.S. In the meantime since I first wrote this post, I read Blake Bailey’s biography of Roth—I got it out of the library, just like with Bloom’s book! OK, I didn’t read the biography from cover to cover. It had lots of interesting detail but overall I didn’t find it as thoughtful or moving as Leaving a Doll’s House, so I jumped around a bit. The biography was OK for what it was. I agree with the reviews that it was awkward how Bailey was always promoting Roth and taking Roth’s side in every dispute, but, hey, usually you want a biographer to like his subject, so that’s OK.

The one thing I really didn’t like about Bailey’s book is how he played both sides of the street regarding the autobiographical nature of Roth’s fiction. Sometimes he took the line that fiction is fiction not autobiography, other times he used the fiction as a kind of defense of Roth’s behavior, for example writing that Roth “was rarely less than forthcoming (except with whoever happened to be his main female companion at the time) on the subject of straying: ‘God, I’m fond of adultery,’ he and Mickey Sabbath liked to say. ‘Aren’t you?'” So these characters aren’t Roth, except when they are. I was also creeped out that Roth and Bailey just didn’t seem to understand what was wrong about interfering in the relationship between Bloom and her 18-year-old daughter. To Bailey’s credit, though, in many places he lets Roth hang himself with his own words, for example recounting the story of how Roth tried to have an affair with a friend of Bloom’s daughter who was living in their house: after the young woman angrily turned him down, Roth says he left a note on her bed saying something like, “This is pure sexual hysteria.” Doesn’t quite fit Roth’s lusty irreverent image. Grabbing a young woman without her consent, sure, but acting nasty and not accepting rejection, not so much. I agree with Bailey that Roth seems well summarized by the famous passage from Portnoy’s Complaint: “A disorder in which strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature …” It does seem that Roth tried to be ethical much of the time—and then when he did things that he shouldn’t have done, he’d feel bad about it and this would be transformed to anger which he’d target at Bloom. I can well imagine that seeing her caused a sort of self-reproach for Roth, motivating him to lash out at her, making her an enemy, which could then retroactively justify his behavior. Not a mellow adulterer like Updike, Roth would have these emotional swings. I could see how he could be loyal to his friends but then nasty to his loved ones when he was angry at himself. Good thing, perhaps, that he had no kids. And, yes, I’m doing amateur psychoanalysis here—but if you can’t do amateur psychoanalysis of Philip Roth, who can you do it for? It’s interesting that Roth, the introspective novelist, had difficulty expressing and understanding his own contradictions, whereas Bloom, the actress, was much more searching and when writing about her life. But perhaps Roth’s blinders when looking at himself were necessary for him to succeed as an author; maybe too much self-knowledge would’ve blinded him. Similarly, it may be that Bailey’s habit of staying on the surface and accepting Roth’s justifications at face value allowed him to write a biography that captured the perspective of his subject.

9 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    “especially the way he was so destructive of her relationship with her teenage daughter. That part was really horrible! “

    I haven’t read the book and I don’t know anything about these people except that it’s dubious to claim that *Roth alone* was destructive of *her* relationship with her teenage daughter. It’s her relationship. She choses what she wants. He’s not responsible for that at all.

    I know someone consistently involved with loser men. The loser men get the blame for everything she does. That’s completely wrong. She participates in and embraces those activities. She accepts the cost for whatever she gains out of it. The presumption is that women are manipulated and thus not responsible for their actions. This is demeaning and belittling to women.

    • Andrew says:

      Anon:

      Agreed. Neither Bloom nor Roth/Bailey claimed that Roth alone was destructive of the relationship between Bloom and her daughter. Both books clearly state that Claire and Anna had serious difficulties before Philip came along. What seemed horrible to me was Roth’s behavior in that situation, that instead of being understanding, or at least showing some respect for the difficulty of the situation, he dismissed the problems (acting as if it was no big deal to ask Claire to kick Anna out of the house) and made things worse (by making advances on Anna’s friend). I don’t blame Philip for Claire’s bad choices; I blame him for the bad actions that he did.

  2. Hannah says:

    Great article. I like it when you occasionally post book reviews or other non-statistics-related material. It’s rare for there to be a post on this blog that I completely understand so I enjoy it when it happens.

    “Slanderous claims” are by definition untrue claims, so “scurrilous” does have a negative connotation.

  3. Jay H Livingston says:

    About the Nobel Prize thing — that nobody’s owed the Nobel Prize.

    David Simon tells of his one meeting with Roth to discuss Simon’s TV adaptation of The Plot Against America. It was the day after the prize had been awarded to Ishiguro. The year before it had gone to Bob Dylan.

    Simon arrived, and when Roth answered the door joked,“What’s this guy doing with your prize?” Roth’s immediate reply: “At least they didn’t give it to Peter, Paul and Mary.”

  4. Avram Altaras says:

    May I respectfully submit that we separate Roth the man from his work? In his private life he may have been a cad or worse, but, should what we think of him as a man/husband influence what we think of his work? Was he much worse in his private life than Raymond Carver? – another outstanding writer? Should we not listen to Wagner if we’re against anti-Semitism (many think we should not)?

    It seems to me a lot of what we consider as art is created by “tortured souls”. We’re not interested in hearing what a well-adjusted member of the local Rotary Club has to say/paint/compose.

    I realize you don’t rate Roth’s writing among the top of your favorite 2000 writers, on its merits alone. I say: “les gouts et les couleurs ne discute pas!” Roth is my favorite American author (disclosure: I may not have even read 2000 books!), and Mickey Sabbath an amazing character that has touched me deeply.

    Not all of Roths work is great, obviously: “The Human Stain” is to Phillip Roth what “Desire” is to Bob Dylan.

    Regarding the Nobel prize, I felt bitterly disappointed every year the winners were announced (even in 2006, when Orhan Pamuk, who went to to the same high school as me, won) knowing full well, as someone who wrote almost exclusively from the male point of view, he couldn’t – maybe shouldn’t – get selected in the 21st century.

    • Andrew says:

      Avram:

      I think the work can give insight into the life, and vice versa. Both are interesting. I agree they are different. As I wrote above, perhaps a certain amount of lack of self-knowledge was necessary for Roth to be able to write the way he did.

  5. Mark Palko says:

    The final word on tortured souls and great art

    “The Violinist”

    https://youtu.be/wlnuyZMRLr4

Leave a Reply

Where can you find the best CBD products? CBD gummies made with vegan ingredients and CBD oils that are lab tested and 100% organic? Click here.