It’s not often that literary biographies spill over onto the front pages of newspapers and websites but, in our current #MeToo Climate, Blake Bailey’s authorised biography of the great American novelist Philip Roth has been making headlines this week.
Often the most moralising writers turn out to be far from moral in their personal lives
As any perceptive reader of Roth’s work might have guessed, it turns out that the writer was an erotically obsessed sex pest. Roth, we learn, chose students attending a writing seminar solely for their physical attractiveness; frequented brothels; made a pass at a friend of his stepdaughter on the grounds that “there’s no point having a pretty girl in your house if you can’t fuck her”; and made the lives of his two unfortunate wives living hell. One of them, Claire Bloom, hit back hard in her account of their ill-fated marriage, Leaving A Doll’s House: A Memoir.
In fairness to Roth, the admirably balanced Bailey points out that many of his ex-lovers and former girlfriends remained on friendly terms with him — some visiting him on his deathbed — long after their relationships had ended. It is also true that Roth was far from unique in his priapic predilections. Indeed, I imagine that sexual infidelity was the norm rather than the exception among many of our most acclaimed writers.
Roth joins a long roll call of American authors from the last century as well known for infidelity and misogyny as for their literary productivity. They include Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Cheever, and Mailer. Nor can European writers feel smug about their own reputation. Sartre and Camus were serial womanisers, and Brecht combined his predatory behaviour with literary sexploitation: plagiarising his lovers’ work and calling it his own.
Often the most moralising writers turn out to be far from moral in their personal lives. Dickens exposed the injustices and inequalities of Victorian society in his magnificent novels, yet, as his biographer Claire Tomalin later discovered, he was a monumental hypocrite, treated his wife with appalling cruelty, and probably suffered his fatal stroke while in flagrante with his secret mistress. H. G. Wells — the preacher of social justice — was a serial seducer of young women and had a hidden love child (neglected) with the writer Rebecca West. Even the saintly George Orwell made passes (usually unsuccessfully) at virtually any woman who came into his orbit.
As a literary biographer myself it didn’t take long to discover the feet of clay — or rather Pan’s hairy hoof — in the hidden lives of my own subjects. The poet Rupert Brooke, a handsome Adonis lauded by his many swooning fans — including Winston Churchill — as the epitome of all that was noblest in Edwardian England, conducted simultaneous affairs with two (sometimes three) women, tried to strangle one of them, and threatened to kidnap and rape another.
My other subject, the novelist and playwright Patrick Hamilton, like Roth, had two disastrous marriages, shuttling between both wives, enjoyed a long affair with a Soho streetwalker, and stalked the actress Geraldine Fitzgerald with such menace that she had to take refuge on the other side of the Atlantic.
Will feminism’s gain be literature’s loss?
In more recent times, the bestselling French writer Gabriel Matzeff made little secret in his books of his taste for having sex with adolescent girls, going as far as travelling to Asia as a sex tourist to indulge this. Empowered by the #MeToo movement, one of his victims, Vanessa Springora, a writer herself, has recently broken the wall of Omertà protecting Matzeff and written a book exposing him for abusing her as a child under the Lolita-like pretence of an affair with her mother.
Among the questions begged by this long litany of bad behaviour is whether there is a link between creative genius and sexual unorthodoxy.
Do writers feel that their special talents excuse them from the boring rules restraining the rest of society from sexual and marital misbehaviour? Is that why so few writers settle down to domestic harmony and fidelity with a single lifelong partner?
Feminists would argue that there is nothing unusual in bad behaviour among male scribblers: their conduct is merely the common run of masculine misuse of their power. It is certainly clear, as the much-publicised cases of Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris and Max Clifford in Britain, and in the US of Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein, that writers are not alone among celebrities in having a penchant for sexual abuse, violence and coercive perversion. Celebrity status just means that such common offences get more publicity and (eventually) judicial retribution.
Nor is sexploitation by writers a vice exclusive to the patriarchy. Recent biographies of Patricia Highsmith have shown that the creator of Tom Ripley treated her female lovers as cruelly and callously — though admittedly not as murderously — as the talented Mr Ripley himself.
As the pendulum of acceptable social mores swings more strongly from the libertarianism that permitted Roth to enjoy his erotic adventures towards puritan disapproval, it is unlikely that books like Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint will have the multi-million sales that novel enjoyed. In fact, I doubt whether it would now be published at all. Will feminism’s gain be literature’s loss?
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