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¶ Freud and Roth. Two books in the mail, both thick, both about eminent Jewish writers. The eminence of one (Signmund Freud) is probably more likely to persist than that of the other (Philip Roth). But you never know.
These are writers whom would not have expect to care to read about just a few months ago. But then, in the very early spring, there was a flurry of Times pieces about Blake Bailey and his forthcoming biography of Philip Roth. These were all quite favorable. In the March issue of Harper's, however, Joshua Cohen published a very funny review of the biography in which he pretended to be the very dissatisfied ghost of Roth. "If I'd wanted a bio to solidify my novelistic cred, this isn't it." As further reviews appeared, I found myself obsessed. I had never read any Roth except for Portnoy's Complaint. His prose, in the snippets that I had read here and there over the years, was self-earnest and unappealing. I did not want to read him. Mystery was, why did anybody else? I read Claire Bloom's memoir instead. I found it, in a word, unsurprising, and also, in two words, not vindictive.
By the time Cynthia Ozick's front-page-of-the-Time-Book-Review rave appeared. in April ("Narrative Masterwork"), there were rumblings about Bailey, and very presently the book was deep-sixed by its publisher, WW Norton, on the grounds that Bailey had been charged by various women with erotic misbehavior. (How embarrassing for her, I thought.)
But Roth's presence was simply too insistent to ignore. I must read something, I thought; I must have an opinion that is based on more than one entire book. I re-read Portnoy — which I found to be excellent stand-up comedy, but not remotely a novel. Then I turned to Sabbath's Theatre, because everybody said that it was the late masterpiece, and besides, it wasn't part of a trilogy. Done! I thought. Wrong! it turned out. In a recent LRB, James Walcott had me laughing out loud with his combo review, of the biography and of the brouhaha. He said, My Life As a Man is the book to read. Anybody else, I'd have ignored it. But I got the book and he's right. It is actually pretty good; I may read it again. Where Freud comes in is in the extended argument that Nathan Zuckerman has with his analyst, Dr Spielvogel, about his narcissism and his castration anxiety. Suddenly, I had a hunch that, by substituting everyday language for Freud's grandiose terminology, the Viennese thinker's moral philosophy made complete sense. Now I have to find out what Peter Gay thinks.
The biography of Roth, Philip Roth: A Counterlife, is not the one by Blake Bailey. It's by Ira Nadel and I don't expect it to be withdrawn by its publisher, Oxford. (15 June 2021)
¶ Job Description? Do not ask why we are temporary subscribers to Us Magazine. Just know that I go from issue to issue in the mistaken certainty that next week's cover won't top this one's for journalistic cheek. A celebrity rag that lines up photos of stars and starlets in designer clothes in the front of the book only to lambaste their fashion mistakes at the rear, Us confines its attention to Hollywood — of which Buckingham Palace appears to be an outpost. Whether this was true before Meghan Markle captured Harry Windsor I cannot say, but at least a page of every issue is devoted to the descendants of Diana Spencer and their families, and rarely does the cover of Us not feature a picture of at least one of the daughters-in-law whom the late princess never knew. (Did you know that she would be sixty this year.)
Splashed on this week's cover is a photo of the beaming Cambridges, an American flag behind them, and the rather shocking announcement of their SECRET TRIP TO AMERICA! "I'll say it was secret," said I to myself — for there had been not a peep about in the Times, which isn't, you know, all that high-minded. Hoping to learn more, I read the story, which is that a SECRET TRIP to America is PLANNED, for later this summer. Megan and "Duchess Kate," we are assured, want to put the past behind them and move forward. I am not going to waste a word comment on what a godsend Prince Harry's troubled relations with his family are, given that he's married to AMERICA'S FIRST PRINCESS (a recent cover). I'm far too busy anticipating the headlines when the trip is "canceled." (Stay tuned.) I'm also stunned, in an ongoing way, at such editorial complaisance about manufacturing the appearance of faits accomplis.
Not that these stories are made up of whole cloth. It's a small but nice thing to know that Prince Harry isn't talking to Us directly. The actual sources to whom reports of secret trips and "canceled" baby showers are attributed have given me a naughty idea. If only I knew a few tykes of six or seven, I could ask them how they reply when adults ask them what they want to be when they grow up. Then, after commiserating with their mumbled attempts to fend off the invasion of privacy, I would make a suggestion. "Why don't you try this? Tell them that what you want to be when you grow up is a — palace insider." (23 June 2021)
¶ Polygamous Components. On page 226 of his hefty biography of Sigmund Freud, Peter Gay writes,
Jung, for his part, mired in a domestic crisis produced by what he had called his "polygamous components," confidentially told Freud that he was ruminating about "the ethical problems of sexual freedom."
Reading that, I giggled. What a euphemism! "Polygamous components"! I read it to Kathleen, and she laughed, too. I was so taken with the phrase that I groogled it, and, what do you now, found a longer quote from Jung's letter that put a different light on the funny words. (This was in a book review by DJ Enright appearing in a 1994 issue of the LRB. Check it out if you're bored.) Jung was talking about the polygamous components of his psychological makeup. Grandiose, perhaps, but certainly not a euphemism for certain moving parts. Interestingly, the biography was published several years after the review. Surely this is an instance of naughty editing on Gay's part. It's not nice to fool my dirty mind! (30 July 2021)
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