“Philip Roth is a monk who loves to eat life”

As the long-awaited biography of American author Blake Bailey is released in France, his French publisher Ran Halevy returns to his incredible US edition. And it tells about the writer’s whole life devoted to literature.

This Thursday, the long-awaited biography of Philippe Roth (1933-2018) appears in France: nearly a thousand meticulously informed pages about the existence of one of the greatest writers of our time. And as passionate as the person and the artist are, sometimes an extremely complex, multifaceted personality emerges. This biography of Philip Roth, published in the United States in the spring of 2021, chose Blake Bailey as its author and gave him access to his archives and relatives. , accused of rape and sexual harassment by former students. The book, which was pulled by its original publisher just days after it hit bookstores, reappeared a few weeks later in another home. Blake Bailey has since admitted that he has “bitter behavior”, while claiming to have never done anything illegal.

Ran Halevy, historian and director of the NRF Biographies collection, returns to the fray at Gallimard, where the book was published in France – translated by Josée Camoun, and also translator of several Philip Roth novels.

After the autobiography was withdrawn from sale by its first American publisher, did Gallimard publications reconsider their decision to translate and publish it?
Gallimard Publications acquired the translation rights to this biography. A week after his appearance in the United States, the author was accused of sexual misconduct by two women. Later, he was neither prosecuted nor charged. No complaints have been received. There was no reason to question the publication of the work. This is an attitude adopted by other European publishers. Moreover, in the United States, the controversy quickly cooled and there was no prosecution.

Do you think American publisher WW Norton & Company reacted too quickly by stopping sales of the book as soon as the allegations against Blake Bailey came to light?
It is not for me to comment on Norton’s decision. But I was surprised by the extraordinary speed of his reaction. Sometimes a publisher withdraws a book that turns out to contain incorrect information or defamatory statements. But it’s rare for a publisher to stop marketing a unanimously acclaimed work without explanation the moment it goes on sale. Moreover, the book was soon acquired by another publisher – the same publisher that last year published The Memoirs of Woody Allen. About nothing, after its first publisher decided to abandon it.

“Roth’s admirers will find as much product in this biography as his detractors…”

After the accusations against Blake Bailey came to light, American journalists emphasized that he discredited Philip Roth’s views on women.
I actually read an article that would argue that a male biographer is not in the best position to talk about the life of a male writer like Philip Roth! But the publisher evaluates the manuscript primarily on its merits. And this manuscript is exceptional. By keeping the necessary distance from his subject, the author had access to an impressive amount of documents hitherto unknown: Philip Roth accompanied his work, but never interfered.

Nevertheless, the authoritative biography is called …
I would not use this phrase as it distorts the spirit in which this biography was developed. Roth introduced elements of his biographer without which this work would not have the extraordinary richness it offers readers; but the author had the right to conduct it as he pleased, and did not hesitate to do so. Roth’s admirers may find as much product in this biography as his detractors…

Philip Roth still excluded the first biographer.
It even seems to me that he fired at least two of them after realizing that they were incapable of carrying out the project, primarily for intellectual reasons, because he would not spare his narcissism.

Did you read the biography when it was published in the US last year?
I read it in English, and then, as I developed, I read the French translation, which I found both faithful and inspired. I asked the translator Josee Kamoun, who is familiar with Roth’s work. And it was a happy collaboration. It wasn’t that Mrs. Kamu needed me to do this difficult task, but there were a thousand little details that were interesting to discuss together, especially around concepts, facts, or personalities mentioned in the book that Americans are familiar with, but more visible. away from French readers.

“A very successful part of Philip Roth’s biography is that it places the trajectory of life and work in a constant mirror game.”

The book is characterized by extreme attention to detail and an emphasis on life rather than work. This is not the biography we are used to reading from the pen of French biographers.
In France we go between two genres, biography and biographical essay. A biography of Aragon by Philip Forest or a biography of Chateaubriand by Jean-Claude Berchet are fascinating and admirable works. These are not biographical posts. Nor are they everyday biographies of America. A very successful part of Philip Roth’s biography is that it places the trajectory of life and work in a constant mirror game. The author does not attempt to examine what might have inspired the work in the presence of the writer, but is interested in Philip Roth’s appropriation and reinvention of his life experiences as a writer through his writing to auscultate them. , The Greatness and Failures of American Exceptionalism.

On the pages, we see a versatile, complex personality emerging. Which ones stood out for you?
We ignore a number of features. For example, his generosity. Roth discreetly and selflessly helped many people. I also think of the strong, generous and courageous relations he established with Central European writers behind the iron curtain. Or, again, to the sedentary austerity, to the writer’s servitude at work: Roth is a man who lives in great solitude; his existence is entirely based on this passion for literary creation, this obsession.

“He’s a monk, if I may say so, who likes to eat life.”

Don’t we see him torn between studying, the loneliness he denies, and the lively nature?
He still devotes most of his time from day to day to writing. But you are right: he is a monk, one who likes to absorb life. I was also impressed by his loyalty in friendship, even when there were break-ups and break-ups. His relations with other great writers – Bellow, Updake, Styron, Kundera – were marked by jealousy, competition, but also a partnership laced with intellectual intelligence.

Hasn’t his view of women, the way he portrays female characters become dissonant today, judging by his reputation as an ambiguous person and writer?
A re-reading of Roth’s novels and this biography gauges how much of the contemporary climate in the US and Europe is about women, whether “wokist” or “anti-wokist”. contrasted with what it was twenty years ago. We have changed the time. Like a novel in that regard Task (2000) seems prophetic to me; he awaited them by studying them—and how in anticipation! – a certain number of features of the world we live in today, Roth would have felt alien. He is a man and a writer for whom self-censorship in intellectual, philosophical and literary matters is unthinkable, whereas today it is an increasingly intrusive element in public debate, public discourse and even literary creation.

Ed. Gallimard

Phillip Roth, Blake Bailey, translated from English (United States) by Josée Kamoun, ed. Gallimard, coll. NRF Biographies, 992 pp., €34.

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