The actress Claire Bloom has had, alongside her distinguished career on stage and screen, a luminary love life as well; "Leaving a Doll's House" intends to be a chronicle of both. However, the fierce advance interest of the publishing world in this book does not stem from her memoir of a life in the theater, nor from her starry-eyed recollections of Richard Burton ("my first--my greatest--love, the only man to whom I have fervently and completely given all of myself") or the more businesslike accounting of subsequent involvements with Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Yul Brynner, Rod Steiger and others.
In fact, according to my sources, those Noo Yawkers didn't even bother circulating the whole manuscript. Just like the copy of Michener's "The Source" that I owned in sixth grade, which automatically opens to the tribal sex scenes, "Leaving a Doll's House" is definitely a book with a "good part," and you might as well just flip to it.
The good part, which begins about 150 pages into the book and continues to the end, is bad news for author Philip Roth. Finally, Portnoy is getting his, and the only shame of it is that it's not a better writer than Claire Bloom giving it to him. It would have been delightful to see Roth's wings pinned to the velvet with some of the charm, deftness and humor that characterize his own work instead of the heavy-handed pathos and plodding pacing that mark this account. Bloom's Philip Roth is a mess as a man, and there's nothing funny about it.
Even though I am a read-every-word-he-ever-wrote Roth fan--I would go so far as to say he is my favorite living writer--I'm not one bit surprised. Tall, moody, self-absorbed intellectuals with their sardonic insights have long been a disappointment to me in the romance department. The fact that Roth is just another sick ticket (the original sick ticket, actually, the model for all the rest of them!) doesn't diminish his work one bit. In fact, his sickness is essential, and Bloom knew this from the outset. Her first letter to Roth included praise for "My Life As a Man," a cruelly hilarious account of his first marriage. She saw from the start that "under Roth's brilliant inventiveness, beneath his diamond-sharp observation, was a deep and irrepressible rage: anger at being trapped in marriage; fear of giving up autonomy; and a profound distrust of the sexual power of women. I noted the warning signals, but of course the situation would be different with me." Wrong, wrong, wrong, Claire.
Her painful awakening to just how different it wasn't going to be came when Roth completed the manuscript for his novel, "Deception," which he uncharacteristically delayed showing her for several weeks. "Almost immediately," she writes, "I came upon a passage about the self-hating Anglo-Jewish family with whom he lives in England. Oh well, I thought, he doesn't like my family. There was a description of his working studio in London, letter-perfect and precise. Then I reached the depictions of all the girls who come over to have sex with him--in the most convoluted positions, preferably on the floor. As Philip always insisted that the critics were unable to distinguish his self-invention from his true self, I mindfully accepted these Eastern European seductresses as part of his "performance" as a writer; but I was not so certain. Finally, I arrived at the chapter about his remarkably uninteresting, middle-aged wife, who, as described, is nothing better than an ever-spouting fountain of tears constantly bemoaning the fact that his other women are so young. She is an actress by profession, and--as if hazarding a guess would spoil the incipient surprise lying in store--her name is Claire."
When the gift of an emerald Bulgari ring could not bring her around to his point of view--that naming the wife Claire would "add to the richness of the texture"--Roth agreed to change it. This gruesome incident is a prelude to the ultimate and ugliest part of the saga, their split-up. Not only did Roth try to get her to give the ring back, he kicked her out of their apartment, demanded the return of all the money he had spent on her or given her over the years and, for refusing to honor her prenuptial agreement, levied a fine of $62 billion dollars--a billion dollars for each year of her life.