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La biografía de Philip Roth, cancelada

Tres años después de la muerte de Philip Roth, la editorial norteamericana W. W. Norton frenó la distribución de su biografía -y todo tipo de publicidad sobre la obra-. ¿El motivo? Las acusaciones de abusos sexuales, incluyendo al menos dos violaciones, surgidas contra el autor de la biografía de Roth, Blake Bailey.

La biografía se había publicado en Estados Unidos el 6 de abril y dos semanas después llego a la clasificación de los libros más vendidos. Bailey trabajó durante años en Philip Roth: The Biography, con acceso a documentos de archivo, cartas, diarios, amigos y parientes del escritor.

“Las acusaciones que le conciernen son graves”, afirmó W. W. Norton, tomando la insólita decisión de frenar la venta de un libro por el que había pagado un anticipo de seis cifras: tras los 50.000 ejemplares de la primera edición, una segunda tirada de 10.000 se frenó, y con ella las actividades promocionales, las entrevistas y las giras para dar a conocer la obra.

Las acusaciones son varias. La más reciente, de 2015, fue formulada por una ejecutiva editorial que dijo a la prensa haber sido violada tras quedarse a dormir en casa de Dwight Garner, el crítico literario del diario, que había invitado después de la cena también a Bailey. Otras acusaciones se remontan a los años 90, cuando el biógrafo era profesor de inglés en Nueva Orléans: tres alumnas, entonces adolescentes, dijeron haber recibido atención morbosa de parte del docente, que luego las sedujo de más grandes. Una de ellas lo acusó, además, de violación.

Bailey, por su parte, afirmó que se trata de acusaciones “categóricamente falsas y difamatorias”. La marcha atrás de la editorial sigue en pocos días a la decisión de la agencia literaria que lo representaba, The Story Factory, de cortar también la relación con él. Bailey -autor de biografías de escritores como Richard Yates y John Cheever- había sido contactado por Roth seis años antes de su muerte, en 2012.

Al parecer, Roth pensaba en su biografía ya desde 1996, cuando su exmujer, Claire Bloom, lo destrozó en sus memorias, “Leaving a Doll’s House”. Pero el trabajo de Bailey recibió críticas divididas: para Cynthia Ozik era una “obra maestra literaria”, en tanto para otros surgieron dudas y cierto malestar por el relato sobre la compleja relación de Roth con las mujeres.

¿Cómo empieza Philip Roth: The Biography?

Aquí presentamos el comienzo del primer capítulo, en su versión original.

“DURING A TRIP TO ISRAEL, IN 1984, ROTH TOOK HIS friend David Plante—a gay, gentile writer—to the Orthodox Quarter of Jerusalem, Mea She’arim, where the two stood on a corner watching Hasidim milling about in their black coats and hats, the boys with their heads shorn except for long side curls. Almost everyone, young and old, wore thick eyeglasses. “You could be in a shtetl in Poland in the eighteenth century,” said Roth, whose grandparents had grown up in such a place. One Hasid passed by with a towel over his shoulder, and the writers followed to where the man met other Hasidim for their afternoon bath. “Wait till I get this around,” Roth chuckled to his companion, “—Plante standing outside a bathhouse trying to pick up a Hasid.”
For Roth, levity was better than nostalgia in the face of this living reminder of his family origins. He could hardly remember his grandparents ever speaking of the old country, of the people they’d left behind, and was left to surmise that the shtetls of Galicia weren’t really like the Broadway version of Sholem Aleichem, what with winsome Jews “singing show tunes that brought tears to your eyes” as Roth put it. His father’s parents came from an especially bleak corner of that bygone world—Kozlów, near the city of Tarnopol, which is perhaps best remembered (among Jews anyway) as the site of the Khmelnytsky Uprising in the seventeenth century. Throughout the Middle Ages, Polish landowners had employed Jewish agents to collect rents and taxes from the peasantry, who meanwhile were reminded every Sunday, in church, that the Jews had killed Christ. “Pole, Yid, and hound—each to the same faith bound,” read the legend commonly nailed to trees where a Pole, Jew, and dog had been hanged. Almost every Jew in Tarnopol was killed or expelled in the massacre, and the city itself was burned to the ground.
By the nineteenth century, Galicia was the northernmost province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, whose 1867 constitution allowed freedom of religion and equal rights for all subjects. Such liberality did little to improve the lot of Galician Jews, however, whose population exploded with refugees fleeing pogroms in neighboring Russia. Some fifty thousand a year died of starvation, and by the 1880s Galicia had both the highest birth and death rates among the old Polish territories, with only half its children living to the age of five. “Often the relations between the social strata of the shtetl came to little more than a difference between the poor and the hopelessly poor,” wrote Irving Howe. Galician Jews usually lived amid a welter of grim huts and cobbled streets winding every which way to a crowded marketplace—a dreary insular world menaced by disorderly gentiles. Solace was found in ritual and piety. A good Jew’s life was finely regulated by 613 mitzvoh, commandments, everything from reciting blessings for one’s homely pleasures to lighting candles and slaughtering chickens just so. Children were cowed with tales of dybbuks and golems, their marriages were arranged, their baser impulses rigorously suppressed. No wonder the more intelligent among them learned to laugh at the wretched way God’s chosen people saw fit to live.
The law was embodied by rabbis, and one of these in Kozlów was Roth’s great-grandfather, Akiva, who also had a reputation as a storyteller. His son Alexander, called Sender, was studying to be a rabbi when he married, in 1886, Bertha Zahnstecher, whose Flaschner connections on her mother’s side would stand the family in good stead once they came to America. Over the course of twenty-five years, Bertha bore nine children with Sender—two of whom, Freide and Pesie, died in infancy; of the surviving seven, Philip Roth’s father, Herman, was the first to be born in the New World.” […]

Capítulo 2 

“AMONG THE GALLING ASPECTS OF ROTH’S PORTNOY FAME was the general perception that the hero’s archetypal Jewish mother, Sophie, was based on Bess Roth. Both Philip and Sandy remembered their home lives—at least during the later years of their growing up—as nothing if not conventional and decorous, largely thanks to their mother’s example: they seldom raised their voices; the boys had nice manners and used profanity so rarely that Sandy never forgot his mortification the night he came home from the navy and excitedly said “fuck” while regaling his parents in the kitchen. As Philip icily noted (in so many words) on more than one occasion, “Bess Roth was never depicted as the overbearing, domineering Sophie Portnoy, nor was the overbearing, domineering Sophie Portnoy intended to depict Bess Roth.

“The truth is complicated, and at other times Roth conceded that Sophie Portnoy was somewhat modeled on the more “suffocating” mother his older brother had known as a little boy, when Bess was younger, poorer, and under a strain. Indeed Sandy would go so far as to claim, late in life, that his “spirit [had been] broken” by his mother—who let it be known, both tacitly and not, that her love was contingent on his meeting a series of subtle, exacting demands. Offhand, he remembered the time Bess and her friend Mrs. Kaye took their boys on the number 14 bus to see a movie downtown: Sandy wanted to hold his own nickel like Mrs. Kaye’s son, but his mother made him beg for it, then scolded him—“I told you I should have it!”—when he couldn’t fetch it quickly enough from his pocket.”

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