Philip Roth, “Middlemarch” and Other Letters to the Editor

His Life as a Man

To the Editor:

I have been a reader of the Book Review for more than 50 years, but I have never written in. Cynthia Ozick’s review of “Philip Roth: The Biography” (April 11) changed my mind. Simply put: This is the single best written book review I have ever read in my entire life.

I have been a loyal reader of all of Philip Roth’s books, and now Blake Bailey’s astonishing biography. Ozick, who is a gifted writer, absolutely brings to life, in her peerless prose and perceptiveness, the character of both Roth and the biography itself. Roth was one of the deans of American literature in the 20th century. Full stop. Whatever his critics may have said — and are saying — his 31 books are a testament to a life well written.

Ozick’s review is so beautifully written, so eloquent, so challenging, that I wish she too had written the Roth biography. Blake Bailey’s gift as a biographer — so evident with his book on John Cheever — is astonishing, and Ozick’s appreciation of that writing is remarkably generous. Her final sentence is worthy of Tolstoy and should be taught in every English class in this country: “What remains on the page is one writer’s life as it was lived, and — almost — as it was felt.”

Bravo Cynthia Ozick, bravo Blake Bailey and bravo Philip Roth.

Evan Charkes
Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.

To the Editor:

Next time you assign a review for a new biography, try not to choose a partisan for the job. Ozick only briefly mentions the author of the latest Philip Roth biography before devoting the bulk of her bulky review justifying the problematic Roth and his uneven oeuvre. She is particularly harsh on the legion of women Roth dumped, dismissively stressing they were all “ardently consensual.”

She rather coarsely describes how when Roth’s first wife was killed in a car crash, “Roth is suddenly liberated.” Roth’s second wife, Claire Bloom, wrote a surprisingly evenhanded account of her marriage, but Ozick characterizes it as “vindictive,” even though the word more accurately describes Roth’s largely worthless “I Married a Communist,” which was meant to even the score. The reviewer even denigrates Bloom’s love of her daughter as a “bizarre and consuming fixation.”

A review is meant to convey enough of a book to assist potential buyers in making up their minds. If Ozick’s hagiographic review accurately conveys Bailey’s hagiographic biography, we can all safely put it on our “Must Miss” list.

Geoffrey Bent

To the Editor:

Congratulations on the amazing piece of art you commissioned from Ian Wright. It is a perfect foil for the review.

Jessica Weber
New York

Hand to Mouth

To the Editor:

Elizabeth McCracken’s damning-with-faint-praise review of Jackie Polzin’s “Brood” (April 4) is a skillful if pointless insult to a fellow novelist — one whose work had the bad fortune to fall into the hands of a reviewer who wished it a different book.

McCracken confesses that bad reviews of her own work by “professional critics” have meant little to her, while “the mildest mixed praise from one of my own, a fiction writer, is incised forever on my heart.”

If only she had considered those incisions before taking the scalpel to a colleague’s work by producing exactly the kind of mixed-praise review that has pained her.

Larry Rothe
Berkeley, Calif.

Unhistoric Acts

To the Editor:

The close of A. O. Scott’s fine essay on Tillie Olsen (March 28) recalled the famous words that end “Middlemarch”: “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Penny Rose

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