Tuesday, May 25, 2021

the last book I ever read (Philip Roth: The Biography, excerpt six)

from Philip Roth: The Biography by Blake Bailey:

On September 2—a few days before Helen returned to school—Roth drove to the city and took her to a Broadway play (her first), an Actors Studio production of Three Sisters, preceded by dinner at Sardi’s. Helen remembered how her mother had lent her a pretty blue dress for the evening, and asked a lot of questions beforehand about where they were going and so forth. At the theater Helen and Roth had just settled into their seats—down front on the aisle (Mendy Wager had gotten them the tickets)—when Roth noticed a genial man with a mustache standing over them: “Mr. Philip Roth?” he inquired, and when Roth nodded the man produced a summons from his inside coat pocket. During intermission Roth left Helen in the lobby with an orange drink and pored over the papers in a toilet stall. “I am really sorry about the upset with the summons,” Fingerhood wrote him a week later. “However, that is evidently our friend’s way of saying that the offer of settlement which was discussed is unacceptable.” Fingerhood made it clear that Maggie’s lawyer could as easily have sent the papers directly to her—“but then,” Roth noted, “of course the drama and harassment would have gone out of it.”

Roth’s final weeks at Yaddo were blighted by two unanswered phone calls from Maggie (“both angry, I am told”), followed by a letter in which she bitterly informed him that her father had been killed the previous weekend but she couldn’t go to the funeral because Roth was six weeks behind in alimony. “It happens I am one week ahead,” he wrote Lurie, “but the pattern of accusation was so familiar, and the hallucinations, etc. . . . that I haven’t been able to come up from under. My head has been pounding for a week; it feels stuffed; and my neck is like stone.” Work, as ever, was the sovereign anodyne. Another artifact from his recent visit to Maggie’s apartment (after her latest suicide attempt) was a packet of ten-year-old prison letters from Maggie’s father to her mother. Roth appropriated a “collage” of quotes for Whitey’s sorrowful Valentine’s Day letter at the end of When She Was Good—the letter found frozen to the cheek of Lucy Nelson’s corpse. “To put it bluntly,” he wrote of Lucy’s real-life model, “I wish she were dead.”

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