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Cover that bosom that I must not see

October 11, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Breast by Philip Roth. 1972. 120 pages. Le sein, translated by Georges Magnane.

It began oddly. But could it have begun otherwise, however it began? It has been said, of course, that everything under the sun begins “oddly” and ends “oddly”and is “odd”: a perfect rose is “odd”, so is an imperfect rose, so is the rose of ordinary rosy good looks growing in your neighbor’s garden. I know about the perspective from which everything appears awesome and mysterious. Reflect upon eternity, consider, if you are up to it, oblivion, and everything that is is a wonder. Still and all I would submit to you, in all humility, that some things are more wondrous than others, and I am one such thing.

 Professor Kepesh lives in New York and teaches literature at university. He’s a specialist of Kafka and Gogol. One morning, he wakes up in the form of a giant breast. True, there had been slight signs during the preceding week, indicating that something was happening in the region of his groin but, as a recovering hypochondriac, he had forced himself to ignore them. His penis has transformed into a huge nipple and the rest of his body is now a breast.

Kepesh relates his life as a breast. He’s in a hospital, lying on a giant hammock. He can’t see and can’t help worrying about where he is: are people lying to him when they say he’s in a quiet and private  room? Is he on television, as a live show? (A concern very ahead of its time I think. Who could have predicted that trash TV we have now so early in the 1970s?). He can communicate through his nipple but not without difficulty. His lover Claire stays by him but a fellow professor he considers a friend bursts into laughter and runs away when he sees him. His father pays him regular visits and his psychiatrist, Dr Klinger – isn’t that a funny name for a shrink? – tries to help him cope with his new circumstances.

This incredible change in his life brings different kinds of questions: how did it happen? A hormone tornado, the doctors say. How can I live without my five senses? I’m blind but my skin is oversensitive to any touch and I’m aroused by the nurse who washes me. Is this really happening or am I dreaming or am I crazy? I’d rather be crazy, at least, it’s a logical explanation. And most of all, who am I now? Am I still human? How can I keep my humanity? Where is Professor Kepesh in that breast?

Of course, The Metamorphosis by Kafka comes to mind immediately, except that the author of Portnoy’s Complaint chooses a metamorphosis into something highly sexual and highly feminine. I think this choice is particularly interesting. Gregor Samsa is changed into a disgusting insect. Who wouldn’t feel bad if changed into a beetle? The Breast explores the experience with a man changed into a most desirable thing, from a male’s point of view that is. The outcome is similar: angst, angst, angst, but angst with the Jewish sense of humor of a literature teacher who thinks that too much Gogol and Kakfa might have led him to that improbable situation.

Philip Roth also refers to The Nose by Gogol. There are similarities in the stories: the fantastic tag, of course, as it is not possible to loose one’s nose or be changed into a breast but also the comic storytelling. There’s something ironic in the idea that Kepesh can only communicate with the outside world with his penis transformed into a nipple. Although Kepesh’s situation is sad and preoccupying, it is narrated in a funny way. Both stories also question the ability of societies and individuals to cope with difference. Am I still human if I lost my nose? Am I still a member of humanity if I’m only a breast? They both emphasize the importance of “normality” to have a social life.

Right from the start, I heard Woddy Allen’s voice in Professor Kepesh. He has the same funny-whining-worried tone than Allen’s anti-heroes. His experience of marriage with an exhausting wife ended with a therapy and his relationship with Claire is based on a chosen absence of roller-coaster. He comes from a Jewish family, an origin with a heavy impact on his mental frame, he has a psychiatrist as a confidant and is hypocondriac. As Woody Allen also used surreal elements in his films and I couldn’t help imagining a film by him when reading.

In his foreword, Theodore Solotarov points out that Roth writes in opposition to the model of the successful American novelist. He explains that Hemingway, Faulkner, Dos Passos write about very virile men. They fight, like boxing and don’t take into account their feminine side, contrary to European writers. He makes parallels between pregnancy and the process of writing a book. He also compares writers to women, staying at home to write while other men go outside to work. The Breast has to do with a man accepting his feminine side – well, here it’s more imposed than accepted – and with questioning writing. But what does he do with authors who write in cafés and what about working women? I don’t know when this foreword was written but it sounds outdated and I’m always bothered by generalizations. However, I wanted to let you know his analysis of the book.

PS: The title of this post is a famous quote by Molière in Tartuffe : “Couvrez ce sein que je ne saurais voir.”

  1. October 11, 2011 at 1:55 am

    I thought of The Nose right away. Not sure if I’d like this one or not. I couldn’t get into Portnoy’s Complaint for some reason.

    Have you read any of Woody Allen’s stories?


    • October 11, 2011 at 8:43 am

      I’m not sure you’d like this one. I loved Portnoy’s Complaint, I thought it was really funny and at the same time a very sweet description of Jewish life in Newark.
      I’ve tried some of Woody Allen’s stories but it didn’t work.


  2. October 11, 2011 at 7:15 am

    This is for sure a book I will not read. I do not like Roth all that much or maybe even not at all? Not that I have read a lot of him. I see that it’s far from bad what he is writing but it’s not my thing. And a man who grows a breast? As an allegory for his feminine side? Please, no, that’s way too unsubtle. It’s probably interesting to see the parallels between this and Gogol. The Woody Allen elements sound fun though.


    • October 11, 2011 at 8:51 am

      Which ones have you read?

      The man doesn’t grow a breast, he changes into a breast. As far as I’m concerned, I didn’t see any allegory at all. All I saw is a writer who wanted to explore a character with an identity crisis, who chose to walk into Kafka and Gogol’s footsteps and decided to transform his character into a breast for fun, because it’s a male obsession. I heard him giggling, not trying to be serious. There are serious issues about identity but not about sexual identity. To me it’s more about how a major change in your physical appearance impacts your interaction with the world and to what extend your physical traits are part of yourself.

      The man who wrote the foreword took it seriously and saw that femine allegory. I didn’t. I don’t know who’s right. I suspect this foreword was written in the 1970s, during the feminists fights and that this man wasn’t comfortable with the new way to draw the relationships between men and women.


  3. October 11, 2011 at 9:54 am

    Of course, I meant growing into a breast but I think that is dubious English.
    I always thought Roth to be one of those writers obsessed with masculinity (and sexuality) and that’s why I don’t like him. I’m not interested in people who see the world “as a man” or “as a woman”. Gender biased view is boring. I think the breast is a deliberate choice. He could have become something else. In any case, I think the analysis of Solotarov is unsubtle. I got Sabbath’s Theater here…. Not so tempted at the moment.
    Does anyone know it?


    • October 11, 2011 at 10:00 am

      Well it’s a dubious situation anyway. Maybe it deserves dubious English.

      I don’t think he’s obsessed with masculinity or sexuality. In Portnoy’s Complaint, he used sex to show an identity problem too. Sex is a pretext to be funny, I think.
      Sex isn’t a major theme in The Plot Against America or in The Human Stain. I think you misjudge him and that you’d like The Human Stain.
      I haven’t read Sabbath’s Theatre. I have I Married a Communist and Exist Ghost at home.


  4. October 11, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    I read The Human Stain. And watched the movie afterwards. Not too long ago but can hardly remember a thing… I’m not giving up on him just yet but there are so many writers… I don’t think we should bother too much with those that do not speak to us in one way or the other.


    • October 12, 2011 at 8:59 am

      If you have read The Humain Stain and wasn’t thrilled about it, then you’re right. No need to lose time reading writers we don’t really enjoy when there are so many to explore.


  5. October 12, 2011 at 9:36 am

    There’s another review by Trevor at The Mookse and the Gripes



  6. October 19, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    It doesn’t sound terribly subtle.

    If he can hear people reassure him, why can’t he hear if he’s in a public ward or not?

    It doesn’t tempt me. I followed the link to Trevor’s review, but even so it feels self-indulgent. I do still plan to read Roth, but this sounds one for the completists.


    • October 19, 2011 at 5:13 pm

      Don’t rush on this one but I recommend The Nose by Gogol if you haven’t read him.


  7. October 20, 2011 at 1:07 pm

    I haven’t read any Gogol yet. I am a bad reader.


    • October 20, 2011 at 1:13 pm

      This one is short and I think you’d like it. (there’s a review if you want to know more)


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