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American Pastoral by Philip Roth – what’s left of the American dream?

January 4, 2020 23 comments

American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1997) French title: Pastorale américaine.

Three generations. All of them growing. The working. The saving. The success. Three generations in raptures over America. Three generations of becoming one with a people. And now with the fourth it had all come to nothing. The total vandalization of their world.

American Pastoral is the first volume of Philip Roth’s American trilogy, featuring Nathan Zuckerman as Roth’s doppelganger. I read them backward, starting with The Human Stain, then reading I Married a Communist and finishing with this one.

American Pastoral dissects the life of Seymour Levov, nicknamed the Swede because he was a tall blond teenager. He was the star of Weequahic High, the high school that Zuckerman attended in Newark. He excelled in sports and Zuckerman was friend with Jerry, the Swede’s younger brother.

With American Pastoral, Roth digs into a mine that has three lodes. The closest to the surface is the Swede’s life and personal tragedy, from Weequahic High star athlete to father of a terrorist. Just underneath is the rise and fall of Newark as a city, from a big industrial center to a poor city gangrened by violence. And the deepest vein is America’s history and the end of the American dream that, according to Roth, died with the Vietnam war and the Watergate.

The Swede is the personification of the American pastoral, the story the country sells to itself and to its newcomers. He’s the son of a Jew who had a small glove business. He was jock and his high school’s star. He enrolled in the Marines during WWII. He married Dawn, a Catholic girl who was elected Miss New Jersey. He grew his glove business into a multinational and became rich. He moved to Old Rimrock, right in Republican county. He did everything he could to be all-American, a WASP.

As a family they still flew the flight of the immigrant rocket, the upward, unbroken immigrant trajectory from slave-driven great-grandfather to self-driven grandfather to self-confident, accomplished, independent father to the highest high flier of them all, the fourth-generation child for whom America was to be heaven itself.

Somewhere along the way, the narrative went wrong. As Jerry bluntly sums it up to Zuckerman:

You should have seen them. Knockout couple. The two of them all smiles on their outward trip into the USA. She’s post-Catholic, he’s post-Jewish, together they’re going to go out there to Old Rimrock to raise little post-toasties. Instead they get that fucking kid.

That fucking kid is Merry, the Swede and Dawn’s daughter who put a bomb into Old Rimrock general store and killed one person to protest against the Vietnam war. She went underground and left a hole in their parents’ lives. Dawn collapsed and the Swede held on, with questions gnawing at him under the surface. Where was she? Where did it go wrong? How did his little girl become this monster? Could they have prevented it? What did they miss? Were they instrumental to her rage? All questions with no real answers.

Merry is the personification of the end of the American dream.

The daughter who transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral—into the indigenous American berserk.

The Swede rehashes Merry’s formative years until this fateful year of 1968 when she bombed the store and when Newark experienced the worst riots of its history. The Swede saved his business but the city never recovered from this destruction. He didn’t save his daughter from self-destruction.

With the Swede’s story, we also witness the change in the American (and Western) economies: it’s more profitable to make gloves or other goods abroad and the deindustrialization of Newark begins. The city’s economy collapses and poverty and violence take hold of its streets.

And last, beneath the surface of the Swede’s tragedy, Roth tells us that the Vietnam war and the Nixon debacle put an end to the American dream. The years after that were about keeping up appearances.

I thought that the construction of the book was puzzling. We start in 1995 with a journey into the past. First, Zuckerman has lunch with the Swede, who wants him to write about his father’s life. Like the boy he was, Zuckerman is in awe to meet with his childhood hero.

Then we’re at the 50 years anniversary of Weequahic High 1945 class. That’s Zuckerman’s year. When I was reading this part, I was thinking of Time Regained and then Roth mentioned Proust’s madeleine himself. Roth borrows a lot to Proust in American Pastoral. A dinner at the Swede’s, with their parents and their friends takes several chapters and looks like a party at the Duchesse de Guermantes. Roth describes the discussions and goes behind the scenes to disclose what is behind appearances.

Then we dive into the Swede’s tragic life and never come back to the present. The book seems like it’s standing on the edge of an abyss and we’re left there, scrambling to remember the beginning and what Zuckerman learnt about the Swede’s life to fill the dots and come back to present times. It felt strange.

My brain can see that it’s a deep and fascinating book. It raises questions about America and offers a line of analysis. But I can’t say I had a lot of pleasure reading it. Some passages were boring and I struggled to stay interested in the Swede’s inner turmoil, Merry’s stuttering or Dawn’s conflicting feelings about her beauty. There were too many details about glove making, which had a purpose, mainly to show how industry turned from a semi-artisanal business to mass production in low cost countries.

It’s not my favorite Roth, maybe because I missed his humor. It’s barely present in American Pastoral as soon as the high school reunion is over. And I love Roth’s sense of humor.

I’d still recommend it because Roth develops a vision of America that is worth reading about.

One of my favorite writers has died. R.I.P Philip Roth You will be missed

May 23, 2018 16 comments

Early in the morning, with eyes still full of sleep I heard the news: Philip Roth has made his exit. That day started with this gloomy news and the comforting thought that it was important enough to make the headlines, have a special guest invited to talk about his books and to remind us that he was “the greatest author of contemporary American literature”. Not everything has been sold to economy, politics and marketing. Literature still makes the headlines. What a relief. Hopefully, there will be a special edition of La Grande Librairie and it could make me switch on the TV for the first time in several years.

I hate the idea that he’s dead, that he will no longer write or give interviews.

I love Philip Roth for his Jewish sense of humor. (I probably have thing for that brand of humor if I consider my love for Woody Allen’s films and all things Romain Gary) I love that he takes his readers seriously and asks us to think even if he also entertains us. I love his lucidity, his precise vision of the American society and the Western world in general. I love that he was not politically correct. I love his twisted mind, his as-if mind, his scrutiny of our ant lives. I love his endless observation of the human nature. I love that he tackled all kinds of political topics while telling the story of an individual.

He will be missed. How sad that he won’t write another book. We have to do with the ones that already exist, now.

I only have read The Plot Against America, The Breast, Portnoy’s Complaint, I Married a Communist, Exit Ghost and The Human Stain. All stayed with me, I can talk about them now contrary to other novels whose plot and characters are long forgotten.

Everyone should read The Plot Against America these days. Under the Trump presidency and what’s happening in Europe, I think I’d see it differently than before. Embracing extreme right thoughts and electing their leaders seemed fictional when I read it, but now, not so much.

I didn’t like The Breast much. It has a Kafkian ring and, while I admire Kafka a lot, he’s not a writer I truly enjoy.

I read Portnoy’s Complaint in English. Imagine how educational it was for a French reader. It enlarged my vocabulary in an unexpected (and useless) way. But it was a lot of fun.

I Married A Communist made me think a lot, so much that I wrote three billets about it. (Part I, Part II, Part III)

Exit Ghost is a stunning novel about old age in all its crudity and glory and thought about an artist’s legacy.

The Human Stain was my first Roth and pre-blog. I was blown away by it. His style, his depiction of America and the hypocrisy of the academic world. It opened my eyes about the concept of having black blood in America, something totally foreign to me.

My next one will be American Pastoral, it’s been on my mind since the last Roth I read. But I need quality time to read him because it’s a challenge for me to read him in English. It would be too frustrating to read him in French now. Let’s be positive, I still have more than twenty books by him to read and that’s a comforting thought.

I’ll end this billet by a repeat of a previous one, Politics, literature, Philip Roth…and Me which was only a quote from I Married A Communist.

“Politics is the great generalizer,” Leo told me, “and literature the great particularizer, and not only are they in a inverse relationship to each other –they are in an antagonistic relationship. To politics, literature is decadent, soft, irrelevant, boring, wrongheaded, dull, something that makes no sense and that really oughtn’t be. Why? Because the particularizing impulse is literature. How can you be an artist and renounce the nuance? But how can you be a politician and allow the nuance? As an artist, the nuance is your task. Your task is not to simplify. Even should you choose to write in the simplest way, à la Hemingway, the task remains to impart the nuance, to elucidate the complication, to imply the contradiction. Not to erase the contradiction, not to deny the contradiction, but to see where, within the contradiction, lies the tormented human being. To allow for the chaos, to let it in. You must let it in. Otherwise you produce propaganda, if not for a political party, a political movement, then stupid propaganda for life itself –for life as it might itself prefer to be publicized. During the first five, six years of the Russian Revolution the revolutionaries cried, ‘Free love, there will be free love!’ But once they were in power, they couldn’t permit it. Because what is free love? Chaos. And they didn’t want chaos,. That isn’t why they made their glorious revolution. They wanted something carefully disciplined, organized, contained, predictable scientifically, if possible. Free love disturbs the organization, their social and political and cultural machine. Art also disturbs the organization. Literature disturbs the organization. Not because it is blatantly for or against, or even subtly for or against. It disturbs the organization because it is not general. The intrinsic nature of the particular is to be particular, and the intrinsic nature of particularity is to fail to conform. Generalizing suffering: there is Communism. Particularizing suffering: there is literature. In that polarity is the antagonism. Keeping the particular alive in a simplifying, generalizing world –that’s where the battle is joined. You do not have to write to legitimize Communism, and you do not have to write to legitimize capitalism. You are out of both. If you are a writer, you are as unallied to the one as you are to the other. Yes, you see differences, and of course you see that this shit is a little better than that shit, or that that shit is a little better than that shit. Maybe much better. But you see the shit. You are not a government clerk. You are not a militant. You are not a believer. You are someone who deals in a very different way with the world and what happens in the world. The militant introduces a faith, a big relief that will change the world and the artist introduces a product that has no place in that world. It’s useless. The artist, the serious writer, introduces into the world something that wasn’t there even at the start. When God made all this stuff in seven days, the birds, the rivers, the human beings, he didn’t have ten minutes for literature. ‘And then there will be literature. Some people will like it, some people will be obsessed by it, want to do it…’ No. No. He did not say that. If you had asked God then, ‘There will be plumbers?’ ‘Yes, there will be. Because they will have houses, they will need plumbers.’ ‘There will be doctors?’ ‘Yes. Because they will get sick, they will need doctors to give them some pills.’ ‘And literature?’ ‘Literature? What are you talking about? What use does it have? Where does it fit in? Please, I am creating a universe, not a university. No literature.’”

Yes, literature is useless but indispensable therefore it is beauty. Philip Roth will be missed. QED.

Saturday literary delights, squeals and other news

October 28, 2017 25 comments

For the last two months, I’ve been buried at work and busy with life. My literary life suffered from it, my TBW has five books, I have a stack of unread Télérama at home, my inbox overflows with unread blog entries from fellow book bloggers and I have just started to read books from Australia. Now that I have a blissful six-days break, I have a bit of time to share with you a few literary tidbits that made me squeal like a school girl, the few literary things I managed to salvage and how bookish things came to me as if the universe was offering some kind of compensation.

I had the pleasure to meet again with fellow book blogger Tom and  his wife. Tom writes at Wuthering Expectations, renamed Les Expectations de Hurlevent since he left the US to spend a whole year in Lyon, France. If you want to follow his adventures in Europe and in France in particular, check out his blog here. We had a lovely evening.

I also went to Paris on a business trip and by chance ended up in a hotel made for a literature/theatre lovers. See the lobby of the hotel…

My room was meant for me, theatre-themed bedroom and book-themed bathroom

*Squeal!* My colleagues couldn’t believe how giddy I was.

Literature also came to me unexpectedly thanks to the Swiss publisher LaBaconnière. A couple of weeks ago, I came home on a Friday night after a week at top speed at work. I was exhausted, eager to unwind and put my mind off work. LaBaconnière must have guessed it because I had the pleasure to find Lettres d’Anglererre by Karel Čapek in my mail box. What a good way to start my weekend. *Squeal!* It was sent to me in hope of a review but without openly requesting it. Polite and spot on since I was drawn to this book immediately. LaBaconnière promotes Central European literature through their Ibolya Virág Collection. Ibolya Virág is a translator from the Hungarian into French and LaBaconnière has also published the excellent Sindbad ou la nostalgie by Gyula Krúdy, a book I reviewed both in French and in English. Last week, I started to read Lettres d’Angleterre and browsed through the last pages of the book, where you always find the list of other titles belonging to the same collection. And what did I find under Sindbad ou la nostalgie? A quote from my billet! *Squeal!* Now I’ve never had any idea of becoming a writer of any kind but I have to confess that it did something to me to see my words printed on a book, be it two lines on the excerpt of a catalogue. Lettres d’Angleterre was a delight, billet to come.

Now that I’m off work, I started to read all the Téléramas I had left behind. The first one I picked included three articles about writers I love. *Squeal!* There was one about visiting Los Angeles and especially Bunker Hill, the neighborhood where John Fante stayed when he moved to Los Angeles. I love John Fante, his sense of humor, his description of Los Angeles and I’m glad Bukowski saved him from the well of oblivion. It made me want to hop on a plane for a literary escapade in LA. A few pages later, I stumbled upon an article about James Baldwin whose novels are republished in French. Giovanni’s Room comes out again with a foreword by Alain Mabanckou and there’s a new edition of Go Tell It on the Mountain. Two books I want to read. And last but not least, Philip Roth is now published in the prestigious La Pléiade  edition. This collection was initially meant for French writers but has been extended to translated books as well. I don’t know if Roth is aware of this edition but for France, this is an honor as big as winning the Nobel Prize for literature, which Roth totally deserves, in my opinion.

Romain Gary isn’t published in La Pléiade (yet) but he’s still a huge writer in France, something totally unknown to most foreign readers. See this display table in a bookstore in Lyon.

His novel La Promesse de l’aube has been made into a film that will be on screens on December 20th. It is directed by Eric Barbier and Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Nina, Gary’s mother and Pierre Niney is Romain Gary. I hope it’s a good adaptation of Gary’s biographical novel.

Romain Gary was a character that could have come out of a novelist’s mind. His way of reinventing himself and his past fascinates readers and writers. In 2017, at least two books are about Romain Gary’s childhood. In Romain Gary s’en va-t-en guerre, Laurent Seksik explores Gary’s propension to create a father that he never knew. I haven’t read it yet but it is high on my TBR.

The second book was brought in the flow of books arriving for the Rentrée Littéraire. I didn’t have time this year to pay attention to the books that were published for the Rentrée Littéraire. I just heard an interview of François-Henri Désérable who wrote Un certain M. Piekielny, a book shortlisted for the prestigious Prix Goncourt. And it’s an investigation linked to Gary’s childhood in Vilnius. *Squeal!* Stranded in Vilnius, Désérable walked around the city and went in the street where Gary used to live between 1917 and 1923. (He was born in 1914) In La promesse de l’aube, Gary wrote that his neighbor once told him:

Quand tu rencontreras de grands personnages, des hommes importants, promets-moi de leur dire: au n°16 de la rue Grande-Pohulanka, à Wilno, habitait M. Piekielny. When you meet with great people, with important people, promise me to tell them : at number 16 of Grande-Pohulanka street in Wilno used to live Mr Piekielny.

Gary wrote that he kept his promise. Désérable decided to research M. Piekielny, spent more time in Vilnius. His book relates his experience and his research, bringing back to life the Jewish neighborhood of the city. 60000 Jews used to live in Vilnius, a city that counted 106 synagogues. A century later, decimated by the Nazis, there are only 1200 Jews and one synagogue in Vilnius. Of course, despite the height of my TBR, I had to get that book. I plan on reading it soon, I’m very intrigued by it.

Despite all the work and stuff, I managed to read the books selected for our Book Club. The October one is Monsieur Proust by his housekeeper Céleste Albaret. (That’s on the TBW) She talks about Proust, his publishers and the publishing of his books. When Du côté de chez Swann was published in 1913, Proust had five luxury copies made for his friends. The copy dedicated to Alexandra de Rotschild was stolen during WWII and is either lost or well hidden. The fifth copy dedicated to Louis Brun will be auctioned on October 30th. When the first copy dedicated to Lucien Daudet was auctioned in 2013, it went for 600 000 euros. Who knows for how much this one will be sold? Not *Squeal!* but *Swoon*, because, well, it’s Proust and squeals don’t go well with Proust.

Although Gary’s books are mostly not available in English, I was very happy to discover that French is the second most translated language after English. Yay to the Francophonie! According to the article, French language books benefit from two cultural landmarks: the Centre National du Livre and the network of the Instituts français. Both institutions help financing translations and promoting books abroad. I have often seen the mention that the book I was reading had been translated with the help of the Centre National du Livre.

I mentioned earlier that the hotel I stayed in was made for me because of the literary and theatre setting. I still have my subscription at the Théâtre des Célestins in Lyon and I’ve seen two very good plays. I wanted to write a billet about them but lacked the time to do so.

Illustration by Thomas Ehretsmann

The first one is Rabbit Hole by Bostonian author David Lindsay-Abaire. The French version was directed by Claudia Stavisky. The main roles of Becky and Howard were played by Julie Gayet and Patrick Catalifo. It is a sad but beautiful play about grieving the death of a child. Danny died in a stupid car accident and his parents try to survive the loss. With a missing member, the family is thrown off balance and like an amputated body, it suffers from phantom pain. With delicate words and spot-on scenes, David Lindsay-Abaire shows us a family who tries to cope with a devastating loss that shattered their lived. If you have the chance to watch this play, go for it. *Delight* On the gossip column side of things, the rumor says that François Hollande was in the theatre when I went to see the play. (Julie Gayet was his girlfriend when he was in office)

Illustration by Thomas Ehretsmann

The second play is a lot lighter but equally good. It is Ça va? by Jean-Claude Grumberg. In French, Ça va? is the everyday greeting and unless you genuinely care about the person, it’s told off-handedly and the expected answer is Yes. Apparently, this expression comes from the Renaissance and started to be used with the generalization of medicine based upon the inspection of bowel movements. (See The Imaginary Invalid by Molière) So “Comment allez-vous à la selle” (“How have your bowel movements been?”) got shortened into Ça va? Very down-to-earth. But my dear English-speaking natives, don’t laugh out loud too quickly, I hear that How do you do might have the same origin…Back to the play.

In this play directed by Daniel Benoin, Grumberg imagines a succession of playlets that start with two people meeting up and striking a conversation with the usual Ça va? Of course, a lot of them end up with dialogues of the deaf, absurd scenes, fights and other hilarious moments. Sometimes it’s basic comedy, sometimes we laugh hollowly but in all cases, the style is a perfect play with the French language. A trio of fantastic actors, François Marthouret, Pierre Cassignard and Éric Prat interpreted this gallery of characters. *Delight* If this play comes around, rush for it.

To conclude this collage of my literary-theatre moments of the last two months, I’ll mention an interview of the historian Emmanuelle Loyer about a research project Europa, notre histoire directed by Etienne François and Thomas Serrier. They researched what Europe is made of. Apparently, cafés are a major component of European culture. Places to sit down and meet friends, cultural places where books were written and ideas exchanged. In a lot of European cities, there are indeed literary cafés where writers had settled and wrote articles and books. New York Café in Budapest. Café de Flore in Paris. Café Martinho da Arcada in Lisbon. Café Central in Vienna. Café Slavia in Prague. Café Giubbe Rosse in Florence. (My cheeky mind whispers to me that the pub culture is different and might have something to do with Brexit…) It’s a lovely thought that cafés are a European trademark, that we share a love for places that mean conviviality. That’s where I started to write this billet, which is much longer than planned. I’ll leave you with two pictures from chain cafés at the Lyon mall. One proposes to drop and/or take books and the other has a bookish décor.

Literature and cafés still go together and long life to the literary café culture!

I wish you all a wonderful weekend.

Literature in relation to American paintings in the 1930s

November 5, 2016 29 comments

At the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, there’s currently an exhibition called La peinture américaine des années 1930. (American painting in the 1930s) It displays the trends in painting in America during the Great Depression according to several themes: rural landscapes and way of life, cities and their work environment, social issues and entertainment. It is an exhibition organized with the collaboration of the Chicago Art Institute. It was already presented in Chicago and it will next go to the Royal Academy in London. It is very educational about the times, explaining the economic situation and the different art programs implemented by the federal goverment. While I was watching paintings, some reminded me of books and I couldn’t help thinking that some of them would make fantastic book covers. I’ll start with the iconic American Gothic by Grant Wood that has been borrowed by advertising and other artists. I’ve heard it called the American Joconde.

American Gothic 1930 Grant Wood

American Gothic 1930 Grant Wood

It’s probably one of the most famous American paintings of the time, along with the ones by Edward Hopper. It made me think of Willa Cather because these farmers seem to come right out of the 19th century and to represent the hard working pioneers.

Totally different setting: a harbour, maybe in Saint Louis. This one reminded me of American Transfer by John Dos Passos (1925) because there were parts in the harbour in New York.

Roustabouts 1934 Joe Jones

Roustabouts 1934 Joe Jones

Exploring the social impact of the crisis, some artists protested against the ravages of capitalism and showed the life of the working class. This portrait of Pat Whalen, a Communist activist brought memories of I Married a Communist by Philip Roth (1998) Alice Neel was a Communist herself and she portrayed several activists.

Pat Whalen by Alice Neel 1935

Pat Whalen by Alice Neel 1935

Back in New York, I immediately thought about The Outing, a short story included in Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin (1965) or A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes, even if both were published after the 1930s.

Street Life Harlem by William H Johnson 1939

Street Life Harlem by William H Johnson 1939

It’s hard to talk about literature during the Great Depression without mentioning The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939) In the section about rural life, there was this striking painting to express the destruction of land due to severe droughts.

Erosion n2 Mother Earth Laid Bare by Alexander Hogue. 1936

Erosion n2 Mother Earth Laid Bare by Alexander Hogue. 1936

In the room about the entertainments of the time, Philip Evergood’s Dance Marathon (1934) would really make a great cover for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy (1935), a book where a couple enters a dance marathon.

Dance Marathon by Philip Evergood 1934

Philip Evergood pictures the extreme fatigue of the couples who shuffle on the dance floor, the circus around this inhumane entertainment and the acute need of money of the participants if they were willing to enter that kind of contest.

There were about 50 paintings but I only picked up the ones that reminded me of a book. For readers who have the opportunity to go to Paris, I recommend going to the Musée de l’Orangerie, for this exhibition but also for the permanent collection of the museum. It will also be possible to see this exhibition in London at the Royal Academy, it’s entitled America after the fall: Paintings in the 1930s and it will last from February to June 2017.

Last but not least, I bought a book at the museum’s library: La Crise. Amérique 1927-1932 by Paul Claudel and it is an excerpt of the diplomatic correspondence between Paul Claudel and his Minister Aristide Briand when Claudel was ambassador of France in Washington (1927-1933) I’ll write another billet about it as it is a fascinating read after the 2008 crisis and the current presidential election in the USA.

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth – Part III

October 23, 2015 19 comments

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth (2008) French title: J’ai épousé un communiste.

Roth_Communist_CoverThis is the last billet about I Married a Communist by Philip Roth. The first one is about the plot and the characters and is available here. The second one focuses on Communism and the witch hunt of the McCarthy era and can be read here.While the two first billets explore the topics underlying the title of the novel (marriage and Communism), the third one is dedicated to the narrator, Nathan Zuckerman.

At the beginning of the novel, Nathan stumbles upon his former teacher Murray Ringold. Nathan is now 64 and Murray is way over 80. When Nathan was in high school, Murray was teaching English. He was unorthodox and encouraged free thinking. He was the one to introduce Nathan to Ira, the Communist of the title. The two brothers had a key influence on Nathan’s growing-up. I Married a Communist corresponds to Nathan’s teenage years.

This is where I Married a Communist becomes a coming-of-age novel, focused on the education of the mind. It’s showing just beneath the surface. It doesn’t dwell on the hormonal part of adolescence and the discovering of the other sex. (Extensive rendition of the “body experience” can be found in Portnoy’s Complaint) It discusses how an adolescent becomes a man in his mind, not in his body. Nathan is around 14 when he meets the Ringold brothers.

I was sitting between two shirtless brothers well over six feet tall, two big, natural men exuding the sort of forceful, intelligent manliness to which I aspired. Men who could talk about baseball and boxing talking about books. And talking about books as though something were at stake in a book. Not opening a book to worship it or to be elevated by it or to lose yourself to the world around you. No, boxing with the book.

Murray and Ira challenge him, intellectually. They teach him to think out of the box, to criticize the books they read, to question what he hears. They come in his life at this transition period that is adolescence in anyone’s life. Nathan is starting to question his parents’ values and line of thinking. That’s the normal path to adulthood, as Roth beautifully puts it:

If you’re not orphaned early, if instead you’re related intensely to parents for thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years, you grow a prick, lose your innocence, seek your independence, and, if it’s not a screwed-up family, are let go, ready to begin to be a man, ready, that is, to choose new allegiances and affiliations, the parents of your adulthood, the chosen parents whom, because you are not asked to acknowledge them with love, you either love or don’t, as suits you.

How are they chosen? Through a series of accidents and through lots of will. How do they get to you, and how do you get to them? Who are they? What is it, this genealogy that isn’t genetic? In my case they were men to whom I apprenticed myself, from Paine and Fast and Corwin to Murray and Ira and beyond—the men who schooled me, the men I came from. All were remarkable to me in their own way, personalities to contend with, mentors who embodied or espoused powerful ideas and who first taught me to navigate the world and its claims, the adopted parents who also, each in his turn, had to be cast off along with their legacy, had to disappear, thus making way for the orphanhood that is total, which is manhood. When you’re out there in this thing alone.

There’s a lot in this quote.

As an adult, I remember that period of my life and I relate to the second part of the quote. It’s the time when you look at your parents with critical eyes and the curtain of blind love is removed. They become human. They become fallible. We all found ourselves these adoptive parents in our life. We threw away the part of our education we didn’t want. Religion. Political orientation. Vision of social life. We found help in thinkers and digested them before rejecting part of their instruction too.

As a mother, I love the first paragraph of the quote. That’s what I want for my children. I want them to separate themselves from their parents’ vision of life to build their own. I want them to question our opinions and values to keep what works for them. I want them to explore other paths in the process. There are beautiful passages in the novel about Nathan and his father, like this one, when he’s about to attend a political meeting with Ira:

My father didn’t want his son stolen from him, and though, strictly speaking, nobody had stolen anybody, the man was no fool and knew that he had lost and, Communist or no Communist, the six-foot six-inch intruder had won. I saw in my father’s face a look of resigned disappointment, his kind gray eyes softened by—distressfully subdued by—something midway between melancholy and futility. I was a look that would never be entirely forgotten by me when I was alone with Ira, or later, with Leo Glucksman, Johnny O’Day or whomever. Just by taking instruction from these men, I seemed to myself somehow to be selling my father short. His face with that look on it was always looming up, superimposed on the face of the man who was then educating me in life’s possibilities. His face bearing the wound of betrayal.

Mr Zuckerman Senior knows what’s happening. He knows that Nathan is about to choose Ira and Murray as adoptive parents. It makes him sad but he’s resigned; he knows he needs to lose his son temporarily to have him back again later. There’s a lot of tenderness from the son to the father in this novel. I don’t know how much Roth put of himself in Nathan this time but if he experienced what Nathan describes, then I Married a Communist is a nice tribute to Mr Roth Senior.

Years later, as Nathan reacquaints himself with Murray, his old professor has something new to teach him:

In Murray Ringold, I thought, human dissatisfaction has met its match. He has outlived dissatisfaction. This is what remains after the passing of everything, the disciplined sadness of stoicism. This is the cooling. For so long it’s so hot, everything in life is so intense, and then little by little it goes away, and then comes the cooling, and then come the ashes. The man who first taught me how to box with a book is back now to demonstrate how you box with old age.

And an amazing, noble skill it is, for nothing teaches you less about old age than having lived a robust life.

Nathan is now 64. He’s entering old age and Murray’s example is welcome, just as it was in his youth. Again, as I mentioned it as the end of my billet about the “Communism side” of the novel, we start with something—the wrong assumption of Communism, the importance of Murray’s teachings—, we follow a thought process and come back to the first point—the inexistence of natural brotherhood, the worth of Murray’s instruction. It gives a sense of accomplishment to the book, the feeling that everything is well orchestrated and yet not fake.

There’s a lot to explore in I Married a Communist. I wrote three billets and I barely skimmed the surface. It is not known as Roth’s best book but there’s still a lot to chew over.

Still highly recommended.

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth – Part II

October 21, 2015 12 comments

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth (1998) French title: J’ai épousé un communiste.

This is my second billet about I Married a Communist by Philip Roth. The first one focuses on the plot and can be read here. In this second post, I wanted to focus on Roth’s analysis of Communism as a political ideal and on his depiction of the McCarthy witch hunt of the 1950s. Roth focuses on the global picture, the ideals conveyed by Communism, the witch hunt and the political climate of the time but also reflects on how this witch hunt has been possible, that is to say by the cooperation of individuals.

He tells you capitalism is a dog-eat-dog system. What is life if not a dog-eat-dog system? This is a system that is in tune with life. And because it is, it works. Look, everything the Communists say about capitalism is true, and everything the capitalists say about Communism is true. The difference is, our system works because it’s based on the truth about people’s selfishness, and theirs doesn’t because it’s based on a fairy tale about people’s brotherhood. It’s such a crazy fairy tale they’ve got to take people and put them in Siberia in order to get them to believe it. In order to get them to believe in their brotherhood, they’ve got to control people’s every thought of shoot ‘em. And meanwhile in America, in Europe, the Communists go on with this fairy tale even when then know what is really there. Sure, for a while, you don’t know. But what don’t you know? You know human beings. So you know everything. You know that this fairy tale cannot be possible. If you are a very young man I suppose it’s okay. Twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, okay. But after that? No reason that a person with an average intelligence can take this story, this fairy tale of Communism, and swallow it. ‘We will do something that will be wonderful…’ But we know what our brother is, don’t we? He’s a shit. And we know what our friend is, don’t we? He’s a semi-shit. And we are semi-shits. So how can it be wonderful? Not even cynicism, not even skepticism, just ordinary powers of human observation tell us that is not possible.

Roth_Communist_CoverI have to say I quite agree with Roth. The idea of Communism is doomed from the start because it’s based on a fairy tale conception of mankind. I don’t believe in natural goodness and I haven’t in a long time. I remember sitting on a chair in my high school class, listening to the teacher explain Rousseau’s vision of the Good Savage and thinking it was utterly rubbish and unrealistic. Ingrained brotherhood and goodness do not lead to wars, rapes, pogroms, thefts and crime in general. And those have existed since the beginning of humanity.

Everything is clearer with hindsight but still, I never understood how a clever philosopher like Sartre became so engrossed with Communism and refused to see through the official curtain put in place by the USSR. Not only was the thinking flawed from the start because it’s based on an inaccurate assumption, but the implementation phase led to brutal dictatorship.

Roth depicts O’Day, the Communist who converted Ira to his “religion” as a zealot. He can be compared to a Christian zealot from the beginning of Christianism. He has an unbreakable faith in Communism, he’s ready to suffer for it and he’s ready to sacrifice any personal life for it. The older he gets, the more ascetic he becomes. He renounces to possessions, lives like an ermit and is only committed to preach Communism to the masses. That beats everything for a line of thinking that says that religion is the opium of the people.

Roth also describes the unhealthy climate of the McCarthy era and how the battle against Communism was a good opportunity or a good excuse to eliminate political opponents, gain political power, undermine liberal thinkers or simply get rid of a rival. Politicians used it as a leverage to win elections and be well positioned at the White House. Several examples are given in the book through the characters’ lives. Of course, Ira is a notable Communist and he was loud about his political ideas. He was bound to be in trouble for it considering the times. As a reader, I expected it. But it also touched other characters in an unexpected way. Murray, Ira’s brother was an unorthodox teacher (more of that in Post III) who pushed his students to think out of the box. He had the bad idea to go against his hierarchy. False accusations of Communism on top of his teaching methods were enough to put him out of a teaching job for a decade. He sold vacuum cleaners door to door for 10 years and his former dean was promoted. In his conversations with Murray, Nathan learns that he missed a grant to study abroad because his friendship with Ira was suspicious. He states:

I did not and could not have made crap of difference, and yet the zealotry to defeat Communism reached even me.

Roth wants to go further and endeavors to understand how common people denounced someone, how the American administration managed such an efficient witch hunt. He reflects on how betrayal became normal in those years.

To me it seems like more acts of personal betrayal were tellingly perpetrated in America in the decade after the war—say between ’46 and ’56—than in any other period of our history. This nasty thing that Eve Frame did was typical of lots of nasty things people did those years, either because they had to or because they felt they had to. Eve’s behavior fell within the routine informer practices of the era. When before had betrayal ever been so destigmatized and rewarded in this country? It was everywhere during those years, the accessible transgression, the permissible transgression that any American could commit. Not only does the pleasure of betrayal replace the prohibition, by you transgress without giving up your moral authority. You retain your purity at the same time as you are patriotically betraying—at the same time as you are realizing a satisfaction that verges on the sexual with its ambiguous components of pleasure and weakness, of aggression and shame: the satisfaction of undermining. Undermining sweethearts. Undermining rivals. Undermining friends. Betrayal is in the same zone of perverse and illicit and fragmented pleasure. An interesting, manipulative, underground type of pleasure in which there is much that a human being finds appealing.

I’m not sure about the comparison with sex but I think that Roth’s reflection on the personal motivation of people who were informers and betrayed acquaintances, family or colleagues quite interesting. It is applicable to other contexts as well, the Occupation in France, or the wide network of informers the Stasi had in the DDR. In a way, it brings us back to the first statement Roth makes: there is no such thing as natural brotherhood, otherwise this betrayal behavior wouldn’t have spread in the society as fast as the Spanish influenza.

I have not done extensive researches on the period. I can’t tell if Roth exaggerates or not and if the witch hunt infiltrated the society as much as he pictures it. I’m not here to say if he’s right or wrong. I do think that I Married a Communist tackles a difficult topic and Roth approaches it through different angles that give an interesting vision of it. He develops a consistent analysis of the phenomenon through a political, historical and philosophical perspective. And the multi-disciplinary approach is commendable in itself.

 

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth Part I

October 19, 2015 28 comments

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth (1998) French title: J’ai épousé un communiste.

You have to take your hat off to life for the techniques at its disposal to strip a man of his significance and empty him totally of his pride.

Roth_CommunistI read I Married a Communist in August but didn’t have time to sit down and spend the necessary time to write about it. It is part of the Nathan Zuckerman series, where the narrator is Nathan Zuckerman, a Jew from Newark, born in 1933. He’s Roth’s doppelgänger. Nathan is now 64 and he spends several evenings with Murray Ringold, an old man who was his literature teacher in high school. Murray had a younger brother, Ira, and Nathan befriended him when he was a teenager. Ira is dead now and Murray is willing to tell Nathan what happened to Ira, how he died.

In this volume, Roth continues his exploration of America, while unveiling a bit more about Nathan and telling us a story. Grand fictional story, great coming-of-age soul-searching and great state-of-the-nation stuff: an all-in-one novel. I’m afraid I’ll have to write three billets to only scratch the surface of the thought-provoking material Roth put in his novel.

Murray and Ira were born in a poor family, with neglecting parents. Murray got out of it through school and a lot of studying. Ira was a wild one, hanging out with the mob, full of violent energy and unable to sit in school and learn. He did a lot of odd jobs, went away to war and met a Communist, Johnny O’Day. This man shaped Ira’s mind into Communism. When he came home, Ira started to support “progressive” political causes. He also had the physique to impersonate Lincoln and his shows led him into working for the radio in New York. It is there that he met Eve Frame, a former star from silent cinema. Eve had already been married twice, and not to standard men. One was a closeted homosexual and the other was violent. She has a daughter from her first marriage, Sylphid. When she marries Ira, Sylphid is already grown-up, she’s a musician and plays the harp.

Ira and Eve get married but their honeymoon is short lived. Two damaged souls can’t always heal each other, their worlds don’t mesh well and Sylphid hates Ira. He’s a roughneck and she’s an artist, on paper, they already are very different and you have a hard time imagining them bonding over anything. They could find a modus vivendi around Eve’s happiness but Eve and Sylphid have an unhealthy relationship. Eve feels guilty for not being a good enough mother. Sylphid exploits that guilt and bullies her mother everyway she can. She first refuses to attend Eve and Ira’s wedding, she picks fights with him and does everything she can to come between them. Ira tries to protect Eve, to put Sylphid in her place but he’s up against Eve’s opposition. She doesn’t welcome his help, she chooses Sylphid’s side.

This domestic hurdle is not the only one in their way to a Hollywood happily-ever-after. Ira and Eve are also involved in the New York radio microcosm. His political views aren’t welcome among Eve’s friends. She’s more looking for recognition from the rich and famous. She’s good friends with the Grants who are ambitious and using the anti-Communist climate of the McCarthy era to fuel their political ambitions. They manipulate Eve; Ira knows it but must be careful around them. He has political views opposite to them and he’s vocal about them in a buoyant, radical way that eradicates any civilized conversation. He’s a zealot of the Communist cause, extreme in his beliefs and Murray says:

By and large I believe he was—another innocent guy co-opted into a system he didn’t understand. Hard to believe that a man who put so much stock in his freedom could let that dogmatizing control his thinking. But my brother abased himself intellectually the same way they all did. Politically gullible. Morally gullible.

He was swallowed by O’Day’s thinking. He needed a father figure, O’Day provided it along with a ready-to-think vision of the world. He gave him a frame to explain the world, a structure to walk through life. Ira needed a system of values and focus; O’Day gave it to him.

Ira is a character larger than life. He’s like a character from a Russian novel: huge, passionate, extreme, violent sometimes, rough and unpredictable. He takes Nathan under his wing, like a little brother he never had or like the son he’d like to have. He settles with Eve and would like a stable family life, the one he envies to Nathan. But Eve is not the woman for that. She doesn’t want another child, she’s in her dysfunctional relationship with Sylphid.

Ira and Eve’s relationship is doomed from the start. He enjoys his rustic cabin in the woods, she enjoys socialite life in New York. They don’t have anything in common and can only end up hurting each other. He’ll do anything he can to hide his belonging to the Communist Party. She’ll betray him and ruin him out of spite.

I know it is said that this side of I Married a Communist was a way for Roth to get back to his ex-wife Claire Bloom for what she wrote about their marriage in her memoirs. I’m going to be harsh but if she exposed their marriage in her memoirs, she knew her novelist of an ex could retaliate. As a strong defender of one’s privacy, I dislike the display of personal lives on the public forum. I think that Churchill’s or Saint-Simon’s memoirs are worth reading because they had positions that made them invaluable witnesses to historical events. I’m not sure Claire Bloom’s memoirs are indispensable to the world, unless to satisfy the masses’ curiosity about Hollywood and do dirty laundry in a public wash house. To be honest, I don’t care about the personal material that went into the ingredients of this novel. All I see is a great piece of literature and I’m glad I read it blind to this ugly controversy.

Part II will be about the state-of-the-nation-side of the novel

Part III will be about the coming-of-age side of the novel.

Politics, literature, Philip Roth…And me

August 8, 2015 10 comments

“Politics is the great generalizer,” Leo told me, “and literature the great particularizer, and not only are they in a inverse relationship to each other –they are in an antagonistic relationship. To politics, literature is decadent, soft, irrelevant, boring, wrongheaded, dull, something that makes no sense and that really oughtn’t be. Why? Because the particularizing impulse is literature. How can you be an artist and renounce the nuance? But how can you be a politician and allow the nuance? As an artist, the nuance is your task. Your task is not to simplify. Even should you choose to write in the simplest way, à la Hemingway, the task remains to impart the nuance, to elucidate the complication, to imply the contradiction. Not to erase the contradiction, not to deny the contradiction, but to see where, within the contradiction, lies the tormented human being. To allow for the chaos, to let it in. You must let it in. Otherwise you produce propaganda, if not for a political party, a political movement, then stupid propaganda for life itself –for life as it might itself prefer to be publicized. During the first five, six years of the Russian Revolution the revolutionaries cried, ‘Free love, there will be free love!’ But once they were in power, they couldn’t permit it. Because what is free love? Chaos. And they didn’t want chaos,. That isn’t why they made their glorious revolution. They wanted something carefully disciplined, organized, contained, predictable scientifically, if possible. Free love disturbs the organization, their social and political and cultural machine. Art also disturbs the organization. Literature disturbs the organization. Not because it is blatantly for or against, or even subtly for or against. It disturbs the organization because it is not general. The intrinsic nature of the particular is to be particular, and the intrinsic nature of particularity is to fail to conform. Generalizing suffering: there is Communism. Particularizing suffering: there is literature. In that polarity is the antagonism. Keeping the particular alive in a simplifying, generalizing world –that’s where the battle is joined. You do not have to write to legitimize Communism, and you do not have to write to legitimize capitalism. You are out of both. If you are a writer, you are as unallied to the one as you are to the other. Yes, you see differences, and of course you see that this shit is a little better than that shit, or that that shit is a little better than that shit. Maybe much better. But you see the shit. You are not a government clerk. You are not a militant. You are not a believer. You are someone who deals in a very different way with the world and what happens in the world. The militant introduces a faith, a big relief that will change the world and the artist introduces a product that has no place in that world. It’s useless. The artist, the serious writer, introduces into the world something that wasn’t there even at the start. When God made all this stuff in seven days, the birds, the rivers, the human beings, he didn’t have ten minutes for literature. ‘And then there will be literature. Some people will like it, some people will be obsessed by it, want to do it…’ No. No. He did not say that. If you had asked God then, ‘There will be plumbers?’ ‘Yes, there will be. Because they will have houses, they will need plumbers.’ ‘There will be doctors?’ ‘Yes. Because they will get sick, they will need doctors to give them some pills.’ ‘And literature?’ ‘Literature? What are you talking about? What use does it have? Where does it fit in? Please, I am creating a universe, not a university. No literature.’”

Philip Roth, I Married a Communist

And this is why some politicians despise literature, why I’ll never be a member of a political party, a political organization or a union. I’m not an artist, I’m not a writer but I’m on the side of the artist, of the writer. I want to see the particular, I want to see the shit, I want to frolic in the grand uselessness of literature.

Old age and literary immortality

July 14, 2012 40 comments

Exit Ghost by Philip Roth. 2004 French title: Exit le fantôme.

I was learning at seventy-one what it is to be deranged. Proving that self-discovery wasn’t over after all. Proving that the drama that is associated usually with the young as they fully begin to enter life – with adolescents, with young men like the steadfast captain in The Shadow-Line—can also startle and lay siege to the aged (including the aged resolutely armed against all drama), even as circumstances readies them for departure.

Maybe the most potent discoveries are reserved for last.

Exit Ghost is our Book Club choice for July. I’ve already read several Roths, The Plot Against America, Portnoy’s Complaint, The Human Stain and The Breast.  Exit Ghost is the last of the Nathan Zuckerman series, Roth’s literary doppelgänger.

In Exit Ghost, Zuckerman Zuckerman has been living like a hermit in Berkshire for the last ten years. – Note to self: there seem to be an American myth about hermit authors writing books in cabins in remote parts of the country. A Thoreau syndrome? Like a French poet is maudit or is not? So Zuckerman has been working, reading and staying away from newspapers and public life for a solid decade. He’s seventy-one, had a prostate cancer ten years ago and has been incontinent and impotent since his prostatectomy. He’s now returning to New York to see a famous urologist and have collagen injection in his bladder in the hope to regain some control over it. Back to New York, he’s caught up with city life and finds himself excited by the prospect of living again a normal life, ie without wearing plastic briefs and changing urine pads.

In the country, there was nothing tempting my hope. I had made peace with my hope. But when I came to New York, in only hours New York did what it does to people – awakened the possibilities. Hope breaks out.

His past life springs to his face when he comes across Amy Bellette in the hospital. She has a brain tumor and no longer looks like the young woman she used to be. Zuckerman first met her in the 1950s, when she was Lonoff’s lovely lover. Lonoff is one of Zuckerman’s favourite writers. Then our hero comes through an ad in a newspapers for a home swap; a young couple of writers, Billy and Jamie want to spend a year in the country and Zuckerman is up for spending a year in New York. He meets them and feels attracted by Jamie in a romantic way that seemed to belong to his past more than to his present or future. After he bought used copies of Lonoff’s work in a bookshop, he is contacted by Kliman, a young writer who intends to write Lonoff’s biography and pretends to have a copy of his unfinished novel and to know juicy details of his past life.

While the first part of the book explores old age and how it blows human dignity with a sledge hammer, the second part is stressed on Zuckerman’s reaction to young Kliman willing to write a biography of his literary hero Lonoff. In the first part, Roth describes the physical decline of his characters, both Zuckerman and Amy. I found these passages very poignant: Zuckerman’s problems with his bladder, how he feels that his memory is failing him, that sooner or later he won’t be able to write any more. He also depicts his coming back to New York and the changes in America: the cell phones, the women’s clothes. I need to mention that Roth wrote this novel in 2004 and his analysis of the second election of G. W. Bush proves his lucidity and his capacity to analyse the society and events while living them. He’s brilliant when it comes to describing America.

Oddly, Roth joins Maugham in his thought about a writer’s posterity. Indeed, Kliman discovered a scandalous story in Lonoff’s life and intends to use it for Lonoff’s biography. Zuckerman is totally against it, arguing that this will write in stone a certain image of Lonoff, hiding his work while only his literary work matters. In a word, Zuckerman wants that Lonoff’s skeleton remains in its closet just as in Cakes and Ale Ashenden refuses to tell Kear the controversial side of the Driffield he knew.

Both Roth and Maugham deplore that other writers try to create an official vision of a writer. As a biographer they choose the episode of the writer’s life they emphasise, either revealing dirty secrets or concealing them. Kliman argues that his biography will give publicity to Lonoff’s work and that his work won’t be as forgotten as it is now. Kliman wants to bring readers of the biography to Lonoff’s work and Zuckerman is sure that these readers, if they ever decide to read a novel by Lonoff, will read it with the filter of the biography. I agree with Zuckerman/Roth; for example, it is hard to read Céline without thinking about his anti-Semitic outbursts. That’s also why I tend to read things about a writer after reading their book and not before.

And Zuckerman, old and heading to death, feeling his faculties declining, can’t help wondering who will protect his privacy when he’s dead. Who will stop biographers to write his life and impose their imperfect vision of him as the Truth? That’s an intriguing thought. I’m not interested in writers’ biographies. I never read any, I hardly browse through their bio on Wikipedia. In that I’m not a thorough writer. I know reading about a writer’s life helps understanding their work but I don’t like for their personal life to come as a screen between their work and me. I want to start a novel without being prejudiced. Am I Roth’s dream reader? The one who never reads journalists’ reviews, writers interviews or bios? Alas no, I’m a book blogger…

Exit Ghost manages to mix Zuckerman’s different layers of perception. He scrutinises his own fragility and envisions the end of his life. That’s for the “man-size” vision. Then there’s his vision of society, his analysis of contemporary America. That’s the “outside of my garden” layer. The last layer is that of immortality. Can you control your immortality? How do you ensure that your immortality only comes from your work and not from your personal life? Thomas Hardy tried to control his image: he had his wife write his biography and I understand that he prompted most of it to her. Just as Driffield in Maugham’s novel, he organised his immortality. Zuckerman isn’t there yet but he sure wonders what posterity has in store for him.

His conflict with Kliman is also his inner conflict between his lost young self and his current old one. Kliman is the image of what he used to be.

All of us [his generation] are now “no-longers” while the excited mind of Richard Kliman believes that his heart, his knees, his cerebrum, his prostate, his bladder, his bladder sphincter, his everything is indestructible and that he, and he alone, is not in the hands of his cells. Believing this is no soaring achievement for those who are twenty-eight, certainly not if they know themselves to be beckoned by greatness. They are not “no-longers”, losing faculties, losing control, shamefully dispossessed from themselves, marked by deprivation and experiencing the organic rebellion staged by the body against the elderly; they are “not-yets”, with no idea how quickly things turn out another way.

I wonder if Philip Roth is aware that a French Jew wrote a book entitled Au-delà de cette limite votre ticket n’est plus valable and that its ageing character Jacques Rainier is Zuckerman’s older brother with his analysis of the 1973 oil crisis, his erection problems and his immense love for a very young woman. And that this writer committed suicide not to face old age.

As always, I love Roth for his style, his bluntness, his sense of humour, his capacity to turn Zuckerman’s problems into universal issues. There’s no pathos, just thorough and brutal description of someone’s declining health and faculties. Roth’s strength lays in his ability to follow a character’s inner life and every day life in his most intimate details and at the same time to discuss universal issues. Great book.

Brian from Babbling Books read it recently and you can discover his thoughtful review here.

Cover that bosom that I must not see

October 11, 2011 16 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.”

I am the son in the Jewish joke – only it ain’t no joke!

November 10, 2010 17 comments

Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth.

“She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school  I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise”. First sentence of Portnoy’s Complaint and I was already rocking with laughter.

 This book is a written one-man-show. Alexander Portnoy, a Jew, is lying – or so I imagine him – on a sofa in his shrink’s office. He talks, weeps, shouts his life to Doctor Spielvogel, who describes Alex’ disorder as follows: “Portnoy’s Complaint. A disorder in which strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature.”

Portnoy is a very clever Jewish fellow, who, like Philip Roth, grew up in the Jewish neighborhood of Newark, NY. He tries to understand why he is “Thirty-three, and still ogling and daydreaming about every girl who crosses her legs opposite him in the subway” when he should be a perfect Jewish husband and a perfect Jewish father in Newark, as his parents expect him to be.

In a rather disorderly way, he starts relating his childhood and the different relationships he had with women. The narration runs back and forth from the past to the present time. Alex can’t accept the dichotomy between his social identity and his internal identity. Socially, he is the lawyer, the knight of poor, illiterate and immigrant people in their relationship with the administration. He fights inequalities. Personally, he is insecure and obsessed by sex. He suffers from compulsive masturbation and all kinds of inhibitions, coming, he thinks, from his childhood.

“Inhibition doesn’t grow on trees, you know – takes patience, takes concentration, takes a dedicated and self-sacrificing parent and a hard-working attentive little child to create in only a few years’ time a really constrained and tight-ass human being.”

He thus tries to decipher where his temper comes from through analyzing his childhood. He describes how his mother hovers over his every move and thought. He portrays his father as a worried insurance collector. “Why his head aches him all the time, is of course because he is constipated all the time – why he is constipated is because ownership of his intestinal tract is in the hands of the firm of Worry, Fear & Frustration”. Like every child, he has recriminations against his parents but he loves them and he is lucid enough to acknowledge: “All the faults come from the parents, right, Alex, what’s wrong, they did – what’s good, you accomplished all on your own!”

Little by little, Alex unknits the course of events that brought him here, in that doctor’s office. He just ended one-year relationship with a woman he nicknamed “The Monkey” in a cruel manner: as he abandoned her in a hotel in Greece, in the middle of their vacation. She’s as horny as he is, very attractive and prone to any of his sexual fantasies. They get along really well and are “The perfect couple: she puts the id back in Yid, I put the oy back in goy.” When she starts thinking about marriage, Alex freaks out. He is ashamed of her, who wears inappropriate sexy clothes at a Mayor’s reception and can’t spell words properly. He loves her though, she suits him but she’s not educated enough, not respectable enough to be presented to his family. She’s no marriage material. Put in front of the Cornelian dilemma of looking for a perfectly well-bred woman who would consider dirty to give him a blow-job or face his family and friends and impose his preference, he runs from the Monkey and ends up in the shrink’s office. Isn’t that splendid irony to be Jewish and have the typically Christian ‘whore or saint’ problem with women?

The sexual problem is just a pretext to comical effects. It brings light and funny but doesn’t erase Alex’ genuine internal mayhem or the underlying analysis of what it was to be a Jew born in the 1930s in America.

I enjoyed reading about life in this Jewish neighborhood that I had already discovered in The Plot Against America. Like the first time, I was surprised to read how self-sufficient they were, as if they had re-created a ghetto. The goyish world looks like another country in Alex’ eyes. He spies on WASPS houses, wonders how they live behind those curtains. His description of his first days in a goyish house reminded me of my first holidays abroad, in a Welsh family, a mixture of familiar and foreign. As a Jew, he sides with all the other immigrants and feels inferior to wasps. His parents don’t speak English properly or use Yiddish words. There’s an anecdote about not knowing at school the English word for ‘spatula’ which sounded like family stories from my mother telling an Italian word to her grammar school teacher for a mundane every day life instrument, because she hadn’t realized the word she knew was not a French one.

This quote “Yes, the only people in the world whom it seems to me the Jews are not afraid of are the Chinese. Because, one, the way they speak English makes my father sound like Lord Chesterfield; two, the insides of their heads are so much fired rice anyway; and three, to them we are not Jews but white – and maybe even Anglo-Saxon. Imagine!” reminded me what I heard on the radio the other day: Frenchmen with origins from Morocco or Algeria enjoy living in London because in the eyes of the British, they are just French people who speak English with a French accent. Alex feels like a foreigner is his own country.

Along with the description of a Jewish environment, Portnoy’s Complaint is also about how it feels to have such a brilliant mind that you get a scholarship to study in an Ivy League University and reach the upper social class. Alex never feels at ease in his new world, he doesn’t have the same background. He doesn’t know the customs but he tries to adapt.

 Let’s talk about the style of this book. It is all spoken language, with a lot of slang words. Ladies and Gentlemen! I have an announcement to make: I’m positive, the kindle dictionary doesn’t include all the American slang words available describe human genitals. I’ve tested it for you, I had to go back to my paper dictionary. Very educational. I probably missed play-on-words, but I’m glad I’ve read it in English anyway. I wonder: Doctor Spielvogel, which means “Toy-bird” or “Play-bird” in German, is that a sexual innuendo? Or did this book just give my mind a wrong twist?

 There would be a lot to say about this book, published in 1967 and probably one of the firsts on such a subject. It’s equally entertaining and deep. I have a request for you, Mr Roth: Could you write a book where Arturo Bandini and Alexander Portnoy compare their mothers, their lives as non-WASPS, their political ideas and their ways to atheism? They could be drinking beers in an atheist heaven of your choice – not in one of those Floridian ghettos for senior citizens, please, none of them could stand it. They would sit in a smoky bar and tell each other anecdotes, share their Freudian issues and talk about women. That could be huge fun, but hurry up, because after that, I’d like Woody Allen to shoot a film version of your book.

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