Thursday, January 8, 2015
Catching Up with Philip Roth, 2
As visitors to this site know, I've been spending the past few months "catching up" with prolific writers whose works I have now and then neglected to read. I caught Joyce Carol Oates not long ago (well, her novels, anyway--not the rest), and I've been reading Philip Roth in recent weeks--grateful (in one way only--a selfish way) that he has retired, unlike Oates, who's still writing prolifically--and wonderfully. She's a phenomenon. And it's hard to keep up with a phenomenon.
The image at the top of the page, by the way, is from the recent PBS documentary about Roth--a very fine one--called Philip Roth: Unmasked, from Aug. 2013 (link to the PBS site--it's available on Netflix streaming, too).
In the last couple of weeks I've finished three of his books: Sabbath's Theater (1995), The Breast (1972), and (just yesterday) The Professor of Desire (1977).
I liked the last the best. It tells the story of the young manhood of David Kepesh, who becomes a literature professor with some ... issues (no surprise in Roth: they're issues of sexual desire). But there is a very human heart pulsing at the center of this tale, and among the redemptive qualities of Kepesh's (and he's not exactly loaded with them) are these: he loves his parents; he loves teaching literature; he wants to be able to love a woman--and stay with her (he has one horrendous failure at this in the novel).
On Facebook the other day, I typed some of the comments Kepesh made about why he loves the teaching of literature, and I'm going to put the whole thing at the bottom of this post--if you're interested.
Anyway, at the end of the novel, he's terrified that he's going to fall out of love with the young woman he's currently with--Claire--a young woman who appears to have no flaws, physical or otherwise. (He wonders--my words--If I can't love her, am I incapable of love?) And he also fears the death of his father (his mother is already gone). The final passage of the book--which I will not reproduce here (read the book--and you'll cry at the end, I am certain)--is among Roth's best endings--and he is a master of terminal paragraphs and sentences.
Even a book I didn't enjoy so much--Sabbath's Theater--has a powerful final sentence. This novel is about a "forgotten puppeteer," Mickey Sabbath, and his sexual obsession with Drenka, another man's wife and father of a son who's a cop (hmmmm, see any difficulties on the horizon?).
Sabbath is about as randy a character as you'll encounter in American literature: His entire mental life, it seems, involves sex: memories, plans, regrets (not many), sorrows (he's old now ... no more sex?). I guess I just grew tired of it all--felt it was overlong and overwrought. Stylistcally, it's a wonder, though--how Roth easily moves about in time, as if it were his personal wading pool.
The Breast, which also features David Kepesh, is perhaps the oddest book (a novella--and a short one) ever published by a major American writer.
In it, Kepesh begins feeling ... strange. Goes to a doctor. And soon realizes what's (impossibly) happening: He's begun a physical transformation into a woman's breast. That's right: He becomes a breast--an unattached one. He stays in the hospital (duh), where other people visit (his father, Claire, his shrink) and where he is--as you might imagine--a subject of some curiosity to members of the medical profession. I enjoyed the mental travels he took trying to figure out what's going on--and why. He wonders, for example, if his interest in literature had a role: "Did fiction do this to me? ... I loved the extreme in literature ..." (Lib of Amer ed., 637-8).
So ... Roth gives you a little bit of everything--and often takes you deep into your Discomfort Zone--a journey which I never look forward to, really, but which, later, I am (almost) always grateful I've taken.
The excerpt from The Professor Desire ... comments Kepesh has planned to deliver to his university class ...
I love teaching literature. I am rarely ever so contented as when I am here with my pages of notes, and my marked-up texts, and with people like yourselves. To my mind there is nothing quite like the classroom in all of life. Sometimes when we are in the midst of talking--when one of you, say, has pierced with a single phrase right to the heart of the book at hand--I want to cry out, "Dear friends, cherish this!" Why? Because once you have left her people are rarely, if ever, going to talk to you or listen to you the way you talk and listen to one another and to me in this bright and barren little room. Nor is it likely that you will easily find opportunities elsewhere to speak without embarrassment about what has mattered most to men as attuned to life's struggles as were Tolstoy, Mann, and Flaubert. I doubt that you know how very affecting it is to hear you speak thoughtfully and in all earnestness about solitude, illness, longing, loss, suffering, delusion, hope, passion, love, terror, corruption, calamity, and death ... moving because you are nineteen and twenty years old, from comfortable middle-class homes most of you, and without much debilitating experience in your dossiers yet--but also because, oddly, and sadly, this may be the last occasion you will ever have to reflect in any sustained and serious way upon the unrelenting forces with which in time you will all contend, like it or not (Lib of Amer edition, 812-13).