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Friday, December 11, 2009

A Philip Roth Festivus -- "The Human Stain," "Everyman" & "Portnoy's Complaint"

Philip Roth has been called a lot of names, some of them not very flattering. Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, even the Jewish community considered him persona non-grata for his irreverence of all things Jewish. He not only pushed the envelope, he redesigned it and used it for things so outrageous, they are better left to the imagination. On the other hand, this man writes with such power that once a chapter heats up, or even a section of expository brilliance takes off into the air, it is impossible, totally impossible to put the book down. I really have to say, my incursion into Roth's work was limited to reading "Patrimony" about five years ago, but I had heard all about him and his "bad boy" attitude in the world of literature. But I guess when you have won as many Pulitzer and PEN/Faulkner awards (plus a National Medal of Arts and the Gold Medal in Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters) you can pretty much do whatever the hell you want. I know I am prone to hyperbole, but this man is a national treasure. End of argument.

I began with "The Human Stain" while at the hospital last week. Before I knew it, I was almost half way through the novel and had forgotten completely I was in the hospital. It's the amazing story of one Coleman Silk, who passes for white/Jewish through his life, only to end ruined by the same racial dystopia of identification. He becomes a professor of Classics and even Dean of a small college. As Dean, he "cleans up" the house, forcing old professors to retire, challenging others to really work for their tenure, etc. But along the way, he makes a lot of enemies. In the classroom, while taking roll, he happened to call two absent students "spooks," as in ghosts, because the students hadn't shown up to the class at all. It turns out the students were black, and in the highly racial sensitivity of the mid and late 1990s, the incident spelled doom for Silk. There are quite a few beautifully incorporated sub-plots, so masterfully done it is like butter dripping from a hot English muffin (can you tell I love this man?). Since I was not that familiar with Roth's works, I failed, until about half way through the novel, to realized Roth has a series of novels with the narrator, a writer named Zuckerman--these are known as the Zuckerman books. The narrator is compassionate of Silk, and tells the tale with aplomb and even tearful lyricism. I am not in the business of spoiling the plot before you read it, so go get yourself a copy of "The Human Stain" and finish this great masterpiece of literature on your own.

I followed immediately with "Everyman," a slim but masterfully told tale of old age, regret, illness and an examination of death in all its finality. Again, I have been able to appreciate the near perfectness of Roth's lyrical and engaging style. Here's one example from this near perfect novel: "At the realization of all he'd wiped out, on his own and for seemingly no good reason, and what was still worse, against his every intention, against his will--of his harshness toward a brother who had never once been harsh to him, who'd never failed to soothe him and come to his aid, of the effects his leaving their household had had on his children--at the humiliating realization that not only physically had he now diminished into someone he did not want to be, he began striking his chest with his fist, striking in cadence with his self-admonitions, and missing by mere inches his defibrillator. At that moment, he knew far better than Randy and Lonny ever could where he was insufficient. This ordinarily even-tempered man stuck furiously at his heart like some fanatic at prayer, and, assailed by remorse not just for this mistake but for all his mistakes, all the ineradicable, stupid, inescapable mistakes--swept away by the misery of his limitations yet acting as if life's every incomprehensible contingency were of his making.... " This type of passage--the novel is filled with them--just begs to make one continue reading. This type of passage just tells the reader, "here... come this way... I've got an engaging story to tell. It's addictive, really, the style, the content, the syntax, all of it. "Everyman" ends just where the protagonist ends: in death. As an allegory of what is to come, Roth couldn't have done a better job at plugging in the ultimate message of his novel. It's beyond brilliance, really.

I am simply a few pages into "Portnoy's Complaint," but I was warned by a good friend--a Roth expert--that I was going in for a ride that (perhaps he knowing me well) will go from good, to bad, to outrageous, to irreverent, and to test my capacity for temperance and sobriety (not of the alcoholic type). At any rate, I can see clearly that this is not a book that I would teach to my current students. Hopefully, I will be finished with it before long, and start with Miklos Vamos' "The Book of Fathers."

Happy Hanukkah!

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