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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"American Pastoral" by Philip Roth

The protagonist of Philip Roth's "American Pastoral" should be listed as one of the great tragic figures of American literature.  Seymour "Swede" Levov is a literary character like many people I have met throughout my life.  His story is complex inasmuch as we understand quiet suffering and normalcy bias to be complex--like the type of people who come across as if nothing ever happened in their lives other than perfect success.  Internally, however, the story is incomprehensibly tragic.  As a young man, "Swede" Levov is Newark's super athlete, a young man whose success in the baseball/football field and basketball court is both record-setting and instant legend.  The Jewish community looks up to him as a cultural savior, and showers him with admiration often reserved for professionals or politicians.  "Swede" doesn't let it get to his head, the narrator tell us, and his calm demeanor, patient and collected posture assures everyone that his future is to be one full of success and greatness.

The narrative is driven by the voice of Nathan Zuckerman, the famous Roth protagonist/character.  Zuckerman is a few years younger than the "Swede" and looks up to him, admiring him just like everyone else in Newark.  But the years pass, and when "Swede" Levov and Nathan Zuckerman meet again, Zuckerman appears as a harsh critic, condemning Levov's seemingly "perfect" life.  Zuckerman seems to think that "Swede's" life was too bland, nothing that happened after his athletic career came to an end (military and business success, marries the beauty queen, etc.) is good enough in the eyes of the narrator.  Zuckerman walks away feeling that the famous "Swede" turned into a bland, mere mortal, not a fitting end to a figure of mythical proportion.  Later in the story, Zuckerman finds out what ails the "Swede" from Jerry Levov ("Swede's" brother, his best friend in school).  In addition, the narrative point of view is complex, changing and varying point of views appear throughout.  Zuckerman's criticism of "Swede" is more disappointment than character judgment, so the reader doesn't seem to take a stand either for or against him.  

Historically, the novel takes place through a stretch of years in which America was socially transformed; this adds to the upheaval and confusion the characters experience throughout the narrative.  From World War II years to the chaotic late 1960s/early 1970s, the chronological line doesn't seem that long, but considering the change and mutation of American values over the course of 20 to 25 years it appears as a lifetime.  The "Swede's" life is turned inside out by his daughter Merry, who goes from a sweet, little girl with a speech impediment, to anti-war activist and political terrorist.  Throughout the narrative, the superhuman effort by the "Swede" is to conceal his pain, hold his life together and run his business successfully.  This passage, I believe, carries the real meaning of the novel as it appears not only to "Swede" and Zuckerman, but to anyone whose heart was painfully squeezed by the story: 
"That people were manifold creatures didn't come as a surprise to the Swede, even if it was a bit of a shock to realize it anew when someone let you down.  What was astonishing to him was how people seemed to run out of their own being, run out of whatever people seemed to run out of their own being, run out of whatever the stuff was that made them who they were and, drained of themselves, turn into the sort of people they would once have felt sorry for.  It was as though while their lives were rich and full they were secretly sick of themselves and couldn't wait to dispose of their sanity and their health and all sense of proportion so as to get down to that other self, who was wholly deluded down to that other self, the true self, who was a wholly deluded fuckup.  It was as though being in tune with life was an accident that might sometimes befall the fortunate young but was otherwise something for which human beings lacked any real affinity.  How odd.  And how odd it made him seem to himself to think that he who had always felt blessed to be numbered among the countless who had always felt blessed to be numbered among the countless unembattled normal ones might, in fact, be the abnormality, a stranger from real life because of his being so sturdily rooted."  

"American Pastoral" is not a lineal, traditional narrative.  I can imagine that many readers might feel disappointed by the end of the novel, but the "hold-your-breath-nothing happens" effect is not really what this novel is about.  There's a certain amount of inference required of the reader, not just your run-of-the-mill "trust the author on this one" type of reading, and this might present a challenge to the inexperience Roth reader.  Nevertheless, "American Pastoral" is one of those books whose lessons remain with you, a clear and classic example of how literature can help us understand the raw emotions of life and leave us better for it.

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2 Comments:

At 9:53 AM, OpenID littleboat said...

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At 11:58 AM, Blogger Kagemusha said...

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