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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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Sunday, March 01, 2015

"Boredom" by Alberto Moravia

"Boredom" by Alberto Moravia is one of those novels that remains undetected until a big series of republications bleeps it out into the literary radars.  I picked it up at Barnes & Noble for $4.95 in a reprint from the New York Review of Books "classics" series.  I wasn't planning on reading it but after finishing "The Anthologist" by Nicholson Baker I sort of fell into the "drone" of the hyper-introspective male narrator voice, and wanted more of the same highly intellectual, philosophical, hair-splitting story-telling.

The story revolves around a middle-aged artist who has decided not to paint.  He is filled with boredom, which he describes as his inability to have any connection to real things.  Most of the novel revolves around the definition of boredom with the action and descriptive pull of the story as the fuel to that drive for definition.  He becomes involved with a young model named Cecilia and uses her as a laboratory rat for his "travels" in and out of boredom.  What he doesn't count on is her extreme elusiveness.  The young woman is a master of the art of lying, and the long stretches of conversation among them (more like interrogations by the jealous artist) are an example of amazing artistry on the part of Moravia.  Here, as in the many long passages on the nature of "boredom," Moravia "splits hairs" about the seemingly most insignificant matters, but at the same time revealing the intellectual pleasure of delving deep into psychological and philosophical matters that otherwise would appear, well, boring (no pun intended) on the page.  The narrator eventually finds out that the young model is being "unfaithful" to him with another man, an actor named Luciani.  The narrator's drive to find out the truth appears to him as a deterrent to his boredom, but unfortunately it is entirely the contrary. The entire definition/redefinition/classification and reclassification of the story elements make the narrator appear as a very confused chess player trying in vain to make sense of a irrational match.


The narrator does not know where to find the truth, and even as his own eyes appear to deceive him, he resorts to his obsessive thought-process.  But the only thing of which I was not capable was resigning myself to Cecilia's elusiveness, accepting it, and, in short, calmly sharing her favors with Luciani.... so did I seek to console myself by telling myself that, while I knew that Cecilia went to bed with the actor, the latter did not know that she went to bed with me.  In other words, I now found myself, in relation to Luciani, more or less in the position of a lover in relation to an ignorant husband, and no lover was ever jealous of a husband, precisely because knowing, in certain cases, means possessing and not knowing means not possessing.  It was a wretched consolation, but it helped me to pass the time with calculations of the following kind: I knew about Luciani and Luciani did not know about me, consequently Cecilia had been unfaithful to him with me and not to me with him.  Finally there was the question of the money, as there had been with Balestrieri: I gave her money and Luciani not merely did not give her any but spent my money with her; therefore she was making me, not him, pay her, and consequently was in a way unfaithful to him with me.  However, it was not impossible that she was going with Luciani for love and with me for money, therefore she was being unfaithful to me with Luciani.  But Cecilia attributed no importance to money.  Money therefore had perhaps a sentimental significance between her and me, and since the actor did not give her any money, perhaps she was being unfaithful to Luciani with me.  And so on, ad infinitum."  

While the plot runs throughout with passages very much like this one, the novel is driven by a subtle amount of action that does not interrupt the inquisitive stream of consciousness-like thought process of the narrator.  This is where I believe the artistry of the novel resides... Moravia is able to (much like Nicholson Baker in "The Anthologist") straddle that line between the useless "hair-splitting" and the philosophical examination and get it down on paper in a very pure state.  To engage the reader at that level, and to get readers to continue passing the page while at the same time putting down these type of passages of deeply introspective ruminations that could potentially bore the average reader... well, to do that and to do it well is art exemplified.

There is no real revelation for the protagonist/narrator at the end.  Yet, having said that, this novel drives itself by the mere force of its art and its amazing depiction of the obsessive human mind at work.  Perhaps that is exactly where the core of existence resides... that we may struggle for meaning and definition while the continued examination never really ends.  "Boredom" is Alberto Moravia's "Ulysses" but with a far better and more traditional plot.

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