14 Oct 2012

Philip Roth and the Human Stain

I have been skirting around reading Philip Roth for some years now. Many have told me how great a writer he is, and I have, in recent years, bought a couple of his books with the firm intention of starting one day. But I had shirked before the task, rather like one hesitates before leaping off the high diving board into a swimming pool. Such hesitation can be fatal, especially when prolonged, so I have finally taken the plunge. I did so a week ago, with his novel entitled "The Human Stain", which was first published in 2001.

The opportunity of considerable reading hours was provided by a transatlantic air journey, from Paris to Philadelphia, with its inevitable cohort of queues, hanging around for connections, and quite a few solid hours sitting above the Atlantic. Having started it in the waiting zone before leaving, without so intending I finished the book at the precise moment at which my plane touched down at Paris CdG on my return journey. I felt that, in a way, I had been totally immersed in the world Roth creates in this book for my whole trip.

All I can say (at least to start with) is that Roth easily lives up to his reputation. The Human Stain is one of the most remarkable and gripping books that I have read for a long time.

I hesitate to list the vital topics that he touches upon in this book as they are so numerous: friendship, betrayal, race, pretention, frustrated love, jealousy, admiration, sexual passion, violence, the lasting effects of war, family relationships, forgiving, forgetting, not forgetting, concealing the truth...the list goes on. And he tells a story, with all its twists and turns, handled as a suspense, with his characters taking shape clearly at times and then changing, moving out of focus for a while, ever shifting in the kaleidoscope of their lives.

In  addition, Roth occasionally lets go in a couple major rants about the contemporary (he was writing this in the late 1990's) social, political and media scene and what it reveals about his country, the USA. He does this through the first person figure in the book, who is named as the writer, Zuckerman, a recurrent character in his books and, I imagine, himself. I will give you an extract from one of these in a minute.

But let's start with the beginning, which is the quotation that Roth inserts in the fly-leaf of his book. This is from Sophocles' play Oedipus the King:

Oedipus: What is the rite of purification? How shall it be done?
Creon: By banishing a man, or expiation of blood on blood...

This sets the main theme of the book and enlightens the chosen title: The Human Stain.

The first chapter of The Human Stain is entitled "Everyone knows". It immediately made me think of the Leonard Cohen song, "Everybody knows". The link, through title and words, is quite appropriate, although perhaps fortuitous.


In this first chapter, the literary fireworks start pretty soon, with the author's diatribe against the hypocrisy and self-righteousness that washed over America during the Clinton/Lewinsky episide in 1998. Here is a slice for you:

"It was the summer in America when the nausea returned, when the joking didn't stop, when the specualtion and the theorizing and the hyperbole didn't stop, when the moral obligation to explain to one's children about adult life was abrogated in favor of maintaining in them every illusion about adult life, when the smallness of people was simply crushing, when some kind of demon had been unleashed in the nation and, on both sides, people wondered "Why are we so crazy?", when men and women alike, upon awakening in the morning, discovered that during the night, in a state of sleep that transported them beyond envy or loathing, they had dreamed of a mammoth banner, draped dadaistically like a Christo wrapping from one end of the White House to the other and bearing a legend A HUMAN BEING LIVES HERE. It was the summer when - for the billionth time- the jumble, the mayhem, the mess proved itself more subtle than this one's ideology and that one's morality. It was the summer when a president's penis was on everyone's mind, and life, in all its shameless impirity, once again confounded America."  

The intricacies of the themes, the subtlety of the characters, the power of the writing and the plot of The Human Stain should perhaps not be recounted in articles like this. It is far, far more than a succession of passages of brilliant writing like the above. The Human Stain is a deeply moving and questioning book, often funny, often sad: like a mirror held up to life. I will be reading more of Philip Roth's work very soon. I heard that Roth has recently declared that he is now finished with writing. Perhaps understandable. At least I have a lot of catching-up to do as there must be another 25 novels by him that I have yet to read.

Read on ......