Scenes from a Professoriate

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I wrote the other day of my disillusionment with John Updike--that despite his truly amazing technical aplomb with words, I found much of his fiction sterile and pointless. That is NOT to say that it is sterile and pointless, but rather that I am not the right person to find the point of an Updike tale.

I used to think the same of Philip Roth. Perhaps even more of Philip Roth because it seemed to me that he was so singly focused on one aspect of the human condition. And perhaps that is because the aspect of his focus is of particular interest, and Roth engages in it with a lustiness that certainly takes the timid New England adulterer and turns him on his head.

But, perhaps what I need to learn to do is to read properly, and to ignore the overtly offensive, understanding that my offense is really a measure of my resistance.

Take this passage from Roth:

from The Professor of Desire
Philip Roth

What little spirit smolders on in me during the last months of the marriage is visible only in class; otherwise I am so affectless and withdrawn that a rumor among the junior faculty members has me "under sedation." Ever since the approval of my dissertation I have been teaching along with the freshman course "Introduction to Fiction," two sections of the sophomore survey in "general" literature. During the weeks near the end of the term when we study Chekhov's stories, I find, while reading aloud to my students passages which I particular want them to take note of, that each and every sentence seems to me to allude to my own plights above all, as though by now every single syllable I think or utter must first trickle down through my troubles. And then there are my classroom daydreams, as plentiful suddenly as they are irrepressible, and so obviously inspired by longings for miraculous salvation--reentry into lives I lost long ago, reincarnation as a being wholly unlike myself--that I am even somewhat grateful to be depressed and without anything like the will power to set even the mildest fantasy in motion.

"I realized that when you love you must either, in your reasoning about that love, start from what is higher, more important than happiness or unhappiness, sin or virtue in their usual meaning, or you must not reason at all." I ask my students what's meant by these lines, and while they tell me, notice that in a far corner of the room, the poised, soft-spoken girl who is my most inteeligent, my prettiest--and my most bored and arrogant--student is finishing off a candy bar and a Coke for lunch.

You must read the rest for yourself. But what is here is beautifully, roundly written, with sentences that roll and flow out, filling up and expanding, meaning at first little, but when reread, becoming more revealing, more inviting, more explanatory of the difficulty of David Kepesh. And while these difficulties are more often than not spelled out in the sexual relations of Mr. Kepesh, they stem from a deeper source, an unexamined stream--a place that Mr. Kepesh, to this point at least, refuses to go and refuses to see.

What evolves is an amazingly convoluted, but full portrait of a man in his dissatisfaction. And while one might expect such a portrait to be depressing, perhaps to weigh one day more than it ought--this never seems to happen. Mr. Roth by the power of language alone, carries us along and amuses us. Indeed, this story at least is by turns amusing and dark--and the wonderful point is that the amusement itself is rarely dark. It stems in part for the realization that they people Roth writes about are much like ourselves--that we all (men that is--I can't imagine that Roth's writing has much appeal for women) live in much the same unexamined way. Oh, those of us who are introspective selectively examine the faults and virtues we wish to acknowledge. But we are actually like that overstuffed closet that, when the door opens, we struggle and struggle to push everything back in and seal the door behind it. We can never completely seal the door and the next time it bursts open, we're back in the mess. And there is something delightfully lifelike and refreshing to find others in similar predicaments, although not necessarily for exactly the same reasons.

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I love Roth, but find that I have to take fairly long breaks between reading his books. Even then, the images and language tends to really stick in my head. If I read too many in too short a time, Roth manages to push out a lot of the other language that normally floats around in my head, which is a sign of what a good writer he is.

Dear Erik,

You are so right. I was composing something this morning or last evening and found myself falling into the rhythms of these hypnotic sentences. I have never much cared for Roth, having only completed two books, but with the present read, I feel like a different light bulb switched on, and I'm hearing on a completely different, much less disorienting frequency.





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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on September 11, 2009 7:45 AM.

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