‘The Human Stain’ by Philip Roth

roth_human_stain

2000, 361p.

This book opens with two affairs. The first, that “everybody knows” about is that of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, an affair forever imprinted on my mind with the memory of his pointy, reddened face and jabbing finger as he declared that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman”. I’m glad that through her really-worth-watching TedX talk, Monica has left the blue dress and “that woman” behind. But with Trump’s “grab ‘em by the pussy” and now the accusations against Biden, it feels as if this ghastly American reality-show just keeps on going.

The second affair, the focus of this book, is between Coleman Silk, retired Classics professor and Faunia Farley, an illiterate cleaner half his age. Perhaps ‘affair’ is the wrong word: Silk is a widower, Faunia has fled a violent marriage, and they are both consenting adults. But Coleman Silk is already a disgraced man, as far as his employment at Athena College is concerned, from which he resigned in the aftermath of controversy over using the term ‘spooks’ to refer to two students who had never turned up to class. Although he was asking whether the students were invisible phantoms, ‘spooks’ had also, as a subsidiary, less-used meaning, a racist derogatory connotation as a term for African Americans. In what Silk (and Roth, for that matter) see as “political correctness gone mad”, Delphine Roux, a fellow academic in the humanities faculty, advocates for the young female student referred to as a ‘spook’, and then later for Faunia Farley whom she sees as the victim in an uneven power relatioinship.

Sex, race and religion are fracture lines in many societies, and in America in particular – and especially in its politics- they verge on being obsessions. Coleman Silk, successful, white Jewish professor, is not what he appears and in this book, the narrator Nathan Zuckerman, who appears in many of Roth’s books, decides to tell Silk’s story and reveal his secrets. Keeping secrets always has a cost, and in this book, Silk and his family carry the burden, in some cases even without knowing.

I have a love/hate relationship with Philip Roth. I can see the virtuosity of his writing but it is so wordy, so excessive. Sentences stretch on for a whole page and it is as if the narrative is being shouted at you. The fact that chapters go on at length doesn’t help. Too much, too much.

There’s a swaggering maleness about his writing, and the constant presence of sex as a prism for viewing the world makes me feel uncomfortable. In this book, Roth’s own conservatism is quite clear as, through Coleman, he fulminates against post-modernism, literary theory, education standards, affirmative action, political correctness and hypocrisy. But Roth also needles those sore points of present-day American society so acutely: the freedom to invent yourself, the American Dream, Jewishness in American society, sexuality, Vietnam and the biggest one of all, race. He’s brilliant. He’s insufferable. And somehow, he manages to do all these things in a very American, male, ‘look at me’ way that, almost despite yourself, demands that you do.

My rating: 8.5

Sourced from: CAE book groups.

One response to “‘The Human Stain’ by Philip Roth

  1. What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed!

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