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On The Breast: An Interview

Alan Lelchuk: I’d like to ask about the origins of The Breast. How do you account for the idea itself? Do you think this is a strange or unusual book for you to have written? Do you see any connection between The Breast and your previous work, or do you consider it a work really a little out of your line?

Philip Roth: When I think back over my work, it seems to me that I’ve frequently written about what Bruno Bettelheim calls “behavior in extreme situations.” Or perhaps until The Breast what I’ve written about most has been extreme behavior in ordinary situations. From the beginning, at any rate, I seem to have concerned myself with men and women whose moorings have been cut, and who are swept away from their native shores and out to sea, sometimes on a tide of their own righteousness or resentment. For instance, in an early story, “The Conversion of the Jews,” a little Jewish boy finds himself playing God on a synagogue roof; now he may not be in such dire straights as Kepesh in The Breast, but he is certainly in a new and surprising relationship with his everyday self, his family and his friends. Lucy Nelson in When She Was Good, Gabe Wallach and Paul Herz in Letting Go, Alex Portnoy in Portnoy’s Complaint—all are people living beyond their psychological and moral means; it isn’t a matter of sinking or swimming—they have, as it were, to invent the crawl.

Kepesh’s predicament is similar—with a difference: his unmooring can’t be traced (much to his own dismay, too) to psychological, social, or historical causes. I myself think that his is the most awful case of human aloneness that I’ve ever depicted, and that his longing to be one again with his fellows and his old self is far more poignant and harrowing than Lucy Nelson’s or Portnoy’s. Those two characters, at the same time that they have yearnings for a more normal and settled existence, are hell-bent on maintaining their isolation with all the rage and wildness in their arsenals. They are two very stubborn American children, locked in eternal (and, to my mind, prototypical) combat with the beloved enemy: the spirited Jewish boy pitted against his mother, the Cleopatra of the kitchen; the solemn Gentile girl pitted against her father, the Bacchus of Hometown, USA. Kepesh strikes me as far more heroic than either of these two; perhaps a man who turns into a breast is the first truly heroic character I’ve ever been able to portray.

A.L.: What problems did you face while writing The Breast? Were there any special pitfalls you worried over while you were at work? Or did the story unfold more or less in a piece?

P.R.: One difficulty in writing a story like this one arises out of the kind of claim you want to make upon the reader’s credulity. What you have to decide—and of course it’s a decision that should be left to the character of one’s talent—is whether to ask the reader to accept the fantastic situation as taking place in the recognizable world (and so respond to the imagined actuality from that vantage point, with that kind of concern) or whether to ignore the matter of belief and move into other imaginative realms entirely—the worlds of dream, hallucination, allegory, nonsense, play, literary self-consciousness, sadism, and so on.

In “The Metamorphosis,” for example, Kafka asserts at the outset that the catastrophe is happening to his hero in the very real and mundane world of families and jobs and bosses and money and housekeepers. If you don’t accept this, if you were to read “The Metamorphosis,” say, as if it were Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman,” and think of Samsa as someone trapped in some sort of insane hallucination, then you would not be on the right wave length to receive the full impact of the story. Kafka doesn’t let you go more than a dozen sentences before he tells you, point-blank, “It was no dream.” On the other hand, Gogol, in “The Nose,” is intermittently provocative and teasing about Kovalev’s misfortune. There is a playful, sadistic imagination back of the story that keeps expressing itself in farcical and satirical turns, and in that way keeps alive and unresolved the question of the story’s “reality.” As Gogol says in the end, maybe it’s only a cock-and-bull story anyway—though then again, maybe not. Clearly he can’t have it both ways, but perverse trickster that he is here (Chichikov-as-writer), that suits him to a T.

I refer to these masters of fantasy here to illustrate differences in approach, not to lay claim to similarities of accomplishment or stature. What I’m getting at is this: in The Breast my own approach to the outlandish seems to me to be something like a blending of the two methods that I’ve just described. I want the reader to accept the fantastic situation as taking place in what we call the real world at the same time that I hope to make the reality of the horror one of the issues of the story. “Is it really happening? Can I believe this?”—the questions that Kafka settles (or suppresses) on the very first page by asserting that the metamorphosis is “no dream,” and that Gogol is so prankish about at the reader’s expense, are absorbed into The Breast by Kepesh himself. Whether it is or isn’t a dream, or a hallucination, or a psychotic delusion, is no small matter to my hero (or to me)—consequently I didn’t choose to render the problem unproblematical by a wave of the author’s magic wand.

Of course, as you know, “The Nose” and “The Metamorphosis” are cited in the story by Kepesh, part of his desperate struggle to make some sense out of what’s happened to him. I thought it was fitting for Kepesh, a serious and dedicated literature professor, to think of Gogol and Kafka when his own horrible transformation occurs; however, it also seemed to me a good idea not to leave it to the reader to speculate on his own about my indebtedness to “The Nose” and “The Metamorphosis,” but instead to make that issue an issue in the fiction. I would even say that The Breast proceeds by attempting to answer the objections and the reservations that might be raised in a skeptical reader by its own fantastic premise. It has the formal design of a rebuttal or a rejoinder, rather than a hallucination or a nightmare. Above all I imagined that it would be in the story’s best interest to try to be straightforward and direct about this bizarre circumstance, and for the protagonist to be no less intelligent than the reader about the implications of his misfortune. No crapola about Deep Meaning; instead, try to absorb that issue, the issue of Meaning, into the story—along with the issues of literary antecedents and the “reality” of the horror.

A.L.: You say you wanted to be straightforward and direct. Yet one critic has complained that “on the metaphorical level the fantasy remains rather opaque.”

P.R.: First off, I don’t think that a fiction that is clear and straightforward about itself on the narrative level, and opaque or difficult on the metaphorical level, is necessarily a bad thing. To use Kafka again as an illustration—it isn’t, after all, the transparency of “The Metamorphosis” that accounts for its power; Kafka’s strategy (and his brilliance) is that he resists interpretation, even of a very high order, at the very same time that he invites it. Whatever intellectual handle you use to get a hold on a Kafka story is never really adequate to explain its appeal; and to address yourself primarily to the problem of “meaning” has always seemed to me a way to miss much of his appeal.

I’m not arguing that impenetrability is in itself some kind of virtue. It’s possible for an image or a metaphor to withhold meaning simply because there isn’t any there, and it’s not hard for a writer to delude himself into believing he is being deep just because he is being difficult or vague. The issue finally isn’t opacity or transparency anyway—it’s usability. To my mind, what makes an image most telling or even, if you prefer, most meaningful, is not how much meaning we can associate to it, but the quality of the over-all invention that it inspires in the writer—that is to say, the amount of freedom it gives him to explore to the depths his own obsessions and his own talent. I don’t believe a novelist ever really persuades a reader by what he is “trying to say,” but rather by a sense of fictional authenticity he communicates, the sense of an imagination so relentless and thoroughgoing that it converts into its own nonconvertible currency whatever of intellectual or philosophical value it may have absorbed through reading, thinking, and “raw experience.”

To get back to your critic’s complaint: it seems to me that what’s frustrating him is something very like what’s killing Kepesh. Frankly, I wish I had thought to give Professor Kepesh those words to speak: “On the metaphorical level the fantasy remains rather opaque.” What a marvelous concluding sentence that would have made! What your critic senses as a literary problem seems to me the human problem that triggers a good deal of Kepesh’s ruminations. To try as a reader to unravel the mystery of “meaning” here is really, I think, to participate to some degree in Kepesh’s struggle—and to be defeated, as he is. Not all the ingenuity of all the English teachers in all the English departments in America can put David Kepesh together again. For him there is no way out of the monstrous situation, not even through literary interpretation. There is only the unrelenting education in his own misfortune. What he learns by the end is that whatever else it is, it is the real thing: he is a breast, and he must act accordingly.

Now what “accordingly” means here is still another question, and one Kepesh raises near the conclusion of his story, with his daydream about becoming his own one-man, or one-breast, circus. Unlike a character such as Gregor Samsa, who accepts his transformation into a beetle from the first sentence, Kepesh is continually challenging, questioning, and defying his fate, and even after he consents to believe that he has actually become a mammary gland, his mind is alive with alternative ways of being one. The Breast is about consciousness as much as anything. “For there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.”

A.L.: Of course, it’s also about sex as much as anything. I’m interested particularly in the relationship between the sexual ecstasy that Kepesh discovers as a breast, and his spiritual pain, his excrutiating sense of exile and aloneness. Doesn’t the connection you make here recapitulate, in a more extreme way, a psychological motif that was central to Portnoy’s Complaint, where the hero feels increasingly at odds with himself and his past the more sexually adventurous he becomes?

P.R.: Yes, with very different emphasis and implications, the motif of sexual struggle that you see as central to Portnoy’s Complaint does reappear. Speaking broadly, it’s the struggle to accommodate warring (or, at least, contending) impulses and desires, to negotiate some kind of inner peace, or balance of power, or perhaps just to maintain hostilities at a low destructive level, between the ethical and social yearnings and the implacable, singular lusts for the flesh and for fleshly pleasures. The measured self vs. the insatiable self. The accommodating and civilized self vs. the ravenous self. In the fictions themselves, of course, the sides are not this clearly drawn, nor are they in opposition right on down the line. These aren’t meant to be diagrams of conflicting “selves” anyway, but stories of individual men experiencing the complicated economics of human satisfaction, men in whom spiritual and sensual ambitions are so intense and intermingled, and so bound up with the overarching desire to somehow achieve their own true purpose, that one might even speak of their spiritual appetite for the flesh and their sensual appetite for moral virtue.

But that is really speaking too broadly. By recognizing similar concerns in the two works, I don’t want to suggest that I think of them simply as variations on a sexual theme. The grotesqueness of Kepesh’s transformation seems to me to complicate the sexual struggle to a point where it’s no longer really useful to view him and Portnoy as blood brothers—or to describe his struggle as only “sexual.” Portnoy, for all his confusion and sense of isolation, knows his world like the back of his own hand (to make the kind of joke that book seems to inspire). Kepesh is lost—somewhat in the way that Descartes claims to be lost at the beginning of the Meditations: “I am certain that I am, but what am I? What is there that can be esteemed true?” There is an epistemological dimension to Kepesh’s sexual horror that Portnoy is spared. Unlike Portnoy, Kepesh is not interested in making his misery entertaining, nor is he able to bridge the gap between what he looks like and what he feels like with wild humor. If Portnoy could do it, it was because finally he had less territory to cover.

A.L.: Is there any implied criticism in The Breast of ideas about sexual freedom that are currently enjoying a vogue? When you speak of “the economics of human satisfaction,” with its implication of loss as well as gain, I wonder if perhaps you may have had a satiric intention—if there’s a subtle critique here aimed at the high value placed upon a “liberated” sexual life. Along this line, I’d like to ask if you didn’t also set out to criticize, or de-romanticize, certain extreme but increasingly popular notions about madness and alienation—in particular, the idea that either is a desirable alternative to sanity and to a sense of harmony with ordinary life.

P.R.: I don’t think you’re describing my “intentions” so much as the turn of mind, the point of view, the position that may have helped summon up the invention, that may have directed and stimulated the imagination along the way, but that finally was consumed—I’d like to think—by the fiction itself. For me one of the strongest motives for continuing to write fiction is an increasing impatience and suspiciousness and distrust of “positions,” including my own. This is not to say that you leave your intellectual and moral baggage at the door when you sit down to write, or that in writing a novel you discover that you really think just the opposite of what you’ve been telling people—if you do, you’re probably too confused to be producing good work. I’m only saying that I often have the sense that I don’t really know what I’m talking about until I’ve stopped talking about it, and sent everything down through the blades of the fiction-making machine, to be ground into something else, something that is decidedly not a position, but that allows me to say, when I’m done, “Well, that isn’t what I mean either—but it’s more like it.”

So—I intended to write a critique of nobody’s ideas but my own. Not that I hold that madness or alienation are glamorous or enviable conditions; being insane and being estranged don’t happen to accord with my conception of the good life. You correctly identify the bias, but are sniffing after a polemical objective that just isn’t there. I see what you mean about “de-romanticizing” these “voguish” ideas, but if that happens, it happens by the way. And if I had intended to write a satire, even of the most muted kind, I would have flashed an entirely different set of signals from the coach’s box to the reader.

A.L.: Do you anticipate hostile reactions to The Breast from voices within the women’s movement? I know that there has already been discussion of the book that characterizes the hero, disapprovingly, as a man who thinks of women as existing solely for his sexual pleasure. What do you think of this sort of reading of your story?

P.R.: I think it’s inaccurate and misses the point. Whatever Kepesh thinks, whether about women or art or reality or his father, hasn’t to do with his being a man but with the fact that he isn’t a man any longer, that he’s all but lost touch, to quote him, with “the professor of literature, the lover, the son, the friend, the neighbor, the customer, the client, and the citizen” that he was before his transformation. The point about him is that because of what he’s become, his life has narrowed down to a single issue, his anatomy. Actually, in the light of this, I would think that there might even be women, particularly those who have been sensitized by the women’s movement, who will feel a certain kinship with my hero and his predicament. For surely if anybody in this world has ever been turned totally into a “sexual object,” both to himself and to others, it is David Alan Kepesh. Isn’t this all-encompassing sexualization what he struggles with from the moment he discovers he’s an enormous female breast with a super-sensitive five-inch nipple? The battle with this anatomy, the battle to be not simply that shape and those dimensions, but simultaneously to be something other, is in fact what constitutes the entire action of the book.

Of course it’s a highly ambiguous struggle, shot through with contradiction and bewilderment, and waged with varying degrees of wisdom and success—but then I don’t know that the confused nature of Kepesh’s battle with his own soft adipose tissue won’t strike a chord of recognition in women who are thoughtful about the relationships possible between their physical and psychic selves.

A.L.: One of the surprising aspects of this book is its elegiac tone—David Kepesh mourning his predicament the way, say, Tommy Wilhelm mourns his in Bellow’s Seize the Day. Given that the book begins with such a bizarre, freakish catastrophe, one might have expected either comedy or grotesquerie, not elegy. Can you explain why you took the approach you did?

P.R.: I’m not sure I’d want to call the pervasive tone elegiac. It’s a sad story and Kepesh is sometimes mournful, but I think it’s more to the point of the story to say that there is a decidedly elegiac note trying to make itself heard, but one that is held in check by the overriding tone of reasonableness. On the whole the mood is reflective more than plaintive—horror recollected in a kind of grave tranquility.

You’re right to imagine that the story might have been much more comic, or more grotesque, or both. Certainly there are wonderful models around for the kind of humor that manages to be wildly funny and perfectly gruesome all at once. “The Nose,” for instance, treats mutilation as a marvelous joke, and then, of course, in Molloy and Malone Dies, Samuel Beckett has done for bodily decomposition what Jack Benny used to do on Sunday nights for stinginess. I’m myself very taken with that kind of comedy, and it goes without saying that at the outset I couldn’t help but recognize the large and gruesomely comic possibilities in the idea of a man turning into a breast.

Actually, I resisted exploiting the idea for comedy or farce in large part because that possibility was so immediately apparent. It struck me as the most obvious and thus the least promising way of treating a character in that situation. Since the joke was there before I even began, I thought perhaps the best thing was to stand it on its head by refusing to take it as a joke…. Then a certain contrariness probably figured in my decision, a reluctance, such as I imagine any writer might feel, to do what is supposed to be his “number.”

In all it seemed to me that if I was going to come up with anything new (in terms of my own work), it would only be by taking this potentially hilarious situation and treating it perfectly seriously. Of course there are still funny moments in the story, and maybe even a faint current of hilarity continues to linger around the edges—but I think that’s okay too. I didn’t feel I had necessarily to make myself over into William Ernest Henley just for the sake of going against the expectations aroused by the material and by my own track record.

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