The Professor of Desire
To the charge that Philip Roth is repeating himself in his new novel, the response should be one of qualified relief: he may be going in circles but at least he’s sailing in the mainstream of his talent and not stranded in those swampy backwaters from which The Great American Novel and The Breast emerged dripping mud and weeds. The weight of Roth’s past performances, together with his tendency toward self-indulgent trickiness and the recurrent need to explain his intentions to his public, places an unfair burden on The Professor of Desire. If it were the first instead of the third in the series that includes Portnoy’s Complaint and My Life as a Man, it would, I believe, be universally welcomed as the stylistically handsome, entertaining, and melancholy work that it is. If the book is finally disappointing, it is so because Roth fails to mount and sustain an action that is commensurate with its stylistic achievement; about two-thirds of the way along, the momentum falters, and the rest is a tour de force that is more eloquent than convincing.
The Professor of Desire follows the life of David Kepesh from his boyhood in the Catskills, where his parents run a kosher hotel called the Hungarian Royale, to his return, when he is in his mid-thirties, to spend an idyllic summer with his adoring mistress in the same area, only twenty miles from the old hotel. Meanwhile, David has spent an erotically adventurous Fulbright year with two Swedish girls—one a real wanton, the other a wanton manquée—in England, has retreated from lust to work toward a doctorate in comparative literature, plunged back into lust more frenziedly than ever with a lotioned and perfumed beauty named Helen, become an associate professor and an expert on Chekhov and Kafka, suffered a total collapse of his erotic life as the result of his horrendous marriage to Helen, and has at last experienced a resurgence of desire through the ministrations of a psychoanalyst and a new mistress, the adoring (and wholesome) Claire Ovington. In the concluding section, David’s aging father, now a widower, comes to spend Labor Day weekend with David and Claire in their Catskill farmhouse; he is accompanied by another widower, Mr. Barbatnik, a shy and touching old man who has survived the Nazi terror. The presence of the two aging Jews inspires in David a devastating sense of the precariousness of life in general and of the special doom that awaits him in his relationship with Claire: the inevitable extinction of desire.
All of this is narrated in the first person and in the present tense by the most supple and accomplished voice that Roth has yet found for the protagonist of one of his novels. Though David Kepesh has obvious affinities with Alexander Portnoy and with Nathan Zuckerman-Peter Tarnopol, the double-named narrator (and victim) of My Life as a Man, he is far less the clown or the breast-beater, far more the reflective yet still suffering intellectual trying to make sense of the freak show of ill-matched parts that seems to be his life. David’s voice has remarkable range and authority, modulating easily from scorn to tenderness, from jabbing colloquialism or the plangency of self-pity to a paragraph of the most delicate and precise analysis of Colette as an artist of the sensual. It can set a scene with notable economy or focus with toughly humorous clarity upon the people—especially the men—who force themselves upon David’s highly self-involved consciousness. Some notion of the rhythms and diction natural to that voice may be suggested by the following account of David’s analyst:
Frederick Klinger is solid, all right: a hearty, round-faced fellow, full of life, who, with my permission, smokes cigars throughout the sessions. I don’t much like the aroma myself, but allow it because smoking seems even further to concentrate the keenness with which Klinger attends to my despair…. At first I find myself somewhat put off by the sheer relish with which the doctor seems to devour his responsibilities—put off, to be truthful, by nearly everything about him: the double-breasted chalk-stripe suit and the floppy bow tie, the frayed Chesterfield coat growing tight over the plumpening middle, the two bursting briefcases at the coat rack, the photos of the smiling healthy children on the book-laden desk, the tennis racket in the umbrella stand—put off even by the gym bag pushed behind the big worn Eames chair from which, cigar in hand, he addresses himself to my confusion. Can this snazzy, energetic conquistador possibly understand that there are mornings when on the way from the bed to the toothbrush I have to struggle to prevent myself from dropping down and curling up on the living-room floor?
It is also a voice that can talk unembarrassedly about literature. The fact that David Kepesh is a professor of literature as well as of desire is important. One tends to forget the degree to which Roth—from Letting Go onward—has been an “academic” novelist, someone who writes convincingly about graduate students, professors, and the literary life. Protected perhaps by his part-time status as a teacher, he makes brief forays into a world which has so often been depicted as smug, bitchy, and fatuous that most novelists who make their living at a university now shrink from it as a possible subject. Roth not only depicts classroom situations when it suits him but also draws, without pretentiousness or self-consciousness, upon the resources of literature itself. Chekhov, Kafka, and Gogol are, in a sense, major characters in The Professor of Desire. David’s relationship to them and their work is presented (with only sporadic irony) as acutely personal. The successful incorporation of past literature into a dramatically crucial scene is rare in modern fiction; I can think of no more beautifully integrated example than this passage from the closing pages of the novel:
…I say to her, “It’s a simple Chekhov story, isn’t it?”
“This. Today. The summer. Some nine or ten pages, that’s all. Called ‘The Life I Formerly Led.’ Two old men come to the country to visit a healthy, handsome young couple, brimming over with contentment. The young man is in his middle thirties, having recovered finally from the mistakes of his twenties. The young woman is in her twenties, the survivor of a painful youth and adolescence. They have every reason to believe they have come through…. They are in love. But after dinner by candlelight, one of the old men tells of his life, about the utter ruination of a world, and about the blows that keep on coming. And that’s it. The story ends just like this: her pretty head on his shoulder; his hand stroking her hair; their owl hooting; their constellations all in order…. Music is playing in the house. The most lovely music there is. ‘And both of them knew that the most complicated and difficult part was only just beginning.’ That’s the last line of ‘Lady with a Lapdog.”’
“Are you really frightened of something?”
“I seem to be saying I am, don’t I?”
Critics have chided Roth for such “bookishness”—as if it were somehow a sign of weakness or bad taste for a contemporary novelist to make overt use of the literary past. Roth does well to ignore such a limiting and foolish injunction. Imagine the relative impoverishment of Remembrance of Things Past if Proust had not felt free to make what use he wanted of St. Simon, Balzac, Mme de Sévigné, Racine, et al.
Roth’s control of storytelling in the first person is such that he avoids the prolixity or looseness which Henry James saw as the chief danger inherent in this mode. But he does not heed sufficiently that other piece of Jamesian advice: “Dramatize, dramatize”—even though it is quoted by David’s friend Baumgarten (in the context of how to pick up a girl). I am not referring to the comparative paucity of actual scenes with dialogue that interrupt David’s recitation but to the faltering of the action because of Roth’s failure to make the David-Claire relationship sufficiently dynamic in its origins and development. A loving, simple-hearted, cheerful, intelligent, domestically gifted, patient, self-sacrificing, good-looking, sensuously alive girl with perfect taste in food and music simply cannot be presented as a “given”—especially when we are told that this paragon is the offspring of perpetually quarreling, alcoholic parents. In his handling of Claire, Roth not only violates the conventions, of psychological realism, to which the novel mostly adheres, but sentimentalizes his character almost as cloyingly as Esther Summerson is sentimentalized in Bleak House. David’s recovery of his potency also seems almost gratuitous or perfunctory in its suddenness, especially since so much has been made of its loss and of the despair into which this loss has thrown him. A good angel appears and the miracle occurs.
Part of the problem stems from the fact that Roth, after a brave effort in When She Was Good, has apparently given up on the attempt to create young women (as opposed to Jewish mothers) who convey the sense of an existence independent of the protagonist’s need for sex or suffering or both. The same female types turn up in novel after novel. Claire belongs to the category that might be labeled the Good Wasp. With slight variations she is much the same confection as Sarah Abbott Maulsby in Portnoy’s Complaint or Susan Seabury McCall in My Life as a Man. The Good Wasp is typically an upperclass girl, reared in New Canaan or Princeton, with haughty, old-American parents who look askance at the upstart Jewish boyfriend; alternatively, she is a sunny, extroverted girl from the farmbelt, most likely encountered in a classroom—a girl like Kay Campbell, known as the Pumpkin, in Portnoy’s Complaint or Karen Oakes in My Life as a Man. Some are neurotically disturbed; others not at all. What they all have in common is their remarkable self-abnegation, their positive lust to fulfill every need—sexual, gastronomic, and otherwise—of their demanding lovers. They smother him with blanquette de veau, prostrate themselves before him like harem ladies in the presence of the sultan. Nevertheless, they are likely to draw the line at Something.
The Wanton, on the other hand, draws the line at nothing. She outstrips her lover in her boldness, her eagerness to shock, her appetite for the kinky. She can be a Jewish princess like the seventeen-year-old Sharon Shatsky, daughter of the Zipper King, who performs with a zucchini for Nathan Zuckerman’s delectation; or a lower-class shiksa like the coalminer’s daughter known as the Monkey in Portnoy’s Complaint; or a member of a licentious European breed like the Swedish Birgitta in the new book. It is characteristic of the Wantons that the proclivities of a spirit so free (and single-minded) as Birgitta should tend toward debasement and masochism. For all her thrashing about, Birgitta is denied personality in the novel almost as completely as if she were one of those pink rubber simulacra, inflatable with warm water, with which the officers’ quarters of Japanese submarines were said to have been equipped during World War II.
Then there is the Monster, whom the protagonist typically marries. The Lydia-Maureen figure in My Life as a Man is, like Frankenstein’s monster, endowed with a pathetic side (a traumatized childhood, disastrous earlier marriages), but her functioning in the novel is that of a terrifying psychopath, a Gothic figure bent upon the utter destruction of her mate. In The Professor of Desire Helen Baird emerges, a wildly beautiful creature, from an exotic and melodramatic past in Hong Kong, to captivate David; outdoing even him in narcissism, she is like one of those fairies—a belle dame sans merci—who drains away the virility of the man she enthralls, leaving him a pale wraith. She too is damaged—all bad fairies are—and is made to suffer retribution through disfiguring ailments that turn her into a “bitter hag.”
Roth’s female characters, for all their unreality, can exert a dreadful power over the males. Driven temporarily mad by Maureen, Peter Tarnopol puts on her bra and panties in what is apparently a frenzied attempt to steal some of her thunder. Helen leaves David flattened by an impotence so complete as to preclude self-abuse. Even a totally loving, passive, and compliant girl can, through the satiation of her lover’s desire, contribute to what must certainly be the ultimate in transvestitism: the lover’s transformation into a female breast.
Since the sexual relationship of young adults is not a subject that Dickens cared to (or could) handle with any directness, his failure to create convincing and unsentimentalized young female characters is no doubt a weakness in his novels but hardly crucial. In the case, however, of Roth, who writes so obsessively about sexuality, the deficiency is serious, amounting to what is finally a structural defect. It is as though one half of his equation is missing. All we are left with is the self-preoccupied young man and the various phantasms with which—like St. Anthony in the desert—he must contend.
It is hard to know how we are to understand Roth’s handling of sexuality. That we are expected to make the attempt is clear enough, for the reader of The Professor of Desire is by extension a member of Professor Kepesh’s comparative literature class (“Desire 341,” as Claire calls it), which is to be organized around the great works of fiction dealing with erotic desire. David plans to begin the course with an account of his own erotic history (thus implicating himself in the course’s material), and he invites his students to refer what they read back to their own knowledge and experience of life. “I do not hold,” he writes in this lecture, “with certain of my colleagues who tell us that literature, in its most valuable and intriguing moments, is ‘fundamentally non-referential.”’ In the spirit of this critical view, we might observe first that while Roth’s male characters yearn for the untamed, the unsocialized, and the extravagant in their sexual behavior, their indulgence, as it is depicted, gives the impression not of powerful appetite leading to some uncharted land of bliss—perhaps to the apocalyptic orgasm once hailed by Norman Mailer—but rather of hectic activity masking serious disturbance in that area. At times the protagonists (Alex Portnoy especially) are allowed momentary insight into their predicament, but mostly the blame for sexual failure is deflected elsewhere—to the mothers, girlfriends, wives—and the quest continues. These young men all seem to have suffered an arrest in their psychosexual development, leaving them unable to accept intimacy or fatherhood. David Kepesh’s ultimate and unachieved fantasy about the wanton Birgitta is to turn her into a prostitute, with himself in the role of her pimp. Is he meant to be aware of the homosexual impulse underlying such a wish? Are we?
When the great-hearted Abe Kepesh comes with Mr. Barbatnik to visit David and Claire in their Catskill hideaway, David is sentimentally overwhelmed by his father’s goodness. “Is there a man alive,” he wonders, “who has led a more exemplary life?” But his father’s presence is overwhelming to David in other respects as well. It is while his father is sleeping in the adjoining room that David is smitten with the conviction that he will lose all desire for Claire, who otherwise makes him so happy, and he compares his state to the character in Gogol who loses his nose.
In Portnoy’s Complaint, it is Sophie Portnoy who is accused of undermining her son’s masculinity. But what about those suffering, loving, hard-working, hugging-and-kissing fathers who crop up in Roth’s fiction? We learn that David, fearing that his ebullient and driven father may suffer a heart attack over the weekend (a fear that sensible Claire tries to allay), has purchased a portable oxygen unit which he stashes away in a closet. Does all this represent the legitimate fear and sensible precaution of a loving son—or a death-wish against the intrusively good old man in whose presence the son anticipates castration? Roth might well be setting a trap for the naïve reader or for the Freudianly alerted reader. Or both. Or did Roth himself fail to notice the implications? It is impossible to tell, so closely does Roth place himself to his narrator’s point of view.
Psychoanalysis and its practitioners figure heavily in his recent work but always ambiguously. The Spielvogels and Klingers are pelted with mockery, charged with obtuseness or reductiveness. In his final, despairing fantasy, at the end of the novel, David imagines an abject return to Dr. Klinger, only to have his problem dismissed with robust insensitivity by that “specialist in common sense.” Yet the diagnoses (however simplistic) made by the analysts seem to be allowed partial validity and their therapy a modicum of helpfulness. The ambivalence toward psychoanalysis seems at least as radical as that likely to be experienced by a patient in therapy. Though this ambivalence is productive of numerous ironies and a fair amount of comedy, Roth never creates enough “space” around his protagonist—or distance from him—to allow the reader much clarity of response.
For while Roth has admirably avoided the garrulity common to the first-person approach, he is by no means free of the tonal blurring to which this narrative method is also vulnerable. The attitudes toward women, toward sexuality, toward what is likable or contemptible in his male characters, toward psychoanalytical interpretations—these are all inconsistent enough to suggest a lack of steady authorial control, a tendency to grasp at whatever seems cleverest or most astonishing or most intense at the moment. The resultant myopia, confusion of affect, and lapses into sentimentality are, however, much less obvious than they would be in a writer whose intelligence and stylistic resources were inferior to Roth’s. As it is, he can get away with a lot. Despite every charge that can (I think legitimately) be brought against The Professor of Desire, it is still a lively and always interesting book, evidence of a talent that can make us gasp even when it is going in circles.
There is, however, one piece of minor but gratuitous damage which Roth has inflicted upon his new book that I find hard to forgive. Though in a recent interview (New York Times Book Review, September 18) Roth maintains that The Professor of Desire is neither a sequel nor an antecedent to The Breast, he has invited a comparison by assigning the same names to the characters in both books, thereby linking a good work to one that is painfully inferior. His claim that he was merely indulging in a form of play and “never expected it to be anybody else’s business or pleasure but [his] own” seems disingenuous. Already one hapless reviewer has been misled by this trickiness into composing an elaborate “deconstruction” of The Professor of Desire in the fashionable French mode currently so favored by the literature departments of Yale. Whatever the origins of the new novel may have been in relation to Roth’s tumid little fable, he should have buried all traces, for there is no substantive connection between the two books as written, and the coincidence of names is a silly distraction.