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 …