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…

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