by Perry Meisel
Although many readers will want to accuse Philip Roth of repeating the same old complaints in his forthcoming novel, THE PROFESSOR OF DESIRE (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, $8.95), what they will really be objecting to is the steady refinement of a narrative manner so unique in English that it ranks among the major achievements in the literature of our time.
Like Portnoy's Complaint (1969), and My Life as a Man (1974), The Professor of Desire is once again the story of a Jew shooting his mouth off in public. But what a mouth! Roth has hammered the rage of Portnoy and the pathos of My Life as a Man into a prose so compressed that it can sound discordant meanings in a single phrase without losing a beat in the flow of a story that is tender, tough, and riotously funny all at once. What is especially remarkable is that such dense and allusive language can masquerade so well as a simple transcription of living speech, allowing the Portnovian monologue the ironic privilege of looking far more innocent than it really is.
Roth's new speaker and hero, David Kepesh, is not so new - we have met him before in The Breast (1972), that slim Kafkaesque volume of considerable power despite the Rilke poem pinned to its tail. The Professor of Desire is Kepesh's life before his grotesque metamorphosis at the age of 38 into a gigantic mammary gland, although the new novel stops four years short of the transformation itself, merely alluding to its possibility with an oblique reference in the book's final paragraph. This is something rare in fiction, a novelist filling in early after late, and it sets up a strange kind of suspense in the story that keeps the reader wondering at what point in the inevitable line the new novel will stop short of the terminal events of The Breast.
Roth, however, leaves us with a Kepesh who at age 34 finds himself well within sight of the kind of domestic happiness that most Roth heroes can hardly even imagine. What gets in Kepesh's way is a kind of moral embarrassment about professing anything with total conviction, especially the love of a particular woman. He is trying his best to accept the fact that there is neither perfect happiness nor perfect companionship (as a Kafka scholar and professor of comparative literature, he should know better in the first place), although the price of such resignation may well be a permanent spiritual dyspepsia.
As a chronicler of contemporary manners, Roth knows no embarrassments as he pries into the secret fears and shames of which our personal security - and our universal frustration - is composed. Women are made to look unworthy, and men unworthier still, for failing to acknowledge a contempt for the opposite sex that is largely sexual in motivation. Here morality interferes with satisfaction in a shockingly new kind of way, and it is no small part of the book's despair that such a situation appears to be irredeemable.
Irredeemable or not, however, Kepesh has done his best to dig himself out of the rubble of an identity in ruins. Pouring white wine on the porch of the mountain cottage he shares with his "wholesome" lover Claire at the close of the novel, Kepesh can only feel thankful for his relative good fortune. He has, of course, suffered for the happiness that is now within his reach - a rapist's imagination, an agonizing divorce, a mother dead from cancer, a lonely father to look after - but at least he has come through in one piece.
At the book's close he even feels embarrassment for his petty miseries next to the real sufferings of his never-say-die father and his father's friend Mr. Barbatnik, a survivor of the concentration camps who joins the elder Kepesh for a Labor Day visit to his son and (almost) daughter-in-law in the remarkable sequence with which the novel concludes.
This looks like something new in Roth's fiction, a character who actually seems to learn as the book progresses. To his own astonishment, Kepesh finds himself capable of facing all kinds of horrors with a sometimes shocking equanimity, whether it is a visit from his ex-wife Helen (an occasional swinger whom Kepesh has once had to rescue from a Hong Kong jail, and who is now married to a dull goyische businessman whom she hates), or even his fear that his father will expire from a heart attack in his sleep.
Kepesh has apparently accomplished the life project he calls "Becoming Myself" by descending into the destructive element of his sexuality to such a point of self-abandon that he is able to confront Desire in all its immediacy. Unlike Alexander Portnoy's, however, Kepesh's self-absorption seems to produce at least a modicum of relief, perhaps because he has satisfied his urges somewhat more fully than Alex. His sexual buffoonery as a student at Syracuse ("I actually succeed in achieving full penetration on but two occasions") gives way to the wild satisfactions of his year in London as a "sexual prodigy" disguised as a Fulbright Fellow ("I actually did what the jerk-off artists dreamed about.") Here he meets Elisabeth and Birgitta, a pair of Swedish roommates with whom he engages in a devastating ménage à trois that sends the weaker Elisabeth back to her parents and leaves Kepesh and Birgitta to an even deeper exploration of their mutual lust for bondage and humiliation.
Contempt is a far safer emotion as a theatrical component of sexuality than as a basis for a permanent relationship. Kepesh however, eventually pursues it in marriage, binding himself to the narcissistic and philistine Helen, whose behavior consumes him with a fiery hate and disgust more appropriate - or at least less dangerous - in a casual sexual adventure than in the daily life of marriage. When the bond is broken, Kepesh is forced to drift again, his misery punctuated by a paranoid relationship with the wife of his department chairman and with the high-school brand of sexual misadventures in which he engages from time to time in the company of his department's poet-in-residence, the gross and gluttonous Ralph Baumgarten.
Having stared in the mirror screaming "I want somebody!" long enough, Kepesh eventually discovers Claire Ovington. Unlike Helen, the "imperturbable" Claire is constantly solicitous of Kepesh's well-being; whatever hints of masochistic submission there may be in her character - few enough, considering her refusal to swallow Kepesh's semen - are subdued under the names of good will and caring. So possible does Kepesh's future happiness seem by the time he and Claire spend their summer together in the mountains, that it looks like Roth has finally assigned a name and a face to the "faceless" Mrs. Portnoy, whom Alex fantasizes as his plane lands in Israel. Typically non-Jewish, Claire certainly seems to be the Right Girl - even Abe Kepesh develops an extreme fondness for her despite the living arrangement she has worked out with his son. Indeed, Roth even seems to want us to confuse Claire Ovington with Claire Bloom, the English actress to whom the new novel is dedicated.
Tempting as it may be to view this suggested identity as a serious sign of potential happiness for Roth and Kepesh alike, it constitutes precisely the kind of false lead that the novel delights in derailing. As Kapesh's long-time lover in The Breast, Claire Ovington seems to have entered Roth's life long before Claire Bloom, which can only suggest that Life imitates Art in an uncanny confirmation of one such interpretation that Kepesh assigns to his own metamorphosis in the earlier novel. Like the erection that Kepesh dangles in the faces of his various lovers, all the momentary certitude of both autobiographical fiction and a developmental plot turns out to be little more than an insulting piece of banality. (Roth has even exchanged the magisterial term "cock" for the humbler "member" throughout the novel.)
This, of course, is Roth's usual strategy, the gift that blows up in your face. Like the dictionary definition of "Portnoy's complaint" or the all-too-neat psychobiographical premises of My Life as a Man, both Kepesh's near-happiness and Roth's apparent identity with him are offered up like the drivel that spurts from the mouth of Roth's goyische "Answer Man" in a story published in 1970 ("On the Air"). Roth dismissed biographical interpretations of his work in the 1974 essay, "Imagining Jews" (reprinted in Reading Myself and Others, 1975), where he takes to task those reviewers who found Portnoy autobiographical. "A novel in the guise of a confession," he says, "was received and judged by any number of readers as a confession in the guise of a novel." That Kepesh's own happiness is also to be dismissed is, of course, already foreordained by the mere fact of The Breast.
Worst of all, however, is that Kepesh's grotesque transformation also happens to represent a kind of total satisfaction, since it means (among other things) that Kepesh, who does not subscribe to the wish-fulfillment interpretation of his metamorphosis, has become identical with the object of his desire. This is satisfaction with a stupefying vengeance, and its yield of profound unpleasure has been the pattern, as we can see now, of Kepesh's entire life. Although he may be a jerk-off artist's hero, the more he gets the worse he feels. ("No more more!" he groans.) Kepesh even has the misfortune to see some of his worst fears come true - not only Helen's return after their divorce but also the confirmation of his college friend Jellinek's treasonous homosexuality.
With these ironies constantly in the background, Kepesh's project of self-understanding - "Becoming Myself" - is everywhere subject to burlesque. As a professor and literary critic, he seeks the same kinds of revelations in books that he seeks in his private life, and much of Roth's wickedness lies in the way he offers up snatches of Kepesh's academic prose as samples of the kind of interpretation a reader might expect to bring to The Professor of Desire. Roth even has the audacity to make Professor Kepesh an anti-formalist in the classroom.
Enjoining his students never to use the words "structure," "form," or "symbol" in their papers, Kepesh warns them above all against an approach to fiction that some of his colleagues call "non-referential." What Kepesh wants is a highly grounded psychosexual and biographical style of literary analysis that will yield a central truth about life in books. What he gets is ridicule from the very author who has endowed him with existence. Roth has Kepesh writing two books simultaneously by the late portions of the novel, one of them virtually identical with The Professor of Desire - "my life in its most puzzling and maddening aspects" - the other a book on Kafka, which presumably interprets Kepesh's confessions, insofar as they are a palimpsest of Kafka's own texts, in a manner akin to the supposed interpretation Tarnopol's narrative performs on his own short stories in My Life as a Man. By the end of the novel, Kepesh even switches momentarily to the third person to summarize a Chekhov story that virtually completes and seals The Professor of Desire by doubling the novel's story line as part of the book's own plot.
Nor is Roth kidding when he makes academic jokes. There is some riotous sarcasm about particular kinds of criticism. Baumgarten, for example, expects any day to read "an article by some good old boy from Vanderbilt on hospitality in the Southern novel: "Make Yourself at Home: The Theme of Hospitality in Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily." " "But there is also a good deal of serious allusion. Kepesh is a seeker of Man in literature. His first book of criticism, Man in a Shell, looks, for example, like a blatant rejection of Conrad's celebrated theory - that meaning is not "within the shell" where someone like Kepesh imagines Man's "kernel" to reside. (Here one recalls the renaming of Kafka as "Kishka" in Roth's 1973 sketch - " "I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting": or, Looking at Kafka" - in which the writer becomes Roth's Hebrew-school teacher in 1942.) For Conrad's Marlow, this means trying to get rid of a belief in psychological cores or essences; for Roth's Kepesh, it means a constant search for an answer that does not exist. Despite the allusion - or perhaps because of it - Kepesh persists in looking for cores or kernels since he is bent on discovering a real and inherent meaning both to himself and his favorite literary texts.
All the references aside, Kepesh still wants a central illumination. With this end in mind, Roth presents us with Kepesh's hilarious dream of Kafka's whore the night he sleeps in Prague after visiting Kafka's tomb with Claire. It is, of course, a dream of revelation through sexual discovery, although when Kepesh interrogates the whore, now nearly 80, he fears she is confusing Kafka with all the other "nice Jewish boys" who came to her with their "clean underwear."
Kepesh's questions to the whore are predictable enough: "Was [Kafka] regularly able to have an erection? Could he usually have orgasm? I find the diaries inconclusive." Kepesh has earlier interpreted The Castle as "linked to Kafka's own erotic blockage - a book engaged at every level with not reaching a climax." Indeed, orgasm is as much a metaphor of the quality of revelation in Roth as it is in Mailer and Lawrence, but what is relinquished here is faith in the epistemological validity, never mind the possibility, of what Kepesh calls "oceanic orgasms."
If there are no climaxes in Kafka himself, there are also none in the dream. Kepesh's attempt to disengage Kafka's sexual peculiarities from the whore's memory meets with little success, although her desire to ingratiate herself with the American academic community requires her to give all visitors a peek at "the unseemly thing itself," her aged pudendum. But because Kepesh refuses to touch it, his translator (for the woman speaks only Czech) will not communicate her revelation of Kafka's "big thrill" muttered at the interview's end. Alas, the one moment that would make the visit worthwhile, the one fact that would lift the endless mysteries of literary interpretation once and for all - the knowledge of "what Kafka liked the most" - is lost.
That this central illumination is withheld should come as no surprise, especially since the dream's translator is none other than Herbie Bratasky, the stand-up comic and social director during Kepesh's boyhood at his parents' resort hotel in the Catskills, the Hungarian Royale. Herbie is Kepesh's first hero and his primary role model, and it is with Herbie's slick dress and brazen impersonations that Roth opens the novel. Impersonation, though, is not just an excuse for Herbie to do some jokes - it is the novel's fundamental way of understanding Identity. Kepesh awaits the end of his happiness at the book's close not so much because he is unwilling to resign himself to the necessities of life (though there is certainly a taint of the kvetch in him), but because he senses the imposture required to maintain feelings and convictions - to maintain Desire itself - beyond its imminent vanishing. Hence, Kepesh may continue to profess Desire simply as a means of validating an existence whose integrity is, in numerous ways, constantly subject to assault.
Even Herbie's reliability as an impersonator is subject to collapse once we find out that he now owns an appliance store in Queens. As the seal or emblem at the gate of the narrative, Herbie functions as a kind of Confidence Man manque who presides over the story as a symbol or key which gives the lie to all symbols or keys throughout the book. What we are left with is a world in which all markers or references, like the sign identifying Kafka's tomb in Prague, are written in at least "five tongues." Hence, all interpretation, in life and literature alike, spins endless Talmudic mazes like Kafka's Castle in a vain attempt to formulate a direct and original truth. This, alas, was the giant discovery of Portnoy itself, a novel whose psychology everywhere breaks down into a semiology that rivals and eventually overthrows it.
If the dream of Kafka's whore burlesques the kind of truth Kepesh has set his heart on discovering, his fantasy of teaching a literature course known as Desire 341 searches even further into the ironies of the sexual self-revelation that Kepesh believes to be the path to his redemption. At the very moment of Kepesh's announcement that he will himself be the course's first and primary text - that the semester will be a towering example of candor and self-exposure - he renders himself up to "discourse," skewing that supposedly integral Self for which his entire life has been a search by transforming his existence into the multiple tongues of still another literary document. Indeed, Roth has already provided a formula for this transformation in a humorous revision of Freud's formula, "Where id is, there shall ego be": "Where physical rapture should be," moans Kepesh, "there logical (and illogical) discourse is instead."
As if these ironies are not enough, Roth caps the novel with one of the most embarrassing episodes possible in a world like Kepesh's. The scene comes during his father's Labor Day visit to the mountain cottage, when a proud Abe Kepesh bestows upon his son a monumental present. Opening a gift, of course, is a secular prototype for unsealing a revelation, and a gift or revelation from the father carries with it a special weight of psychological significance. Roth even thickens the occasion by making Abe almost rabbinical as he points to the gift for his son's instruction in a touching parody of pointing at the characters of the Torah in shul. And yet the gift itself - vay iz meer - turns out to be a coin collection that the beaming father refers to as "Shakespeare Medals" - "you just collect one a month," he says - and hopes his son will display them for his students.
Although we may want to avert our eyes from such a scene, Roth himself wants to play on the meaning of "Medals" and "medallions," toying with the words numerous times in the last pages of the novel. One reason for this seems to be technical. As the structuring device at work in all his fiction, what Roth has called a "blocks of consciousness" method of writing narrative can also go by the name that Pound gave to a similar technique in poetry, whereby an apparent sequence is constructed out of a series of brief and self-contained scenes - what Pound called "medallions." That Roth should enact such a technical self-identification by means of an alliance between a nice Jewish father with Ezra Pound is rather like the joke of the party guest in Woody Allen's Sleeper who wears a swastika on his shirt and a tallis around his neck.
More important, however, is that Roth's "medallion" style has grave consequences for whatever stability there seems to be in sequence and linearity. An apparent autobiography, Kepesh's narrative is composed of blocks of discourse which, despite their assumption of chronology, have the potential to be shifted around in relation to one another. After all, such a notion follows directly from the way the entire novel is told under the shadow of Kepesh's later doom. Because we necessarily read Kepesh's future back into his past, understanding what is early by means of what is late, the very text of his biography comes to exist in a fluid state. (This is what structural psychoanalysis calls "deferred action," and its significance here makes me wonder aloud whether Roth has been reading Derrida or Lacan.) That the novel's opening medallion celebrates neither mother (as in Portnoy) nor father (as in My Life as a Man) but the Confidence Man Herbie suggests, too, that even the origin of Kepesh's story is to be neither fixed nor trusted.
In such a centerless universe, it is not despair that is obscene, but hope. Indeed, Roth has furnished us with his own, perhaps inadvertent, definition of obscenity in an interview about Portnoy in 1969. "Portnoy is obscene," he said, "because he wants to be saved." Does Roth mean that grossness is the only path left to Portnoy violent enough to gain him freedom? Or does he mean - in a far more powerful and original definition - that it is Pornoy's very desire for salvation that is obscene?
I choose the latter not only because it explains more in Roth's work but also because it allies him with the deeper strains of his necessary heroes, Kafka and Freud. It is theology, of course, that is the common target here, and it is obscene to Roth for the same reasons that it is obscene to his twin precursors and their brother tummler Nietzsche - because it believes in the existence of redemption, satisfaction, and the real possibility of an Answer. With this Christian heaven in mind, Roth has fashioned Kepesh's curious satisfactions as an act of reprisal in a world consumed by affirmation and its attendant cult of what the novel calls "the wholesome." This is hardly exaggerating the contempt with which the books' remarkable sweetness and humor are intermingled. Taken all together, they combine a profound despair about human life with profound delight in an intellectual play fraught with sexuality. What makes Roth different from all his contemporaries is the degree of tenderness that accompanies his deconstructive rage.
Those who contend that such a polemic is incompatible with a real generosity of feeling would do well to read their Roth again, and to read The Professor of Desire with particular care. There are numerous entrances to Roth's polymorphous fiction, and the healthy reader will explore them all with as much perversity as he can muster.
Originally published in The Village Voice, September 12, 1977