Phillip Roth questioned severely the values and principles by which the American society of his generation lived. Nevertheless, by the perspective of drastically diverse literary characters – that were, to a certain degree, representations of himself –, the author expressed different aspects of his personality, through personas with relatively distinct values, priorities and preoccupations. Nathan Zuckerman, his most well-known alter ego, the main character of several novels, like The Human Stain and Exit Ghost, is a reflection of Roth trying to situate himself in a permanently dark world, doomed by the irreversible contingencies of human misery. David Kepesh, on the other hand, the character of three novels, The Breast, The Professor of Desire and the more concise The Dying Animal, is a graduated literature teacher, that has an intrinsically mundane existence. All that he really manages to do with a certain degree of competence, despite having real talents, like a profound knowledge about the subject he teaches, playing the piano, and being an erudite in classical music, is basically seducing and sleeping with his most attractive female students; and all these skills that he possesses and cultivates are used mainly as weapons of seduction. Devoid of this aspect, the life of David Kepesh becomes an absolutely empty, deplorable and meaningless existence.
Frequently exposing his Jewish background – and as a consequence, appointed as an icon not only to literature in the broader sense, but as a primordial reference of Jewish-American literature in particular, something that Roth vehemently rejected –, the author blamed his religious upbringing for several constraints that took place in his infancy and adolescence, and as he grew older, he sought to drastically distance himself from Judaism. Eventually, he was known to disregard religion completely, saying “When the whole world doesn’t believe in God, it’ll be a great place”.
Each book of Phillip Roth has a profound, lugubrious and dark intensity, that excavates and exposes the most tragic, difficult and painful struggles of life, and the intrinsic fatalisms inherent to human condition. In The Dying Animal, Professor David Kepesh falls in love and eventually has an affair with one of his students – a sensual, passionate and ardent Cuban-American named Consuela Castillo –, though after she graduates. So when their affair begins, she is technically not her student anymore, so if anyone discovers, he cannot be prosecuted or expelled from the university where he works. This is mainly his modus operandi, whenever he decides to seduce one of his students.
So the largely promiscuous, egocentric, self-centered and sex-driven old man is forced to bring to light the more humanitarian aspects of his personality, that – although were there the entire time – he never actually allowed them to be displayed to the outside world. But now, adverse circumstances force him to be a gentle and comprehensible human being.
Like I wrote some lines above – although I haven’t liked this book very much, it is relatively ordinary and inferior, especially if compared to another Phillip Roth’s books that I personally found marvelous –, even then this novel has qualities to be appreciated, whether it would be in the story, in the beauty and elegance of the prose, or in the subtlety and sensibility upon which the content is displayed to the reader. The conclusion of the book, the best part in my opinion, is very poetic, enlightening and sentimental. I remember Kepesh and Consuela seeing something on television, a theatrical performance broadcast from her home country, Cuba. So Consuela, deeply resented, dismisses the Castro tyranny, and denounces the image of happiness and joy given by the transmission as effectively a lie and regime propaganda. Her people suffers from government repression, persecution and arbitrary imprisonment, but all that the world sees is the fake happiness of a theatrical musical act. So Kepesh feels the anger driving the emotional Consuela, disturbed by his inability to do something extraordinary to please her, and improve her condition.
Every book by Phillip Roth is a monumental picture of a certain aspect of existence – or a specific period in time –, filtered by his profound and lucid sensibility, exposed by the peculiarities of deeply disillusioned, complex and morally indulgent characters. The author deeply denounced everything that has disturbed him, and challenged his readers to think for themselves. Although he has died in the last year, Phillip Roth’s literature will continue to resonate deeply throughout the decades, and will remain a permanent anathema to American social and cultural conventions.
(Read my other article about the author here)