Email this review


In 1972, the mature David Kepesh told us how he turned into The Breast, but here are his earlier, less symbolic guises--child of the Borscht Belt, scholar of Chekhov and Kafka, and wrestler with temptation. Believing that "my desire is desire, it is not to be belittled or despised," young David uses his literature-in-London grant to become a "visiting fellow in erotic daredevilry" in the Swedish company of anything-goes Birgitta and secretly shy Elisabeth. Saddled with the guilt of having corrupted Elisabeth, David moves on and West--to "hopeless misalliance" with wife Helen, "runner-up for Queen of Tibet," a dramatic heroine radiantly ruined by her long affair with a colonial tycoon (who has her imprisoned when she leaves David for further Far-East adventuressing). An inertial move back East--to Long Island classes, family ties, and analysis: "I cannot maintain an erection, Dr. Klinger. I cannot maintain a smile, for that matter." And finally schoolteacher Claire, who, if Birgitta represented a lust-indulging "more," represents, on a trip to Europe and in a summer-rented farmhouse, the comforts of "enough." But is enough enough? And will it last? Even forgetting The Breast, probably not, for David Kepesh is a direct descendant of Neil Klugman and Alexander Portnoy, doomed to kvtech his lonely way out of any possible happiness. But the kvetching here is muted (as it sometimes was in My Life as a Man), as if Roth is desperately demanding that we take this problem of desire more seriously than he seemed to take it himself in Portnoy or The Breast. And, if this gravity makes David's self-pity and narcissism somewhat indigestible, it also allows Roth to find a quieter music in the Jewish word-rhythms that have blared raucously before. The portraits of Kepesh's food-foisting, cancer-stricken mother, of his widowed father (and fund-raising buddy Mr. Barbatnik), of aging urban academics--Roth achieves an unprecedented, tough, nostalgic tenderness. And David's musings on Kafka and Chekhov, though they may not manage to shed light on or ennoble his own groinal Angst, make him a more substantial schlemiel than his precursors. From the waist down, then--the same old story, sans laughs; but, in head and heart--a subdued and seductive journey.
Pub Date: Oct. 3rd, 1977
ISBN: 0679749004
Page count: 282pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 1977


FictionTHE HUMBLING by Philip Roth
by Philip Roth
FictionINDIGNATION by Philip Roth
by Philip Roth