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25.8.04

The Proust of Newark

cover
Philip Roth, The Dying Animal (Vintage Books, 2002)
La bête qui meurt, Gallimard, 2004
Philip Roth, La bête qui meurt (Gallimard, 2004)
Because from time to time it's interesting to see what foreign book critics think about American book literature, here's a translated excerpt from an article (L'été indien de Philip Roth, August 19) by Jean-Paul Enthoven for Le Point, on Philip Roth's novel The Dying Animal. Although it came out in 2002, it has just been translated into French: "after the success of The Human Stain in 2002, The Dying Animal is the most anticipated book of the Rentrée littéraire" (see my post on August 14). Can we draw any conclusions from a comparison of the French and American covers (shown at right)?
Every time that Philip Roth publishes a new novel, it's the same ritual: pilgrims (from every part of the world, but especially French) rush to Connecticut, lose themselves a little in the charming countryside where the "Proust of Newark" has taken refuge for some thirty years, and end up knocking on this affable hermit's door, at which point they are entitled to a few hours of conversation. The man who welcomes them is a sly genius: tall, dry, somewhat stubborn, friendly, barricaded behind very thick eyebrows. Every time, he shows his visitor his pool, his exercise room, the double desk ("Ah, Flaubert...") where he writes his best-sellers, before brilliantly juggling his paradoxes and pessimism. [...]

In spite of all his laurels, Roth has not stopped being fecond or rejuvenating himself. It even seems as if Roth, under the influence of some literary Viagra, has gone into an unending Indian summer and that with each new book he creates a stick of dynamite to be thrown in the face of his contemporaries, as if he were a rotten kid trashing his parents' house on the weekend. His most recent explosive is The Dying Animal, a book published in the United States just before September 11 and whose title comes from a book of poems by Yeats called (I'm not making this up) The Tower. It is a sublime novel, bilious, despairing, and comical, a variation on "the delicious imbecility of desire," on love ("the only obsession that everyone wants to have"), on our suffering. But the one who suffers in this novel is not necessarily its hero, David Kepesh—Roth's double, whom we haven't seen again since The Breast (1972) and The Professor of Desire (1977). [...]

First, the story: in his surroundings, Professor Kepesh (age 65) is a star, like Philip Roth. He is also, like him, a "Jewish Don Juan" who feels that his various organs (kidneys, prostate, heart...), silent until now, are beginning to plot against him. He monitors his erections, does what he can, exasperates his son—who would dearly love to see him, at last, as a mummified patriarch—and, almost by accident, he seduces a splendid Cuban shiksa, Consuelo (age 22), whose beauty promises him a final season of pleasure.
Calling Philip Roth the "Proust of Newark" was enough to make me read the whole thing.

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