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15.8.08

À mon chevet: The Breast

Philip Roth, The Breast
À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.
When my father came for his Sunday visit, I told him everything, even though I was sure that Claire and Klinger would have let him know by phone the day it happened. I babbled like a boy who'd won a trophy. It was true, I told him -- I no longer believed I was a breast. If I had not yet been able to throw off the physical sense of unreality. I was daily divesting myself of the preposterous psychic delusion; every day, every hour I sensed myself slowly turning back into myself, and could even begin to see through to the time when I would again be teaching Gogol and Kafka rather than experiencing vicariously the unnatural transformations they had imagined in their famous fictions. Since my father knows nothing of books, I told him how Gregor Samsa awakens in the Kafka story to discover that he has become an enormous beetle; I summarized for him "The Nose," recounting how Gogol's hero awakens one morning missing his nose, how he sets out to look for it in St. Petersburg, places an ad in the newspaper requesting its return, sees "it" walking on the street, one ridiculous encounter after another, until in the end the nose just turns up again on his face for no better reason than i disappeared. (I could imagine my father thinking, "He teaches this stuff, in a college?") I explained that I still couldn't remember the blow that had done me in; I actually became deaf, could not hear, when the doctor tried to get me to face it. But whatever the trauma may have been -- however terrifying, horrifying, repellent -- what I knew was that my escape route was through the fantasy of physical transformation that lay immediately at hand, the catastrophe stories by Kafka and Gogol that I had been teaching my students only the week before. Now, with Dr. Klinger's assistance, I was trying to figure out just why, of all things, I had chosen a breast. Why a big brainless bag of dumb, desirable tissue, acted upon instead of acting, unguarded, immobile, hanging, there, as a breast simply hangs and is there? Why this primitive identification with the object of infantile veneration? What unfulfilled appetites, what cradle confusions, what fragments out of my remotest past could have collided to spark a delusion of such classical simplicity?

-- Philip Roth, The Breast (1972), pp. 65-67
This is the first Philip Roth novel featuring the recurring character of David Kepesh, a professor of literature. In the opening pages, Kepesh is -- yes -- somehow transformed into an enormous female breast. The most recent Kepesh novel, The Dying Animal, has recently been adapted as a film by Isabel Coixet, Elegy (review forthcoming).

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