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À mon chevet: The Professor of Desire

Philip Roth, The Professor of Desire
À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

In this scene, David Kepesh speaks with a disenfranchised Kafka scholar in Soviet-occupied Prague.
The smile, disguising God only knows the kind of expression he would like to show to the world. "Sir, I have made my position known. The entire country has made its position known. This way we live now is not what we had in mind. For myself, I cannot burn away what remains of my digestive tract by continuing to make this clear to our authorities seven days a week."

"And so what do you do instead?"

"I translate Moby Dick into Czech. Of course, a translation happens already to exist, a very fine one indeed. There is absolutely no need for another. But it is something I have always thought about, and now that I have nothing else pressing to be accomplished, well, why not? [...] Now, as you might imagine, this ambitious project, when completed, will be utterly useless for two reasons. First, there is no need for another translation, particularly one likely to be inferior to the distinguished translation we already have, and second, no translation of mine can be published in this country. In this way, you see, I am able to undertake what I would not otherwise have dared to do, without having to bother myself any longer worrying whether it is sensible or not. Indeed, some nights when I am working late, the futility of what I am doing would appear to be my deepest source of satisfaction.

-- Philip Roth, The Professor of Desire (1977), pp. 170-71
The middle volume of the three David Kepesh novels recounts the philandering academic's two marriages, one of which Roth's (unreliable) narrator appears to have forgotten (blocked out?) in the third volume, The Dying Animal. The passages about Kafka and Kepesh's thirst for knowledge about him on a trip to Prague are wonderful. Kepesh's three episodes, especially the first two books, have Kafka prominently in the background, something that Roth obviously delights in having his character openly explore.

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