Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Human Stain

The Human Stain by Philip Roth
Random House, 2000
Trade Paperback, 361 pages
ISBN-13: 9780375726347
highly recommended

It is 1998, the year in which America is whipped into a frenzy of prurience by the impeachment of a president, and in a small New England town, an aging classics professor, Coleman Silk, is forced to retire when his colleagues decree that he is a racist. The charge is a lie, but the real truth about Silk would have astonished even his most virulent accuser.
Coleman Silk has a secret, one which has been kept for fifty years from his wife, his four children, his colleagues, and his friends, including the writer Nathan Zuckerman. It is Zuckerman who stumbles upon Silk's secret and sets out to reconstruct the unknown biography of this eminent, upright man, esteemed as an educator for nearly all his life, and to understand how this ingeniously contrived life came unraveled. And to understand also how Silk's astonishing private history is, in the words of The Wall Street Journal, "magnificently" interwoven with "the larger public history of modern America."

My Thoughts:

The Human Stain by Philip Roth is set in 1998, during the Bill Clinton/ Monica Lewinsky mess "when - for the billionth time - the jumble, the mayhem, the mess proved more subtle than this one's ideology and that one's morality." (pg 3) It is a novel of outraged people and outrageous events that questions a culture of self-righteousness and moral correctness.

In The Human Stain, the third novel in Roth's thematic American trilogy, Coleman Silk has been driven from his position as Dean of Faculty at Athena College, a small New England school, because of a remark purposefully misconstrued as racist. After this event and his wife's death, which Coleman blames his persecutors for, he begins an affair with a much younger cleaning woman.

Coleman, a light skinned black, has been passing as a Jew for many years. He ruthlessly cut himself off from his family, his roots, and never told his Jewish wife or their children his secret. His whole life has been based on a lie. Or perhaps the labels we use imprison us. Or maybe we over-react to the things people do and say, making us too sensitive, too pious.

Goodness. I don't think I'm intelligent enough to fully appreciate Roth, or rather, Roth is too intelligent for me. While I appreciated The Human Stain, I can't say I enjoyed it - but I don't think it's the kind of book that is meant to be enjoyed. Reading Roth is a lot of work, mentally, rather than an enjoyable way to relax. He has dense passages of prose as well as some brilliant insight. I think, perhaps, Roth's writing style doesn't quite appeal to me. I fully accept this as my short coming. I will remember it.
Highly Recommended - with the understanding that reading it requires total concentration


It was in the summer of 1998 that my neighbor Coleman Silk—who, before retiring two years earlier, had been a classics professor at nearby Athena College for some twenty-odd years as well as serving for sixteen more as the dean of faculty—confided to me that, at the age of seventy-one, he was having an affair with a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman who worked down at the college. opening

Ninety-eight in New England was a summer of exquisite warmth and sunshine, in baseball a summer of mythical battle between a home-run god who was white and a home-run god who was brown, and in America the summer of an enormous piety binge, a purity binge, when terrorism—which had replaced communism as the prevailing threat to the country's security—was succeeded by c---sucking, and a virile, youthful middle-aged president and a brash, smitten twenty-one-year-old employee carrying on in the Oval Office like two teenage kids in a parking lot revived America's oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure: the ecstasy of sanctimony. In the Congress, in the press, and on the networks, the righteous grandstanding creeps, crazy to blame, deplore, and punish, were everywhere out moralizing to beat the band: all of them in a calculated frenzy with what Hawthorne (who, in the 1860s, lived not many miles from my door) identified in the incipient country of long ago as "the persecuting spirit"; all of them eager to enact the astringent rituals of purification that would excise the erection from the executive branch, thereby making things cozy and safe enough for Senator Lieberman's ten-year-old daughter to watch TV with her embarrassed daddy again. No, if you haven't lived through 1998, you don't know what sanctimony is. pg. 2

Coleman told the dean, "I was referring to their possibly ectoplasmic character. Isn't that obvious? These two students had not attended a single class. That's all I knew about them. I was using the word in its customary and primary meaning: 'spook' as a specter or a ghost. I had no idea what color these two students might be. I had known perhaps fifty years ago but had wholly forgotten that 'spooks' is an invidious term sometimes applied to blacks. Otherwise, since I am totally meticulous regarding student sensibilities, I would never have used that word. Consider the context: Do they exist or are they spooks? The charge of racism is spurious. It is preposterous. pg. 6

Under his leadership, promotion became difficult—and this, perhaps, was the greatest shock of all: people were no longer promoted through rank automatically on the basis of being popular teachers, and they didn't get salary increases that weren't tied to merit. In short, he brought in competition, he made the place competitive, which, as an early enemy noted, "is what Jews do." And whenever an angry ad hoc committee was formed to go and complain to Pierce Roberts, the president unfailingly backed Coleman. pg. 9

"That's what comes of hanging around all his life with people like us. The human stain," she said, and without revulsion or contempt or condemnation. Not even sadness. That's how it is - in her own dry way, that is all Faunia was telling the girl feeding the snake: we leave a stain, we leave a trail, we leave our imprint. pg. 242


raidergirl3 said...

You are much more generous in your review than I would have been. Blech. Couldn't stand this book. I can't remember all the reasons now, but at the time, but I hated it. Maybe it was because I didn't get the meanings, but I don't want to have to work so hard for my books. I'm lazy like that :)

Lori L said...

It WAS hard work, raidergirl and I felt beaten up when the novel was done. You'll know how mentally taxing it was for me when you read the review for the book I picked next. ;-)

Unknown said...

I didn't read this Philip Roth but I have read some of his other books including American Postoral and Portnoy's Complaint. I think Roth is a difficult author to read and he's not for me. I may try another book or two of his one day. It's too bad, though because this sounds like a really interesting book.

Have you seen the movie? It's with Anthony Hopkins & Nicole Kidman. I thought it was good, interesting and definitely easier than the book!

~ Amy

Lori L said...

I've read a couple other Roth books, including Portnoy's Complaint, but certainly not everything he's written. He is difficult to read.
I never saw the movie... Perhaps this is one of those rare books that would have been more enjoyable as a movie.