American Pastoral (1997): Philip Roth


Before American Pastoral, I’d never read any Philip Roth.  I’d only really heard about him through reviews of Everyman, which sounded so completely depressing and pessimistic that I was entirely put off.  However, since I’ve just joined a book club (very exciting!) and this was the first book to be read, I took a deep breath and jumped in.  And I enjoyed it far, far more than I expected to.

I was lulled into a false sense of security by the cosy nostalgia of the first part.  The narrator remembers his childhood in the shadow of the high-school sports star Seymour Levov (‘the Swede’), a totemic figure for the narrator and a symbol of his Jewish-American generation’s adoption of American mores during the 1940s and their own self-identification as Americans.  When the narrator attends a school reunion in the 1990s, I found a recurring theme beginning to develop: the way that an event, which has crucial significance in one person’s life, is of no importance whatsoever to another person involved in the same event.  We make our own histories, with these moments of triumph or disaster standing proud, but no one else remembers them in the same way, or perhaps at all.  That is either a relief, or very lonely, depending on how you look at it.

And this crops up throughout the book.  Poor Ira Posner, who traps the narrator at the reunion, has happy memories of spending time at the narrator’s house; which the narrator can barely recall.  The narrator himself keeps returning to one childhood moment when the Swede spoke to him and thereby elevated his importance in the school; doubtless for the Swede himself, it was only a throwaway comment.  And the Swede spends the majority of the book trying to pinpoint that one moment when everything changed; the catalyst; the motive for an horrible act.  The irony is that we can never know what that was, because we only ever see one side of the story.  All we can be sure about is that the various theories the Swede comes up with are probably wrong.

Roth writes well about nostalgia – his whole style really reminded me of Proust, with the Swede as the equivalent of the madeleine.  However, he’s a bit more readable than Proust and (thank God) has more of a plot.  His writing really comes into its own later on.  The Swede gradually realises that his life, built on the belief that a man can be good and sincere and a corner-stone of society, and that this will bring peace and happiness, is in fact built on nothing but a lie.  No one in his apparently idyllic world is what they seem, and Roth is just brilliant at teasing out the growing panic that comes with realising you’ve fundamentally misunderstood the people in your life.

We can spend our lives trying not to let people down, trying to live in the correct way, with compassion and understanding and patience, and yet eventually – Roth says – life can still pull the rug out from under your feet, because other people are their own agents.  They don’t care about the dream you’ve carefully nurtured from childhood: they have their own agendas, their own likes and dislikes, and once the whole edifice starts to crumble, it’ll end up disintegrating in spectacular fashion.

At some points I had to put the book down and walk away for a while to let my mind recover.  Roth’s an uncompromising writer.  He pounds away at you, his sentences rolling in and crashing over you like breakers on a shore.  He covers the immigrant mindset in America; the relationships between parents and children; the huge gulf between the attitudes of those who were young in the 1940s and those who were young in the 1960s and 1970s; the way people react to injustice; and the slow death of the American Dream.  He’s more interested in how people react to the plot than the plot itself, which in this case works very well.  There were things I didn’t like.  There were too many questions left unanswered at the end and, in fact, I thought the end rather petered out.  But how could he have wrapped up a book like that in any clean, satisfactory way?  That would have gone against the whole spirit of the thing.  I didn’t understand the need for Rita Cohen at all: I found her distracting and these sections undermined my ‘trust’ in the credibility of the rest of the book.  But everything else was finely-judged and beautifully, tragically perfect.  I found myself sitting for long periods of time, just trying to digest it all.

Before I’d even finished, I’d gone to the library and taken out two more books by Roth: The Human Stain and The Ghost Writer, both of which also feature Zuckerman, Roth’s narrator and apparently his fictional alter-ego.  I can’t wait to start on them.

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