Sunday, August 23, 2009

Books: The Professor of Desire, by Philip Roth

At twenty I must stop impersonating others and Become Myself, or at least begin to impersonate the self I believe I ought now to be. 12

Another classic Roth read, less obscene than Portnoy's Complaint, but more sexually frank than American Pastoral, The Professor of Desire chronicles the romantic coming-of-age of David Kepesh (who becomes a literature professor, fixated on the tender Chekov, the stymied Kafka, and a suite of other authors who focus intently on his own obsession with loveless life's impossibility). Kepesh moves from sweaty tangles with a high school cheerleader through a sadomasochistic menage-a-trois with two Swedish girlfriends to a dysfunctional marriage with an exotic beauty and a penultimate bout of depression before finally settling in with a healthily attractive, generous and kind, simple grade school teacher. He wants to believe that he'll at last be happy, but he feels the seeds of dissatisfaction with his good, scrubbed girl.

I love Roth for his blatant honesty about those feelings for which we are often ashamed, his willingness to admit that we are dissatisfied creatures who rarely know a good thing when we see it and, if we do, find it impossible nonetheless, for whatever petty reason (in this case, it's that clean Claire lacks even the most basic kinks of his Swedish lover, kindly refusing to fellate him, though she wants to bear his child). Kepesh takes Claire to Europe to exorcise his old lovers' ghosts, and, to a degree, it works. But there remains that threat of dissatisfaction, of having tasted too much to be happy with any one flavor, of being too comfortable with seeking to sit still once he's found.

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