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The Professor of Desire by Philip Roth. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 263 pp., $8.95.
It was not until recently, looking ahead to this review, that I read Portnoy’s Complaint for the first time. I was glad I had waited. Even eight years later, I could still remember almost word for word passages quoted in the countless reviews; in the midst of the hoopla that surrounded its publication, it was almost impossible to give it a fair reading. What was shocking about Portnoy’s Complaint in its day was not just its treatment of masturbation, which until that time had been something of a taboo subject in fiction (since Portnoy, fictional characters have been allowed to masturbate openly and with abandon, which must be a relief to them), but also its tone: a distinguished author, a National Book Award winner, had delivered himself of a monologue that sounded more like the routine of a night club comedian, and a dirty one at that. Often ignored was that Portnoy’s Complaint is a wonderfully constructed novel that treats serious themes. The narrator adopts his burlesque tone as a buffer for the enormous pain at the heart of his story. He delivers a searing statement of a personal problem that has not been resolved; once he had made his lament, as the psychiatrist suggests at the end, they are ready to begin.
The Professor of Desire deals in a more subdued tone, and in a more profound way, with many of the same themes. The title is telling: its major subject, as was Portnoy’s, is obsessive sexual desire, but its narrator is a professor — both nouns in the title are equally weighted — and it is one of the most bookish novels in recent memory. Writer after writer is mentioned in passing, in the way that a person immersed in literature will allude constantly to his obsession, and two authors, Kafka and Chekhov, are treated in some detail, their themes embedded in the narrative. David Kepesh has the same erotic obsessions as did Alexander Portnoy, but gone is the hysterical attempt to blame it on his background; gone too is the anxiety-ridden attempt to turn it into a joke. Eroticism as seen in The Professor of Desire is a powerful, foreboding, and persistent force, even from the novel’s first words, at once both humorous and strangely haunting, “Temptation comes to me first in the conspicuous personage of Herbie Bratasky . . .”
It is a novel about the nature of temptation itself, in all its guises. Oscar Wilde once said that the only way to resist temptation is to succumb to it, but his witticism contains a truth, because even if we do resist temptation it continues to loom, to grow, as a threat, ever returning, dominating our lives. Man longs for salvation, wholeness, but is drawn also to another force, seen variously through the ages as evil, sin, illness. “Do you want to be healed?” Jesus asks of the lame man who is waiting by the pool where the angel troubles the waters, and at first it seems a ridiculous question — what man lame for thirty-eight years would not want to be healed? — but in fact it is the question that we all must answer, because in many ways we are tempted, we are in love with, our own illness. (Why, after all, was a lame man waiting by a pool where his chance for a cure depended on quickness of movement?) Jesus’ solution for the lame man, we also might remember, is a stunningly simple one, “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.”
Each of us is tempted in a different way; the roots of one’s own obsession can seem banal and incidental. David Kepesh grew up at the mountain resort which his parents owned. The vacation season was hectic, but the winters were relaxing, idyllic. David, one of two Jewish children in his class, was a model student. His parents were relaxed; his father composed long newsy letters to his distinguished guests. His mother reminisced about an earlier, less frantic life as a secretary to distinguished businessmen. Years later, Kepesh looks back on those tranquil domestic scenes with fondness and longing, much in the way that Alexander Portnoy remembered the Sunday morning neighborhood softball games of his youth. But the summers brought distractions, a hectic pace, to the Kepesh family, and to David they brought temptation in the form of Herbie Bratasky, who was the hotel’s “social director, bandleader, crooner, comic, and m.c.,” and also had a remarkable talent for mimicry, not only “Cuzie’s accent, the shofar blowing, and. . . . a fighter plane nose-diving over Berchtesgaden,” but also, incredibly, the sounds of a bathroom. “Herbert L. Bratasky and nobody else in the world can now do taking a leak, taking a crap, diarrhea — and unrolling the paper itself. That leaves me just one mountain to climb — wiping!” (For a few uneasy minutes I was afraid that this book was trying to do for defecation what Portnoy’s Complaint had done for masturbation.) Herbie, who seems harmless enough in himself, represents the temptation of the forbidden, and, though David soon abandoned his ambition to follow in Herbie’s footsteps, he never lost his longing for that which was disruptive of convention, decorum, the laws of society.
The long first section of the novel describes the widening circles of temptation in David Kepesh’s life. Taking up the study of European literature, he also takes up sex, the ambition to be “a rake among scholars, a scholar among rakes.” Throughout his college career, he is known for his incessant, outrageous propositions. On a Fullbright in England, he consorts frequently with whores, and enters into a menage a trois with two Swedish girls. Elisabeth is a tall blond, a conventional woman, devoted to her family; Birgitta is her shorter, darker roommate. At first David and Elisabeth only use the apartment while Birgitta is pretending to sleep, but soon Birgitta has joined them. For the first time in his life, David has the chance to indulge his most extreme fantasies. He is little attuned to Elisabeth’s feelings. He and Birgitta question her: “what was it she secretly wanted most, what was it that she only dared to think about herself and never in her life had had the courage to do or to have done to her?” Elisabeth confesses to something, and they enact it, but she does so only reluctantly. Eventually she attempts suicide, and, recovering, returns home. Her subsequent letter to David is poignant. “It was like being in hell. I was in love with someone and what I did had nothing to do with love. It was like I no more was human being . . . I know I must never again do what we three did as long as I live.”
These women represented the two sides of David’s life, and they did not survive together. Having lost Elisabeth, he takes up with Brigitta, realizes they are “two of a kind” in their erotic obsession; they tour Europe, exploring possibilities. Returning to America, he discovers Helen Baird, who had answered the lure of temptation to an even greater degree than he: raised in a middle-class family, enrolled in a university, she had fled it all at the age of eighteen to become the mistress of a journalist in Hong Kong. As was the Monkey for Portnoy, Helen was the incarnation of all David’s sexual imaginings. Sex with her was spectacular, but accompanied for him by a vague uneasiness. When he had broken with Birgitta in Europe, he had thought he would be relieved, abandoning a period of dissolution to return to his true self, but as soon as she was gone he wondered if perhaps it was his life with her that had involved his true self. As if to resolve that conflict, acknowledge his darker side, he finalized his relationship with Helen, married her. The marriage was a disaster; it ended three years later in divorce.
Throughout David’s earlier relationships, The Professor of Desire seems to echo, in a more somber thoughtful tone, fact after fact from Portnoy’s Complaint. But in marrying Helen, David goes beyond anything Portnoy did, and, in following David through his marriage, divorce, subsequent therapy, this novel moves far beyond that earlier one. Kepesh begins visiting Dr. Frederick Klinger, a psychiatrist, a “specialist in common sense,” who undertakes the task of healing him. Klinger tries to call him back to other things — his teaching, reading, writing — that should have at least as much reality as that life of unbridled sensuality, but Kepesh balks, struggles, clinging to the narrow world of his obsession. David visits with his parents — his mother is dying of cancer — and his father, a man of an earlier generation, is simply at a loss to understand why David has so tormented himself. (One cannot help wondering — this confrontation between generations raises the question — if men in more repressive cultures have had the same struggles with sex that modern men are having. It is obvious from the reader’s perspective that Klinger is right, that David has allowed his world to be too much constricted; Abe Kepesh, with his family, his business, his interests in social causes and politics, has always occupied a larger one. No doubt he has not explored his sexuality as David has; perhaps there is much he does not know about himself. Still, even as he is entering old age, his life seems more fulfilling than his son’s.) David’s days are lonely; he sublets an apartment by himself. His work is languishing. He has few friends. Throughout the time of his therapy, he is sexually impotent.
David is rescued from this period not by Dr. Klinger’s persuasive arguments, but by the love of a human being, Claire Ovington. She too is fleeing an unfortunate past, the tumultuous family life of her childhood; she escapes it by building around herself a routine of domesticity. Like Helen, she is a beauty, but somehow not a threatening one. She is extremely sensual, but establishes the limits of what she enjoys, and makes David aware of her feelings. As she rejuvenates him, he is able to stop seeing Dr. Klinger, take up his work again. They travel together to Europe. Kepesh is like a man recovering from an addiction, still unsteady on his feet, staring in wonder at the beautiful world around him that he has been neglecting. He is convinced, for a time, that Claire is leading him toward wholeness, health, salvation. But simply by his presence in Europe, an old temptation returns: he begins to remember his excesses with Birgitta. Tormenting visions, they return when he least expects them. There are moments when it seems that Claire is not enough, that she does not fulfill his deepest needs. Like the reformed addict, he has moments when he does not think he can face life without the needle.
It would take many pages to suggest the richness and complexity of the last sections of this novel. One begins to see that each character in the novel has his own temptation, that in some perverse way, for instance, Claire is drawn to the tumultuous family life that had been so destructive for her. One begins to see complicated interrelationships, that perhaps David was the same kind of healer for Helen that Claire had been for him. The literature that David has been ruminating on throughout the novel comes to have an integral relationship to the story he is telling. In his constant theorizing about social questions, modern prejudice and his past as a Jew, his father suggests a historical parallel to David’s personal struggle.
In the novel’s last section, a prolonged description of a visit to the mountains, David is made to confront once again his fears that he will lose his desire for Claire, the real attraction that he still has for Helen, and his feelings — as he watches his father grow old — of the fragility of existence. What he wants, finally, is not even to live in wholeness, but simply to know which life is meant for him, the peaceful domestic existence that Claire seems to offer or the life of sensual excess that he has several times experienced. He wishes that some choice in his life could be final, that he could achieve the stability that his father seems to have, or the quiet dignity of his father’s friend, a Mr. Barbatnik, who comes on a visit with Abe Kepesh over the Labor Day weekend. Mr. Barbatnik had survived the holocaust in Europe, perhaps the most shattering experience in modern history, yet even in his life — as he tells his story — once he had survived, moved to America, there was no final peace. David Kepesh is searching for certainty. Thrown between two worlds, he wants finally to choose one or the other. But he cannot do that. For there is no certainty, no final choice; we must continue to live between two worlds — devoting ourselves to one, perhaps, but never fully free of the other — because they are not exclusive, they are not distinct: one is as real as the other and both are parts of ourselves.