In zijn roman ‘The Dying Animal’ (2001), verfilmd als ‘Elegy’, met in de hoofdrollen Ben Kingsley en Penélope Cruz, is de hoofdpersoon David Kepesh, grijs en in de zestig, cultuurhistoricus en populair docent aan de New Yorkse universiteit. Hij ontmoet er een studente van vierentwintig Consuela Castillo, dochter van Cubaanse ballingen. De aanwezigheid van Consuela, ‘een meesterwerk van zingenot’, verandert het ordelijke leven van Kepesh op slag in een erotische chaos. Zijn wereldwijsheid, zelfvertrouwen en verstand laten hem in de steek en wat begon als een onschuldig avontuurtje, ontwikkelt zich tot een navrant en tragisch verhaal van liefde en verlies. De titel van het boek is ontleend aan
W. B. Yeats’ gedicht “Sailing to Byzantium”
“Consume my heart away; sick with desire/ And fastened to a dying animal…” .
Een recensente in The Guardian (June 30th, 2001):
Linda Grant tackles Philip Roth’s misogyny in his latest insight into the lowest impulses of the American male psyche, The Dying Animal.
As Philip Roth nears 70, it is apparent that his life’s work is the history of the male psyche from childhood to old age. His last four amazing books, from 1995’s Sabbath’s Theater, in which he abandoned the playful postmodernism of his narrator Nathan Zuckerman’s youth and middle age, have seen him scorch through 50 years of post-war America. Don DeLillo can do that, but only Roth has got under the skin of his own generation, the men born into Roosevelt’s Depression era, marrying under Eisenhower, divorcing under Johnson, and reaching for the Viagra in the time of Clinton.
It is an unspoken rule of literary pages that women are not sent Roth for review, and this is not just because Roth speaks of what women don’t want to hear: the male sexual drive liberated from love and attachment; the fact that men desire women first for their bodies, only secondarily for their minds; that professors of comparative literature are like this, as well as the numbskulls. Roth is no different from Saul Bellow, whose shallow portrayals of women display the condition of a man who is a product of his times, but it has by now become apparent to many of Roth’s ardent admirers, both male and female (and I am a big cheerleader in the latter group), that there is in him a dark distaste for women, a repugnance that can only be described by the word misogyny. Which is bizarre, because Roth, for all his rages, can be the most humane, empathetic and compassionate of observers.
To come to Roth with the weapons of feminist criticism – to read him as Kate Millett might have done in her groundbreaking analysis of D H Lawrence and Henry Miller in Sexual Politics (1969) – seems churlish, brutal and reductive. Male desire is, after all, the point, and to attempt to destroy Roth with the kind of political correctness he has waged war against in his fiction would make one feel ashamed to claim to be a literate reader.
Barely a year after The Human Stain, the triumphant closing of his trilogy of post-war America, Roth is back with a coda, a short book in which he resurrects an earlier character: David Kepesh, the man who wanted to turn into a breast and whose life history we heard in The Professor of Desire (1977). We last saw Kepesh, the son of Catskill Mountain resort operators, established in academia with one disastrous marriage behind him. In a moment of supreme self-knowledge, looking at the body of the woman he loves, he recognises that his desire for her won’t be sustained – that passion will turn to duty, and that he is both powerless to prevent this sexual boredom in himself and unwilling to contemplate the hypocrisy of adulterous married life.
Kepesh is now in his 60s, still an academic but nominally a celebrity, at least in New York, for his role as a cultural critic on public-service TV and radio. His creed remains his own declaration of sexual independence, pointing out to his estranged, disapproving son that America itself is founded on freedoms, so why constrain yourself? “Because only when you fuck is everything that you dislike in life and everything by which you are defeated in life purely if momentarily revenged. Only then are you most cleanly alive and most cleanly yourself.”
The sexual revolution and women’s liberation have been good to him, delivering to his study door a succession of girls as intent on erotic adventure as he was in his own 20s. His girlfriends are recruited from his students, and he theorises that they are drawn to “old gents” not despite the age gap but because of it; because of the power it gives them to enter the lives of men who would be otherwise inaccessible, and to have them submit to the force of their youth and beauty. We glimpse earlier conquests, students of 20 and 30 years ago, now in their 40s, divorced, childless and alone. Humiliated by their encounters with the dates provided by marriage bureaux, they come to Kepesh’s bed because of his sexual generosity (forgiving a woman a 35lb weight gain). There are no female Kepeshs, lechers with an inexhaustible supply of young male admirers; not in this book, and not in life. This is a point that Roth acknowledges but does not explore. The reasons are too obvious to excite curiosity and investigation: youth and beauty are everything.
This year’s victim is Consuela, the daughter of Cuban exiles, a girl with monumental breasts beneath her silk blouses, pronounced by Kepesh “a great work of art… Not the artist but the art itself.” In other words, the passive object rather than the active subject. But Kepesh finds himself undone; tripped up in late-middle age by the most bourgeois of instincts, jealousy and possessiveness.”The eternal problem of attachment. No, not even fucking can stay totally pure and protected.” Consuela leaves him, enraged when he does not attend her graduation party. She returns five years later, on New Year’s Eve 1999, terribly transformed. The breasts which to Kepesh seemed her synecdoche – the sign that stands for the whole – are clotted with tumours. Breast cancer runs in her family, and Consuela is on the eve of a radical mastectomy and the possibility of early death.
Consuela’s visit is purely for the sake of her breasts. She wants Kepesh to say goodbye to them and give them one last admiring grope before her mutilation. Every woman I have told this to bursts out laughing. It makes total sense within the psychic structure of the novel; none whatsoever to the people who actually have the breasts. For Roth, women are always the art, never the artist; always – to use a term from the feminist 1970s – the sexual object rather than the sexual self.
Consuela, never fully alive to begin with, dwindles into literary device. Who is the dying animal? Ironically it is not the old man but the young girl, the inverted triumph of age over beauty. Yet in the book’s last two pages, Consuela calls Kepesh. The operation is imminent, she is panicking, he wants to go to her. An unseen, unknown voice (the next girlfriend?) warns him: “Think about it. Think. Because if you go you’re finished.” And there you have Kepesh’s dilemma. Freedom or attachment?
Life or living death? Lucky him to have the choice.