Are some books always good? Or do all books need to be read at a certain time in life?
This has come up a couple of times at our polytitled book group (we change the name each month depending on the book we're reading. This week is it the Pentagram Architectura Coalition... though what this has to do with WG Sebald's Austerlitz I still don't know, because my copy hasn't arrived from Amazon yet)... it has come up a couple of times and while I was reading Philip Roth's The Human Stain it occured to me that this is exactly the kind of novel I'd have hated ten years ago.
Partly this would have been a reaction to my earliers self. I was a very serious undergraduate. Hell, I used to read Saul Bellow in my spare time... for laughs. Roth's world, in The Human Stain, strikes me as quite Bellowish. Small college. Political. Intellectual. Academic. Everyone is striving. Ambitious. Yet also so bitter and unhappy. Disappointed.
It's the kind of thing that as a 20-year-old I thought was incredibly important. Then I left university and worked in newspapers for ten years. That changed me. I admit it: I fell in love with froth, with the disposable. But I also fell in love with current affairs, the media and with people. Bellow-style academia seemed distant to me, and rather boring. I think I avoided Roth partly for this reason.
Now? The media interests me less, newspapers very little. Journalism has to some extent disappointed me as a career ( I thought it was for me, it isn't) and perhaps therefore I can empathise with curmudgeonly academics in a way I couldn't before.
The other reason of course is what I assumed, or was lead to believe Roth was. Sexist, old fashioned, bombastic. He's none of these things, not in this book anyway. Oh sure, there is one horrific female character. There are also some interesting ones, extremely positive. His portrait of Faunia, the young 'illiterate' mistress of his central character, Coleman Silk, is extremely moving. Utterly believable.
Although, I wonder a little... she is such a victim: would you write a character quite like that now? Does the horror of being abused as a young child carry the same power as it did when this book came out - ten and more years ago. We've been numbed to the idea a little, I think, in part by its ubiquity in novels. Everyone from the pulpiest thriller writer to the more literary -- Kate Atkinson's Case Histories comes to mind -- has employed the paedophile as the latter day equivalent of the Nazi. the bad guy no one need find any good in.
Roth's book isn't about paedophilia, and it is the stronger for it. Its about sexism, racism, the abuse of truth, its about how gossip is so often mistaken for fact -- I know a bit about that as a former gossip column journalist. I found it incredibly powerful and while his prose style is certainly demanding it has left me wanting to read more. Yes, I just might just go to Waterstones now and see if their 3 for 2 on all Roths still applies...