Monday, 4 February 2013

Philip Roth: The Breast

In the seventies Philip Roth discovered humour. That’s perhaps incorrect: his first great comical masterpiece was Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). Until then Roth had written intelligent, realistic and sober novels about family, sex and love. Although his early books contained irony and the occasional witty line, paragraph, situation or dialogue, Portnoy’s Complaint’s whole tone was one of sustained ribaldry: it was savage, satirical, sarcastic, crude; its humour ranged from the Rabelaisian one to situational to slapstick. Throughout the seventies he developed and refined this newfound talent for comedy in a string of novels: Our Gang (1971), The Breast (1972), The Great American Novel (1973). In my humble opinion as a connoisseur of Roth his talent reached its zenith with Operation Shylock (1993), the funniest and perhaps strangest novel he ever wrote. I wish I were writing about it instead of The Breast.

The Breast, a novella actually, is one of the weakest books in Roth’s oeuvre, as dispensable as The Prague Orgy. It is remarkable, to me, for only two reasons. First of all it’s the first part of a loose trilogy about David Kepesh, a debauched literature professor. This novella, however, has no stronger links with The Professor of Desire (1977) and The Dying Animal (2001) other than the protagonist’s name; facts about his life change from book to book to the point we can think of them as three different people, much in the same way the Nathan Zuckerman from My Life as a Man is independent from the Nathan Zuckerman of The Ghost Writer. The only theme uniting the three is their preoccupation with sex, but more on that later.

The second notable aspect of this novella is its connection with Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. David Kepesh, like Gregor Samsa, is the victim of a monstrous transformation that leaves his personal life in ruins. The difference is that Kepesh is turned into a giant female breast; a mass of flesh grows around his body, culminating in a pointy end above his head that resembles a female nipple.

Kepesh is a hypochondriac but rational man who gets worried when he detects a reddening of his skin. “Not a rash, not a scab, not a bruise or a sore, but a deep pigment change such as a I associated at once with cancer.” Although he’s a rational man his looking back at the signs preceding the transformation take the form of superstitious observations, like when he remembers that it was midnight when he called his doctor to come and examine him, the hour when transformations occur ‘according to the magically minded.’ After the transformation occurs and he’s left trapped inside a fleshy cocoon, Kepesh wonders if his turning into a giant breast wasn’t the universe answering to a silly dream he had of owning female breasts. Another time he tries to rationalize the transformation by thinking that his teaching literature has turned him mad, that in fact he’s not turned into a giant breast, it’s just that his sense of reality has changed and now he thinks he’s a breast:

   “I’m grasping at straws, you see. I thought, ‘I got it from fiction.’ The books I’ve been teaching inspired it. They put the idea in my head. I don’t’ mean to sound whimsical, but I’m thinking of my European Literature course. Teaching Gogol and Kafka every year – teaching ‘The Nose’ and ‘Metamorphosis.’”
   “Of course, many professors teach ‘The Nose’ and ‘Metamorphosis.’”
   “But maybe,” I said, the humor intentional now, “not with the so much conviction as I do.”
   He laughed too.
   “I am mad, though – aren’t I?” I asked.

This of course could also lead us to Don Quixote and how reading too many chivalry books warped Alonso Quijano’s mind.

What kind of man is David Kepesh? He’s still recovering from a traumatic marriage and ‘lacerating divorce’ and he is living a good life with Claire, to whom lately he hasn’t been responding sexually with a lot of interest. But after the strange mark on his body shows up he starts lusting after her again with a newfound passion. “Sex, not in the head, not in the heart, but excruciatingly in the epidermis of the penis, sex skin deep and ecstatic. In bed I found myself writhing with pleasure, clawing at the sheets and twisting my head and shoulders in a way I had previously associated more with women than with men, and women more imaginary than real.”

In fact this sensitivity was just a symptom of his body turning into a giant breast. But it’s still curious that prior to his transformation he describes his sexual performance as becoming more feminine. A lot of this novella is about gender-role reversals, with Kepesh becoming objectified, not just sexually objectified like women are but literally turned into a sexual component of the female body. When he becomes a giant breast he loses the sense of sight, taste, smell; he can’t move. He can barely hear under the mass of flesh. His body becomes sensitive to touch and Kepesh experiences sexual pleasure when someone rubs it. He has to be kept in a hospital room under heavy sedation to neutralize the acute sensitivity. He’s an extreme form of objectification, although I don’t quite see where he’s going with this.

Kepesh is particularly troubled by the fact he won’t ever have sex ever again and also that his obsession with sex is driving him crazy. His fantasies become pretty bizarre once he turns into a breast since his libido increases: his whole body is after all one big erogenous zone. His biggest fantasy is to penetrate a woman with his nipple:

I can imagine Claire, I can envision her – I see her sucking on me! I want her to take her clothes off – but I’m afraid to ask! I don’t want to drive her away – it’s bizarre enough as it is, but still I can imagine she has her clothes off, I want them off, at her feet, on the floor. I want her to get up on me and roll on me. Oh, Doctor, you know what I really want? I want to fuck her! I want that big girl to bend over at the head of the hammock and stick my nipple in her cunt from behind. And move on it, up and down – I want her to go mad on my nipple! But I’m afraid if I even say it it will drive her away! That she’ll run and never return!

He also tries to bribe a female nurse to sit naked on his nipple but she refuses much to his anger; after continuously harassing her for a long time the female nurse is replaced by a male one since the touch of men cause less stimuli on his body. At the same time Kepesh is aware that his increasing sexual appetite risks alienating him from his fellow mankind:

I was afraid that if I to become habituated to such practices, my appetites could only become progressively strange, until at last I reached a peak of disorientation from which I would fall – or leap – into the void. I would go mad. I would cease to know who I had been or what I was. I would cease to know anything. And even if I should not die as a result, what would I have become but a lump of flesh and no more?

In this isolated state Kepesh fears losing what makes him human, his dignity, his privacy, his rights, he fears being turned into a circus freak or a scientific spectacle. “For all I know I may be under a soundproof glass dome on a platform in the middle of Madison Square Garden, or in Macy’s window – and what difference would it make? Wherever they have put me, whoever may be looking down upon me, I am really quite as alone as anyone could ever wish to be. Probably it would be best to leave off thinking too much about my “dignity,” regardless of what it meant to me back when I was a professor of literature, a lover, a son, a friend, a neighbour, a customer, a client, and a citizen.” In this he’s not different from Gregor Samsa, who wrestles between giving in to the temptation of becoming a mindless beast animated only by desire and instinct, or preserve his human love for art and beauty. In order to maintain attachments to art Kepesh forces himself to listen to Laurence Olivier’s recordings of Hamlet, much in the same way Samsa tried to stop his family from getting rid of a picture that for him symbolising his connection to humanity. One difference is that Kepesh still has people who love him, notably his father, who visits him in the hospital, whereas Samsa was deeply alone in his metamorphosis.

Like I said I didn’t like this novella very much. I think it’s better once it’s read in tandem with the other Kapesh novels, but as a stand-alone text it’s very unsatisfactory. Reading the three books allows the reader to get an appreciation of the overarching themes of the trilogy and also the differences between the three David Kepeshes. The Kepesh of the second part is also fighting an urge to plunge into vice and sleaziness (it was the seventies, I’m sure it sounded a lot more shocking back then) and learning to resist his self-destructive sexual fantasies. Other things carry over from one novel to the other, like a lover called Claire, a stormy divorce, a friend called Arthur Schonbrunn, his meeting two Swedish girls in London during his student years. But we’ll talk about all of this in The Professor of Desire. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the novel, seen in hindsight, is the fluidity of Kepesh’s identity, another elaborate joke created by a man who invented alter egos and wrote himself in his own novels as a protagonist.


  1. In case you have not seen it yet, the following might interest you as a Roth fan:

    "[...] when asked which of his books he thought were the most well written, Roth chose Sabbath’s Theater and American Pastoral."

  2. It is funny, he chose exactly the same two books as his masterpieces as Harold Bloom did once... I need to have a look at Sabbath's Theater...

  3. Birne, thanks for that article. Funny, I never noticed the extreme opposites of American Pastoral and Sabbath's Theater. Excellent novels as they may be (AM more than ST), I must admit I prefer the irreverence and ribaldry of Operation Shylock and The Great American Novel.

    By the way, are you the Birne from The Fictional Woods?

    1. Yes, since I haven't got my own blog (yet?), I just lurk around the web on literature sites and blogs. You have a very nice blog and I have been following it for quite some time now.

    2. Well, it's good to have you around. Feel free to comment more often.

  4. Wow, what a bizarre plot especially for Roth! Usually really strange offbeat stories appeal to me and it sounds like Roth certainly applied his imagination here.

    In terms of the above I do not know if it is coincidence or not, but I believe that Roth and Bloom are friends.

  5. My mother told me she was assigned The Breast in a college class This could not have been all that long after it was published. She said it caused her to question the value of higher education.

  6. I'm currently awaiting a copy of Ramón Gómez de la Serna's Seins (a French translation), which I suspect may pair nicely with Roth's book, though I'll probably substitute your post on the latter for my actually having to read it.

  7. Brian, in the '70s Roth wrote many strange novels, and for me they were some of his best work. His satire of Nixon, Our Gang, is almost prophetic. And The Great American Novel uses baseball as a metaphor for American history, it's insane!

    Tom, I think the main value of the book is the way it shows the changes in sexuality from the '50s to the '70s. Other than that I don't find it a worthwhile book either.

    seraillon, now you make me think of a funny poem by Alexandre O'Neill about breasts. Not sure I translated that one when I did a big post about him.