During a visit to former Czechoslovakia, professor of literature David Kepesh, while sitting at a café table and flirting with prostitutes (and likely KGB informants), is writing the opening lecture of his next semester’s literature course. The theme of the lecture is to trace his own ‘erotic history’ and to disabuse his students of the notion that’s been impinged upon them that literature is not self-referential. He never finishes the lecture in the novel and it’s the reader’s guess if he delivers it or not. At this point in the book Kepesh is so unhinged (in a dream he meets Franz Kafka’s prostitute, still alive and considered a national treasure) after a lifetime of depression, sexual disenchantment and an acute talent for failing at happiness, that his behaviour is unpredictable. But the reader does not need the finished text of the lecture since the The Professor of Desire itself is a chronicle of his sexual misadventures from high school to middle age and beyond (even Kafka’s prostitute disappoints him).
The title of the novel is ironic: Kepesh is not an expert on desire. In fact most of his sexual history constitutes a negation of his much-craved abilities to seduce women and to live out his unusual fantasies outside the margins of conventionality. Kepesh is a hard-working, well-behaved son who disappoints his Jewish parents when instead of opting to become a dentist, a lawyer or something useful that earns lots of money, or at least something respectable like a Rabbi, he enrols in a literature course and ends up as a literature professor.
From an early age Kepesh displays admiration for rebels and pariahs, owning to his strict upbringing, and when he gets to college he tries to live up to his models of debauchery. He lives according to two dicta, one attributed to Lord Byron – “Studious by day, dissolute by night” – and another to Thomas Macaulay: “A rake among scholars, a scholar among rakes.” Kepesh fancies himself a liberated mind, a suave, sophisticated sensualist, and he yearns to take lots of coeds to bed. In spite of a terrible reputation he earns for himself as a womanizer and seducer, that makes him look like he’s “reduced a hundred coeds to whoredom,” he has very little to brag about during his years in college regarding his sexual victories. Most female students, knowing his reputation, ignore him, and Kepesh also has a difficult time making any progress due to the 1950s strict sexual morality.
The only person he gets along with is Jelinek, a morose, anti-social outsider who doesn’t give a damn about conventions:
Why can’t I be more of a Jelinek, reeking of fried onions and looking down on the entire world? Behold the refuse bin wherein he dwells! Crusts and cores and peelings and wrappings – the perfect mess! Just look upon the clotted Kleenex beside his ravaged bed, Kleenex clinging to his tattered carpet slippers. Only seconds after orgasm, and even in the privacy of my locked room, I automatically toss into a waste-basket the telltale evidence of self-abuse, whereas Jelinek – eccentric, contemptuous, unaffiliated, and unassailable Jelinek – seems not to care at all what the world knows or thinks of his copious ejaculations.
Thanks to a Fulbright Scholarship he travels to London, where, away from his family and relatively free, he truly starts his sexual life, first by paying for sex with prostitutes and next when he meets two Swedish students - Birgitta and Elizabeth – who show receptive to the idea of living in a ménage à trois with him. Birgitta, his soul mate, reciprocates his fascination with unusual sex and helps push his limits as much as he helps push hers. Their relationship takes a tragic turn when Elizabeth tries to kill herself because she wants a normal relationship and can no longer take Kepesh pressing her to reveal her deepest (and it turns out masochistic) sexual fantasies. Alone with Birgitta the two explore the limits of their seediest fantasies – bondage, rape roleplay, public sex – and they seem like the perfect couple for a while, until Kepesh has to return to California to pursue his studies and is afraid of taking Birgitta wit him, making her see him as the scared, inexperienced boy he was pretending not to be. This part of the novel, incidentally, reminds me of a movie by Roman Polanski called Bitter Moon, based on a novel by Pascal Bruckner I’ve never read, about an American novelist who initiates an intense sexual relationship with a French woman that slowly escalates into stranger and stranger fantasies until they burn themselves out and start hating each other. I fear this could have been Kepesh if he hadn’t abandoned Birgitta. Even Kepesh acknowledges that the path he was taking with Birgitta could eventually have damaged him:
Following the year with Birgitta, I have come to realize that in order to achieve anything lasting, I am going to have to restrain a side of myself strongly susceptible to the most bewildering and debilitating sort of temptations, temptations that as long ago as that night outside Rouen I already recognized as inimical to my overall interests.
This of course takes us back to the David Kepesh of The Breast, who also has to learn to overcome his oversensitive libido in order to retain a sense of normalcy after he’s turned into a gigantic breast. After returning to the USA Kepesh never again finds the wonder and excitement of his early years. He marries a man called Helen and they have a horrible marriage and even more emotionally crippling divorce; he suffers bouts of depression and undergoes therapy; finally he meets a woman called Claire and tries to lead a normal life with her, all the while lamenting the loss of Birgitta, his ‘lewd, lost soul mate’, the only woman who ever matched his instinct for depravity and lust, and feeling nostalgic about the college period when he was a ‘sexual prodigy.’
The Professor of Desire came out in 1977 and I see it as a Roth commenting on the radical changes in sexuality from the ‘50s to the ‘70s in American society. At the same time I think the novel ponders the fundamental question of life: what is happiness? And is it attainable? Does more freedom lead to it? Kepesh is far more sexually liberated than his parents and yet he is far more displaced in the world than them. His pursuit of pleasure results in him becoming unable to form attachments with other people, and Kepesh is melancholy aware of this. Is happiness about being selfish or serving others? Kepesh looks up to his parents for having lived meaningful, ordered lives and feels ashamed when he can’t make them happy by having lived they can be proud of – divorced, living alone, an emotional wreck, without kids. Kepesh goes a long way out of ordinary life only to realize that’s what he missed all along. And yet he doesn’t believe he can ever find happiness in normalcy.
Although Roth has written extensively about sex, this novel is his darkest look at the way it can serve to dehumanize and traumatize people. The novel’s content and language have become far less shocking since the seventies, and nowadays it’s even hip for moms to read BDSM novels, but the novel continues interesting in the way it treats sex not as entertainment but as a source of obsession, consequences and insecurity, not as a physical act shared between two lovers but as a spiritual wound that hurts more inside the head than on the body and that is fraught many things save pleasure. Roth is far from being a puritan, he who contended with conventionality and scandal most of his career, but even the author of Portnoy’s Complaint realizes sex has several faces, and this one is the least seen.