I admit I didn’t know much about Roth when I started reading his books. I didn’t know so much that I didn’t even know ‘Human Stain’ was the last book of the American Trilogy, so it became the first book written by Roth I read. I loved it, the complexity, the big and small picture, the range of topic this book touches on and dives into. It was not an easy read, but one that, months later still makes me think. I was raving about this book so much that my other half decided to get me another Roth for Christmas, that’s how I got ‘American Pastoral’.
That’s how, after part 3 of the trilogy I, still unaware, landed with part 1, and I loved it (again). A demanding read, not something to be read over 15 min daily commute, this book demanded continuous attention, but it also rewarded.
There are a lot of common points between those two books, especially the narrator’s perspective, initially I was surprised about that, but I no longer am. The ‘American Pastoral’ abandons the narrator at some point, or maybe to put it better the narrator becomes invisible, we no longer see him as a character, we only hear his story. And a great story it is.
The Swede is a successful Jew, who made the American dream come true. He embodies all aspirations his immigrant parents had, all every Jew in the 50’s and 60’s ever wanted to be – an American. Swede has a daughter, Merry, she despises everything he believes in, which is probably typical of most teenagers, but Merry goes a step further and manages to destroy Swede’s world, to rock its foundations and to undermine every certainty in Swede’s life.
It is a book about many things, just like ‘Human Stain’ was; it is about society and how it affects individual. It tackles the subject of death and growing old and reflecting on one’s life. Roth looking at Swede tries to understand to what extent parents are responsible for their children mistakes. How much can the parent form the child? Is it nurture or is it nature? If a child does something unthinkable does it mean something unthinkable has had to happen to it before, to trigger such response. Are the roots of all our mistakes in our past? Should our parents always feel guilty for our mistakes?
Another interesting aspect is how society forms people, how expectations mould them either because they give in or because they object to them, how they are affected by the social environment they live in. This is a shared aspect with ‘Human Stain’, the reflection on how much do we belong to ourselves and what part of us society claims and forms. How our interaction with society is false and a game of impressions, how people consciously create and control their social presence. How rarely we allow ourselves to be honest, because we are not who we are, we are who other people think we are, so the only thing we can try is to influence how they see us, create ourselves for them according to their expectations.
There much more to both of those books and I think in few months or a year I will be going back to them to find even more.
Now to complete the trilogy I need to get my hands on ‘I married a Communist’ and because of my resolution I need to wait till April or convince my other half that I need this book more than anything else and it should be my Valentine’s gift (can anyone think of an occasion before then, pretty please? I’d really like to get it sooner).
Quotes from The Human Stain
Quotes from American Pastoral
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska