“The Human Stain” by Philip Roth (2000)

Human Stain

Yet another contemporary literary giant by whom I hadn’t read anything. What I knew before is that Philip Roth writes about America. What I know after is that The Human Stain won’t be the last novel of his I read.

There is so much in this book – more than I expected out of 360 pages (sometimes I felt like, ‘Oh yeah, that happened as well!’). It is full of detailed psychological portraiture of (at least) four intricate characters, an extremely well-crafted plot, the USA commentary I was promised on the blurb (the story is set in 1998, i.e. Clinton-Lewinsky aftermath o’clock), and, definitely not least, beautiful, eloquent prose.

Ian McEwan said in a Guardian interview that he sometimes wonders whether “first person narration doesn’t let you off the hook of the demands of good prose. You can say, ‘Well, you know, if my character talks in clichés, what can I do about it…'”. But The Human Stain evades this danger with ease, as the narrator is himself a writer (and quite a good one at that). As one learns late in the novel, The Human Stain is actually a meta-title, since what one is reading is the book that the narrator is writing. I really love this subjective view that you have to accept as the reader; that there is no word of God. At times, I even found myself doubting the narrator’s trustability and mental stability.

I also always enjoy reading about the politics of academia, because it is something that can be so personal, childish even, but is always veiled in intellectual eminence. The Massachusetts town in which the book is set is called Athena, and Athena College’s scholarly Highnesses without fail manage to engage in petty fights of epic scope just as the Greek gods of old did. I wish I had more knowledge of ancient literature than just the most minimal survival kit, so that I would have gotten the allusions beyond the basic conceit of Athens, Greece/Athena, Mass. I loved and hated Delphine Roux, but she is certainly a fantastic character (her “betrayal of Kundera” is my favourite despicably pretentious but still just a tiny bit understandable sentiment). As, of course, is Coleman Silk, the classics professor who is the novel’s protagonist and whose story fundamentally surprised me several times throughout the plot. I sometimes had to stop and remind myself that I was reading pure fiction, not biography – although the story is inspired by real life events –, so lifelike are the personalities and the way things are in Roth’s world.

So, in conclusion I find that The Human Stain absolutely deserves the ambitious label American novel – if I’m not mistaken there are two other books in this series, both also possible to read as standalones, that, together with this one, make up the American Trilogy –, and for someone like me, for whom the US have always had a sense of almost perverse mythical fascination, the novel was a happy choice. Apparently there is also a 2003 film adaptation starring Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman, so I think I’ll be giving that a try sometime. What I’ll take with me for now is a book that I felt was worth my time all the time, and I think that that, whenever it happens, really says something.