American Pastoral (英語) ペーパーバック – 2005/9/27
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As the American century draws to an uneasy close, Philip Roth gives us a novel of unqualified greatness that is an elegy for all our century's promises of prosperity, civic order, and domestic bliss. Roth's protagonist is Swede Levov, a legendary athlete at his Newark high school, who grows up in the booming postwar years to marry a former Miss New Jersey, inherit his father's glove factory, and move into a stone house in the idyllic hamlet of Old Rimrock. And then one day in 1968, Swede's beautiful American luck deserts him.
For Swede's adored daughter, Merry, has grown from a loving, quick-witted girl into a sullen, fanatical teenager—a teenager capable of an outlandishly savage act of political terrorism. And overnight Swede is wrenched out of the longer-for American pastoral and into the indigenous American berserk. Compulsively readable, propelled by sorrow, rage, and a deep compassion for its characters, this is Roth's masterpiece.
"One of Roth's most powerful novels ever...moving, generous and ambitious...a fiercely affecting work of art." —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"Dazzling...a wrenching, compassionate, intelligent novel...gorgeous." —Boston Globe
"At once expansive and painstakingly detailed.... The pages of American Pastoral crackle with the electricity and zest of a first-rate mind at work." —San Francisco Chronicle
ともあれ、アメリカ社会の断面 人間の性 どうしようもない事が存在する人生を成功したユダヤ系一家におこったできごとをとおして描いた好著である。 尚、原著の英語は、難解な単語 文語体が度々でてくる難しいものである。
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I think, however, that Roth's one-maybe-two-dimensional portrayal of Merry and the other revolutionary forces of the '60s was precisely the point. This novel was not so much about the turbulent '60s as it was about the disintegration of the '50s. The story is narrated by Nathan Zuckerman and told through the (imagined) eyes of Swede Levov, both of whom graduated high school before 1950. Roth is not only concerned with the collapse of the Swede's American dream, but also with his assimilation into American society, his pursuit and eventual attainment of the American dream -- all typical characterstics of the '50s. The Swede had no concept of the attributes which we typically ascribe to the '60s. He was too busy worrying about how to make the perfect lady's dress glove. The reason Roth did so much research and wrote in such painstaking detail about the glove industry was to tell the reader precisely what Lou and Swede Levov's lives revolved around. Since the Swede is the only character whom we see others through, of course he isn't going to question himself for being concerned with such things as D rings and piece rates. It's up to the readers to draw the inference that maybe, just maybe, the Swede is out of touch and too concerned with materialism and achieving the perfect life. This is not necessarily a terrible thing by itself.
What Roth aims to do is not to paint a 100 percent historically accurate portrait of the '60s, but instead to illustrate what a horror the '60s looked like to someone who was not a participant in the counterculture movement -- to someone who had something to lose. The best way to do that was to take the worst of that counterculture movement -- self-absorbed adolescents who raged against their successful upbringing in order to conform to the growing popularity of the rebellion -- and spill it onto the page, to show how berserk this decade was to someone who was in no way trained for it. To show how justified, cool-headed and rational some parts of the '60s revolution were would have detracted from an integral theme of the book, as imagined by the Swede: He learned "the worst lesson that life can teach -- that it makes no sense."
Also, keep in mind that Zuckerman is the book's narrator, and he is imagining nearly all of the story. He is trying, somehow, to make sense of the Swede's tragedy. It's possible that Merry really had a few more redeeming characteristics than is written, and than Jerry Levov says she did. The best way to make sense of tragedy sometimes is to say the whole world is crazy, and maybe that's what Zuckerman did, turning Merry into a raving lunatic in order to show that there was nothing the Swede could do to save her or himself. What Roth has done, with Zuckerman's help, is something along the lines Tim O'Brien talked about in his novel The Things They Carried -- to create a story that is emotionally true, if not entirely factually true.
At its core, this novel is an allegory, with the Swede representing the all-too-perfect 1950s and Merry the tumultuous, unexplainable '60s. In order to get across the full effect of this gulf, Roth had to show the '60s at their worst.
EDIT: I hadn't really looked at this review in a long time, then noticed a comment from a year and a half ago that (rightly) called me out for racist phrasing that made it sound like I was saying the black population of Newark was being ungrateful. I've edited it to reflect that I thought that Swede is the one who was thinking this, not me. It was very poor phrasing, but that phrasing was due to me not being nearly racially aware enough to realize it was poor phrasing, so I'm not going to blame a glitch in the writing. It came from me, and I'm sorry.
Merry grows up, though, to be a sociopath, a fanatic, who as part of the general 60's counterculture movement, commits a terrible act of violence, and has to go into hiding...for the rest of her life. Her act destroys the foundations of Swede's world. We watch him and those close to him slowly disintegrate, emotionally and spiritually. Their decline is not a decline in material fortunes, but it is slow and gruelling nevertheless.
Roth writes like an angel. Much of this book is expository, written in precise, evocative, sometimes Faulkneresque, sometimes academic prose. The characters are vivid, immediate, and believable. This is also an idea book, though, and often the ideas are left abstract...which isn't bad. Roth doesn't try to force answers where perhaps none exist.
This book is truly a treat.
Stylistically, Philip Roth's prose glides effortlessly between passages of sheer lyricism and Hemmingway-like reality. The characters of Swede Levov, his wife, Dawn, and their daughter Merry, --as well as other characters in the novel---are sharply etched and observed. The dialogue each of the characters speak is right on target and delineates their character without the author imposing his own "voice" upon the words they speak.^M
However, Roth's novel achieves the level of "art" in terms of social commentary and his view that America has somehow lost its soul and sense of direction. A decent, hardworking family--a family that has done its absolute best to raise their daughter to become the kind of person who reflects the best values our country represents---is totally destroyed when their daughter, Merry, becomes a terrorist and eventually lapses into madness. Roth's vision of the world is an extremely depressing if not a totally pessimistic one. Nothing that happens by way of historical or social events seems to make any sense. All is simply "chaos." What happens, simply "happens" and there is nothing one can do to stop the descent into a hell where nothing makes sense---where events totally overwhelm decent parents and their family's attempts to control them. ALL parents and families are not, of course, as Philip Roth describes them. But the trend away from traditional "values" and values which, apart from religion per se or political "correctness" have heretofore given our nation a sense of purpose and unity, are swiftly disappearing--as any, daily reading of contemporary headlines indicate.^M
There are a few minor "flaws" in Roth's novel. The scene in which Merry's friend, Rita Cohen, tries to seduce Swede Levov after visiting his factory, is a bit overdone and the crassness of the sexual encounter and the language spoken by Rita is out of keeping with the rest of the dialogue spoken by the character in the novel. One feels that the author has momentarily "lost control" of the scene and situation and sunk to a level that is out of proportion to the action which is taking place. ^M
The ending of the novel is a bit anti-climactic and does not leave the reader with a satisfying sense of plot resolution and fulfillment. But these are minor flaws indeed!^M ^M
"American Pastoral" is a deeply moving, often humorous, but most of all extremely disturbing novel. The author's descriptions of buildings, neighborhoods, and the effects which the riots of the sixties had on Newark and elsewhere throughout the country are graphically described. He captures the sights, sounds, and meanings of social upheaval and the people involved in the political events that take place as only a journalist and literary artist can.^M ^M
One may question the blackness of Roth's vision of an American gone astray---but one cannot question the humanity of his doomed family or the author's sense of compassion for the characters he has created and described. Never preachy or dogmatic, Philip Roth simply lets his characters speak as their destructive, nihilistic natures dictate.^M
The result is a novel that is, by turns, both immensely sad, often humorous, ferociously angry, but always intelligently written and conceived. It deserves to be widely read.
Much of "American Pastoral" satisfied this desire. Book one (of three) is a 100-or-so page, somewhat tedious prologue, where Roth's alter ego Nathan Zuckerman intruduces the main character and creates a setting to present his secret story. With book two, it settles into a wonderful exploration of inner and outer lives. This central section, and most of book three, is beautifully written and reads effortlessly, making the first part feel worthwhile. By combining real world places (hint - it helps a lot to know New Jersey) and politics, with fictional characters whose lives embody the times and themes, Roth puts us directly into the drama of the story.
This sounds like a cliché; but through lengthy description, we learn by stages about the conflicts inside the main character. Seymour "Swede" Levov, a handsome, Jewish industrialist and high school athletic hero who marries Dawn Dwyer, Miss New Jersey of 1949, and whose vigor and generosity of spirit bring him success in business and to a life in the affluent (and WASPish) Jersey countryside, suffers a tragic fall when his radical daughter Merry goes berserk with one murderous bombing, and then others. As she begins a life on the run, he and Dawn endure recrimination and only-partial recovery. We watch Swede in a journey through his past and his present, an apparently peaceful man who learns to accommodate the real world by devising his own reality. This seems the central theme, just how we are to construct a world that we want to live in. His traditional, Jewish father, and his angry brother, are respectively full of shame and hatred for the daughter, but Swede, who still wants to know what went wrong, is frozen - first in denial, later in incomprehension.
In the reading, we come to identify the people and the many facets of their predicament. Yet in the end, the plot is dropped, and that's where it failed as a narrative. American Pastoral ends symbolically and inconclusively. We never learned Merry's ultimate fate, what happened to Swede's marriage, or even the real identity of Rita Cohen, the vicious young woman who may or may not have been Merry's accomplice. I know it's a novel of ideas, but a book that goes to such trouble to develop characters and establish plot, should keep its promise and resolve the plot. It made me wonder Why Roth went on at such length, in so many sections. Why tell us the whole background to Swede and his family, and their latest heartbreaks, and then not finish the story? If the point was simply to illustrate clashing symbols and themes, it could have been done much more economically.
American Pastoral won the Pulitzer Prize, I think largely on the strength of its exposition. Much of it reads like an essay we'd want to write ourselves, from our very heart and soul, exploring our own tensions, flowing and unfolding with nervous honesty. I wish those Pulitzer people cared more about story-telling, since this is how the greatest writers, Dickens, Melville, Twain, Nabokov, and others, truly touch our lives.
"You fight your superficiality, your shallownes, so as to try and come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogacnce...take them on with an open mind, as equals man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong."
There it is, simple and straight forward. Phillip Roth is a very giving novelist. He states his point. Not just once, but again and again he echos this sentiment. And still people never fail to get this book wrong.
The superficiality is to take this book as the tale of the Swede's tragic undoing. Or to take it as a recounting of Merry's misguided rebellion. Or even of Nathan Zuckerman's obsessions. This is a book about how the self is infinitely unknowable. How one can never truly understand oneself, much less others. What makes this novel so brilliant, in my humble opinion, is not simply the very true message the book carries. In the hands of a lesser writer, this could come off as a platitude, a cliche, so overstated as to become meaningless. Instead, Roth gives you a collection of dazzilingly complicated characters, beyond simple definition, only knowable through the words of themselves or others, but unknowable all the time.
One reader complained of being frustrated with not knowing whether this was truly the story of the Swede, or a fiction of Zuckerman's mind. And to that I say, that is the point. We can't know the Swede except through the fiction we create in our own mind, our attempt at understanding that is always a little fiction, a little wrong.
One person accused Roth of overwriting. no doubt, they had in mind the long passages detailing the making of gloves in dazzling overspun details. To that I say, this is absoluetley necessary to the structure of the novel. That these trivialities occupy so much of our time and our lives. That superficiality and depth know no difference in the swamp of our mind or our estimation of people. Swede, the man judged to be just a father and a business man, a normal people, a collection of surface details. How could a responsible writer leave all of that out?
This book, engaging and complex, is what all great literature should be, a life in and of itself. A character at once identifiable by it's traits, but unknowable except for what we believe in our own minds it to be.