Roth's 'The Human Stain' -- complexity, grace, redemption

On Books

May 14, 2000|By Michael Pakenham

It's pal time. Within one month, two of America's most illustrious living novelists have published buddy books. In April came Saul Bellow's "Ravelstein," a celebratory obituary of a brilliant scholar, based on the late Allan Bloom. It was narrated by a fictional novelist whose consciousness is often inseparable from Bellow's own.

Now comes "The Human Stain" by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin, 361 pages, $26), the elegiac odyssey of a brilliant scholar who resembles Anatole Broyard, the late New York Times book critic. In this case, the storyteller is a fictional novelist, Nathan Zuckerman, who has appeared in eight previous Roth books and is -- in Roth's own words, published elsewhere -- Roth's "alter brain."

There are other parallels. Both Roth, 67, and Bellow, 84, have had extraordinarily productive careers, heaped with honors for long shelves of distinguished novels. In these books, both write of men in later life, who -- yearning to be fairly understood -- have asked that the books be written. Each hero is treated with affection and intensity more usually devoted to sagas of youth or midlife and of something like romance. (No, neither relationship is homosexual, though Bellow's Bloomlike character is gay.)

Both books are as artful as anything either of these writers has ever produced. Arguably, each is the author's most mature and elegant novel.

"The Human Stain" begins in the summer of 1998. Coleman Silk, 71, a classicist, has been forced to retire two years earlier from the faculty of Athena College, in the Berkshires, after more than 20 years. On being fired, Silk, a former dean, sought out the 65-year-old Zuckerman, asking this hermitic novelist to write the story of the unfairness of his dismissal. That action was based on a lie, that his classroom use of the word "spooks" -- clearly meaning specters -- had racist intent. Silk's adamantly principled refusal to disavow himself had been twisted to exacerbate his offense.

In the ensuing two years, the two men have become intricately and elaborately friendly -- swapping much of each other's rich, nuanced life experiences and perspectives.

Silk's cherished wife had died of a stroke that Silk attributed to the faculty battle. Now, at 71, he is having an affair with a 34-year-old cleaning woman, Faunia Farley. She lives as a primitive illiterate, though she had a richly advantaged childhood, destroyed by a stepfather's abuse, which drove her from home -- and to become a lifetime victim.

The remaining major characters -- and there are many splendid minor ones -- are Faunia's ex-husband, a violently psychotic Vietnam veteran, and Delphine Roux, a Paris-born multiculturalist pedant whose ambitiousness has brought Silk down.

The faculty and leadership of Athena is depicted as cruel, opportunistic, vicious and indifferent to ethics. But Roth's clear message is those qualities are commonly characteristic of contemporary university faculties at their most Darwinian playfulness. He gets that down well. The best, maybe, of his many rich expressions of it is: "The capricious cruelty of their righteous idiocy."

Roth's contempt for hypocrisy in general is exceeded only by his scorn of political correctness and the cult of the victim: "This generation that is proud of its shallowness. The sincere performance is everything. Sincere and empty, totally empty. ... The sincerity that is worse than falseness, and the innocence that is worse than corruption. ... Their shamelessness they call lovingness, and the ruthlessness is camouflaged as lost 'self-esteem.' ... The hyperdramatization of the pettiest emotions."

That emptiness is the armature of the novel, its moral core.

Sex -- famously a Roth theme at least since "Portnoy's Complaint" -- still claims attention. Learning of the fresh sexuality in Silk's life, Roth/Zuckerman reflects, "How can one say, 'No, this isn't part of life,' since it always is? The contaminent of sex, the redeeming corruption that de-idealizes the species and keeps us everlastingly mindful of the matter we are."

The natural innocent, Faunia, naturally enough, turns out to have deep wisdom, a sense of the human race. It is she who uses the novel's title term, "the human stain," in describing life. As Roth elaborates her perception, the stain is "our imprint. Impurity, cruelty, abuse, error, excrement, semen -- there's no other way to be here. Nothing to do with disobedience. Nothing to do with grace or salvation or redemption. It's in everyone. Indwelling. Inherent. Defining."

Such is Roth's indefatigable command of constructive ambiguity, however, that "the human stain" has also to do with the color, or colors, of human skin.

How Roth loves surprises! And how well he weaves them, lays them up so when they come they not only surprise, but elicit a gasp of "Oh, damn! Of course!"

The overarching surprise (now being so widely written about that it will come to few if any readers as a surprise) is that Coleman Silk is a light-skinned African-American who -- like Broyard -- has lived since adolescence as a white man, cut off from family and race.

Roth's control of content and the motion of language is always artful. His knitting of the fabric of narrative is delight-filled. He is masterfully playful in taking serious ideas seriously and then holding them up by their heels and smacking them until they wail.

This is a book full of pain and unrequited yearning. It's full of smallness of mind and spirit. It is full of something like resignation -- a belief that humans' fate is determined, and that they are powerless to change it.

But it is also full of love -- the infinite complexity and grace that abide in even tiny lives. Perhaps that is only some primitive mechanism of survival, but it is nonetheless redeeming and profoundly moving -- just like "The Human Stain."

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