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Cover that bosom that I must not see

October 11, 2011 16 comments

The Breast by Philip Roth. 1972. 120 pages. Le sein, translated by Georges Magnane.

It began oddly. But could it have begun otherwise, however it began? It has been said, of course, that everything under the sun begins “oddly” and ends “oddly”and is “odd”: a perfect rose is “odd”, so is an imperfect rose, so is the rose of ordinary rosy good looks growing in your neighbor’s garden. I know about the perspective from which everything appears awesome and mysterious. Reflect upon eternity, consider, if you are up to it, oblivion, and everything that is is a wonder. Still and all I would submit to you, in all humility, that some things are more wondrous than others, and I am one such thing.

 Professor Kepesh lives in New York and teaches literature at university. He’s a specialist of Kafka and Gogol. One morning, he wakes up in the form of a giant breast. True, there had been slight signs during the preceding week, indicating that something was happening in the region of his groin but, as a recovering hypochondriac, he had forced himself to ignore them. His penis has transformed into a huge nipple and the rest of his body is now a breast.

Kepesh relates his life as a breast. He’s in a hospital, lying on a giant hammock. He can’t see and can’t help worrying about where he is: are people lying to him when they say he’s in a quiet and private  room? Is he on television, as a live show? (A concern very ahead of its time I think. Who could have predicted that trash TV we have now so early in the 1970s?). He can communicate through his nipple but not without difficulty. His lover Claire stays by him but a fellow professor he considers a friend bursts into laughter and runs away when he sees him. His father pays him regular visits and his psychiatrist, Dr Klinger – isn’t that a funny name for a shrink? – tries to help him cope with his new circumstances.

This incredible change in his life brings different kinds of questions: how did it happen? A hormone tornado, the doctors say. How can I live without my five senses? I’m blind but my skin is oversensitive to any touch and I’m aroused by the nurse who washes me. Is this really happening or am I dreaming or am I crazy? I’d rather be crazy, at least, it’s a logical explanation. And most of all, who am I now? Am I still human? How can I keep my humanity? Where is Professor Kepesh in that breast?

Of course, The Metamorphosis by Kafka comes to mind immediately, except that the author of Portnoy’s Complaint chooses a metamorphosis into something highly sexual and highly feminine. I think this choice is particularly interesting. Gregor Samsa is changed into a disgusting insect. Who wouldn’t feel bad if changed into a beetle? The Breast explores the experience with a man changed into a most desirable thing, from a male’s point of view that is. The outcome is similar: angst, angst, angst, but angst with the Jewish sense of humor of a literature teacher who thinks that too much Gogol and Kakfa might have led him to that improbable situation.

Philip Roth also refers to The Nose by Gogol. There are similarities in the stories: the fantastic tag, of course, as it is not possible to loose one’s nose or be changed into a breast but also the comic storytelling. There’s something ironic in the idea that Kepesh can only communicate with the outside world with his penis transformed into a nipple. Although Kepesh’s situation is sad and preoccupying, it is narrated in a funny way. Both stories also question the ability of societies and individuals to cope with difference. Am I still human if I lost my nose? Am I still a member of humanity if I’m only a breast? They both emphasize the importance of “normality” to have a social life.

Right from the start, I heard Woddy Allen’s voice in Professor Kepesh. He has the same funny-whining-worried tone than Allen’s anti-heroes. His experience of marriage with an exhausting wife ended with a therapy and his relationship with Claire is based on a chosen absence of roller-coaster. He comes from a Jewish family, an origin with a heavy impact on his mental frame, he has a psychiatrist as a confidant and is hypocondriac. As Woody Allen also used surreal elements in his films and I couldn’t help imagining a film by him when reading.

In his foreword, Theodore Solotarov points out that Roth writes in opposition to the model of the successful American novelist. He explains that Hemingway, Faulkner, Dos Passos write about very virile men. They fight, like boxing and don’t take into account their feminine side, contrary to European writers. He makes parallels between pregnancy and the process of writing a book. He also compares writers to women, staying at home to write while other men go outside to work. The Breast has to do with a man accepting his feminine side – well, here it’s more imposed than accepted – and with questioning writing. But what does he do with authors who write in cafés and what about working women? I don’t know when this foreword was written but it sounds outdated and I’m always bothered by generalizations. However, I wanted to let you know his analysis of the book.

PS: The title of this post is a famous quote by Molière in Tartuffe : “Couvrez ce sein que je ne saurais voir.”

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