Roth Roars Again, Pitiless, Raging Against Age, Illness

The Dying Animal , by Philip Roth. Houghton Mifflin, 156 pages, $23.

In the eight-year period since 1993, Philip Roth has demonstrated, by the publication of Operation Shylock , Sabbath’s Theater , American Pastoral and The Human Stain , that he is quite simply the greatest novelist writing in the English language. Any work by him deserves our undivided attention. So it is with The Dying Animal , the novella that continues the puzzling Kepesh series.

Mr. Roth’s readers will remember that David Kepesh made his first appearance in another novella, The Breast (1972), a brilliantly funny and elegant literary spoof attached by the author’s exuberant fancy to Kafka’s The Metamorphosis , Gogol’s “The Nose” and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels –and perhaps, on the sly, to Swift’s “A Tale of a Tub,” written when Swift had read every book and remembered everything he had read. At the age of 38, the narrator, a professor of literature who has had for some three years a rather airy relationship with a school teacher called Claire–they do not share an apartment, and in the last two years of their affair have not made love more often than two or three times a month–turns into a breast! An orgiastic, 155-pound breast reposing in the Lenox Hill Hospital for at least 15 months, its sexual energy concentrated in the nipple that Kepesh wants to insert, as his new phallus, into any available opening of the human body.

Astonishingly, Kepesh returned five years later in The Professor of Desire (1977), a prequel to The Breast , having been retrofitted into a personage in whom Alex Portnoy might recognize himself (except that Kepesh grew up in the Catskills, where his parents kept a borscht-belt hotel). With him returned the visitors to Kepesh-the-Breast: chief among them Claire, the voluptuous WASP with breasts “large and soft and vulnerable, each as heavy as an udder upon my face, as warm and heavy in my hand as some fat little animal fast asleep,” and Kepesh’s father. By the time Kepesh qualifies as the “professor of desire” (he is preparing a comparative literature course on “disquieting contemporary novels dealing with prurient and iniquitous sexuality”), Mr. Roth’s sexual obsessions have all, like circus animals, been on show: subjugation of the woman through fellatio, the concomitant need to have her revel in swallowing sperm, voyeuristic practices mixed with more than a dash of sadism (getting a second woman to join in the sexual act, daydreams of pimping for the woman one lives with), and impotence as punishment for amatory misadventures. But, as this exquisitely constructed Bildungsroman , which is also a meditation on Kafka and Chekhov, nears its end, it offers moments of wistful and remarkable–by Rothian standards–tenderness. Kepesh yearns for sex that does not ask for “more.” He broods about the certain loss of his desire for Claire and, with it, the peace she has almost brought him; he has a vivid premonition of the death of his father (which becomes conflated with the extinction of European Jewry). Recorded 14 years later, in Patrimony , the death of Mr. Roth’s own father looms threatening and foreseen.

Now David Kepesh is back. When this new chapter of his story opens, in 1992, he is 62; for 15 years he has been a cultural critic on NPR and Channel 13, and he teaches Practical Criticism (one senior seminar per year) at an unidentified university in or near New York. But one is forced to wonder whether he is really Kepesh redux. For one thing, his curriculum vitae does not jibe with that of the professor of desire. The Kepesh of The Dying Animal has a son who is 42 either in 1992 or sometime toward the story’s end in 2000, neither hypothesis being arithmetically possible for the Kepesh we knew. This prudish and conflicted offspring, whom Kepesh enjoins to “Confront at long last your father’s prick,” is the product, we are told, of Kepesh’s 1956 marriage, a catastrophe which the reader is constrained to applaud because it provides the opening for a “sidelight”–a stupendous harangue on sex in the 1960’s. However, the Kepesh of The Professor of Desire could not have contracted that union because, at the time, he was in London on a Fulbright doing sex à trois with two Swedish girls.

To return to the story, there is a Cuban-American young woman, Consuela, a year or two older than other members of his seminar, distinguished by her beauty, old-fashioned politeness and clothes (of the Lord & Taylor sort is what I would call them) attending Kepesh’s seminar. He waits to make his move until after the course is over and the grades are in–this is his standard procedure–and gets her into his bed. Her performance is mediocre when it comes to the more advanced sexual procedures Kepesh requires, but her breasts and her self-assured narcissism have him hooked. So does tormenting jealousy, of past boyfriends principally. After a year and a half, the affair comes to an end stupidly: Kepesh enrages Consuela by not showing up at her graduation party. But there is more to it: Both Kepesh and his friend O’Hearn (married and Catholic and fond, just as Kepesh, of young girls) believe in the necessary detachment of desire from love. “He who forms a tie is lost, attachment is my enemy,” Kepesh says to himself, plays the piano, thinks of Consuela and masturbates until he is no longer sick with desire . He remembers where he got those words, the source also of the title of this novella. It is the apostrophe to “sages standing in God’s holy fire” in Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium,” and he quotes from it: “Consume my heart away; sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal / It knows not what it is; …”

One might suppose that was all there was to it–variations by Mr. Roth on Yeats’ dichotomies of love and sex, age and desire, nature and artifice, all summed up in the poet’s cry in another poem: “What shall I do with this absurdity– / O heart, O troubled heart–this caricature, / Decrepit age that has been tied to me as to a dog’s tail?” But there is more. On the New Year’s Eve that ushers in the year 2000, Consuela shows up at Kepesh’s to tell him that she has breast cancer. He feels the hard lumps; because she wants him to have a record of her body as he knew it, he takes photographs of her in the nude; she tears off the fez she constantly wears now so that he can see, touch and kiss the baby fuzz that has replaced the hair destroyed by chemotherapy. “Consuela now knows the wound of age,” Kepesh observes. “Her sense of time is now the same as mine, speeded up and more forlorn even than mine.” It isn’t clear to him that he could sustain an erection if she asked him to sleep with her. That is the response of the living. Kepesh, however, has seen how the dying respond. His friend O’Hearn is left partially paralyzed by a stroke and without the power of speech; Kepesh sees him on his death bed, desperately groping for the wife he has not touched in years. Attachment is the enemy, but Kepesh, desperate for Consuela–”Her tits? Her soul? Her youth? Her simple mind?”–realizes another truth: “[N]ow that I’m nearing death, I also long secretly not to be free.”

The inconsistencies between the Kepesh stories are, to my mind, like gashes made by the swipe of a lion’s paw: They are marks of a master’s impatience with story-telling conventions. The same lion’s paw violently bent the form of the novel in The Human Stain .

Mr. Roth wrote more lyrically, and some will say with greater sympathy, about the struggle of the libido against age, illness and despair in Sabbath’s Theater and, indeed, in The Human Stain . There is no room for gallantry or pity in the claustrophobic novella under review. Kepesh himself has become coarse. Gone are the playful self-questioning and the irony, and with them the pyrotechnics of literary allusion, except, perhaps, for the curious family resemblance (bordering on the pastiche) of the Kepesh of The Dying Animal to certain of Saul Bellow’s creations: not Augie March, Henderson, Herzog and Sammler, the subjects of Mr. Roth’s brilliant and generous article on Mr. Bellow’s work in last October’s New Yorker , but the crabbed, hectoring narrators of The Actual and Ravelstein .

The phallus is the 70-year-old Kepesh’s battering ram, an engine with which to break down the limits of the human condition. That, I think, is the meaning of his defiant Liebestodt , the advice he gives his son: “[O]nly when you fuck is everything that you dislike in life and everything by which you are defeated in life purely, if momentarily, revenged. Only then are you most cleanly alive and most cleanly yourself. It’s not the sex that’s the corruption–it’s the rest. Sex isn’t just friction and shallow fun. Sex is also the revenge on death.”

Louis Begley’s most recent novel is Schmidt Delivered (Knopf).