- Hardcover: 376 pages
- Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (May 10 2000)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0618059458
- ISBN-13: 978-0618059454
- Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 1.4 x 22.9 cm
- Shipping Weight: 649 g
- Average Customer Review: 141 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #423,844 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The Human Stain: A Novel Hardcover – May 10 2000
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Athena College was snoozing complacently in the Berkshires until Coleman Silk--formerly "Silky Silk," undefeated welterweight pro boxer--strode in and shook the place awake. This faculty dean sacked the deadwood, made lots of hot new hires, including Yale-spawned literary-theory wunderkind Delphine Roux, and pissed off so many people for so many decades that now, in 1998, they've all turned on him. Silk's character assassination is partly owing to what the novel's narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, calls "the Devil of the Little Place--the gossip, the jealousy, the acrimony, the boredom, the lies."
But shocking, intensely dramatized events precipitate Silk's crisis. He remarks of two students who never showed up for class, "Do they exist or are they spooks?" They turn out to be black, and lodge a bogus charge of racism exploited by his enemies. Then, at 71, Viagra catapults Silk into "the perpetual state of emergency that is sexual intoxication," and he ignites an affair with an illiterate janitor, Faunia Farley, 34. She's got a sharp sensibility, "the laugh of a barmaid who keeps a baseball bat at her feet in case of trouble," and a melancholy voluptuousness. "I'm back in the tornado," Silk exults. His campus persecutors burn him for it--and his main betrayer is Delphine Roux.
In a short space, it's tough to convey the gale-force quality of Silk's rants, or the odd effect of Zuckerman's narration, alternately retrospective and torrentially in the moment. The flashbacks to Silk's youth in New Jersey are just as important as his turbulent forced retirement, because it turns out that for his entire adult life, Silk has been covering up the fact that he is a black man. (If this seems implausible, consider that the famous New York Times book critic Anatole Broyard did the same thing.) Young Silk rejects both the racism that bars him from Woolworth's counter and the Negro solidarity of Howard University. "Neither the they of Woolworth's nor the we of Howard" is for Coleman Silk. "Instead the raw I with all its agility. Self-discovery--that was the punch to the labonz.... Self-knowledge but concealed. What is as powerful as that?"
Silk's contradictions power a great Philip Roth novel, but he's not the only character who packs a punch. Faunia, brutally abused by her Vietnam vet husband (a sketchy guy who seems to have wandered in from a lesser Russell Banks novel), scarred by the death of her kids, is one of Roth's best female characters ever. The self-serving Delphine Roux is intriguingly (and convincingly) nutty, and any number of minor characters pop in, mouth off, kick ass, and vanish, leaving a vivid sense of human passion and perversity behind. You might call it a stain. --Tim Appelo
From Publishers Weekly
Roth almost never fails to surprise. After a clunky beginning, in which crusty Nathan Zuckerman is carrying on about the orgy of sanctimoniousness surrounding Clinton's Monica misadventures, his new novel settles into what would seem to be patented Roth territory. Coleman Silk, at 71 a distinguished professor at a small New England college, has been harried from his position because of what has been perceived as a racist slur. His life is ruined: his wife succumbs under the strain, his friends are forsaking him, and he is reduced to an affair with 34-year-old Faunia Farley, the somber and illiterate janitor at the college. It is at this point that Zuckerman, Roth's novelist alter ego, gets to know and like Silk and to begin to see something of the personal and sexual liberation wrought in him by the unlikely affair with Faunia. It is also the point at which Faunia's estranged husband Les Farley, a Vietnam vet disabled by stress, drugs and drink, begins to take an interest in the relationship. So far this is highly intelligent, literate entertainment, with a rising tension. Will Les do something violent? Will Delphine Roux, the young French professor Silk had hired, who has come to hate him, escalate the college's campaign against him? Yes, but she now wants to make something of his Faunia relationship too. Then, in a dazzling coup, Roth turns all expectations on their heads, and begins to show Silk in a new and astounding light, as someone who has lived a huge lie all his life, making the fuss over his alleged racism even more surreal. The book continues to unfold layer after layer of meaning. There is a tragedy, as foretold, and an exquisitely imagined ending in which Zuckerman himself comes to feel both threatened and a threat. Roth is working here at the peak of his imaginative skills, creating many scenes at once sharply observed and moving: Faunia's affinity for the self-contained remoteness of crows, Farley's profane longing for a cessation to the tumult in his head, Zuckerman delightedly dancing with Silk to the big band tunes of their youth. He even brings off virtuoso passages that are superfluous but highly impressive, like his dissection of the French professor's lonely anguish in the States. This is a fitting capstone to the trilogy that includes American Pastoral and I Married a Communist--a book more balanced and humane than either, and bound, because of its explosive theme, to be widely discussed. 100,000 first printing.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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From the early 90's everything you say or do has more than its simple meaning. There is always a hidden agenda, even if you don't mean that --or even if you haven't considered that. People started using terms such as 'afro-Americans', but they didn't care about the afro-American rights, as long as they use the 'right' term. Surrounded by this hysterical blindness the protagonist of this novel, a professor named Coleman Silk, is forced to look back to his past and assume things he supposed to be long forgotten.
His downfall spiral began when he referred to a couple of absent students using the term 'spooks' that in his context meant ghosts, but, as he finds out later, it is also a pejorative term to Afro-Americans. He's forced to retire and his wife dies in consequence of all this trouble.
Silkman reaches Nathan Zuckerman asking to writer the professor's memoirs. The writer doesn't accept, but the professor ends up doing it himself. In this process of rediscovery we learn a lot of his past and how much he had to reinvent himself in order to survive. We also find out about his love affair with a young and problematic janitor, whose ex-husband brings them a lot of problems.
In this novel all about finding out who you were and what was made you --i.e. who you are now-- the master Roth is able to go deep into the wound of correctness and the need of lying and faking who you are so that you can be accepted. As Silkman finds out, people didn't like or admire who he was, but who they thought he was.
With his analytic vein, the author shows the American dream going bad, proving that the end of the century --and this new one-- is damned with a disease of people being fake most of the time.
Using his razor sharp style, Philip Roth has delivered another winner, a novel full of undertones and truth that may make people feel sick. The reading can go a bit slow, but it is not a problem, because in the end one gets more than he/she expected. Not recommended to everyone, but to those who like literary novels.
The title of the book sets forth its primary theme. A major part of human life is tied to human sexuality and to physicality. People ignore or downplay this aspect at their peril. This theme is reflected througout the book. Roth, even more than John Updike and with a different perspective than Updike, writes with a passion about the central role of sexuality in human life.
The story unfolds agains a backdrop of the Clinton impeachment hearings. The chief protagonist of the book is Coleman Silk, a 71 year old former professor of Classics and Dean of a small New England College. Silk has resigned from the college as a result of an investigation over a classroom remark that some found racist. His wife of many years has died, and Silk has become romantically involved with a 34 year-old divorced woman with little education who works as a janitor in the college. Silk's former colleagues, his four children and his acquaintances are leery of his affair. Silk befriends Nathan Zukerman, an alter ego who appears in many Roth novels, who tells Silk's story.
Silk has become highly successful but has done so in part by denying important components of his life. He is of African-American ancestry but light enough to pass. (Many American novels utilize the theme of "passing" for white.) He callously walks away from his family at the age of 27 in order to marry a white woman for fear that she would reject him if she were aware of his ancestry. He never reveals the secret. Roth's book suggests in a poignant way how difficult it is for one person to claim to know another.
The theme of individual self-determination in life choices, as opposed to following the course of the group into which one was born, is another major theme of the book. Roth develops it well, with all its pain and ambiguity, in exploring the choices Zuckerman has made. Many people probably would assert that people need to stay and develop within their group. This isn't Roth. He seems to me more qunintesentially American by celebrating the room modern secular democracy gives people to change and follow their stars. But, very simply, this is a different matter from denying one's origins altogether.
The book is full of great scenes, particularly of Coleman Silk's early fascination with boxing, and of literary allusions. There are allusions to Homer and Euripides, as befitting a professor of classics. Euripides, with his naturalism and recognition of the power of sexuality, is an excellent choice for emphasis in this book. There are also fine passages emphasizing the power of music, including a lovely description of Coleman's 19-year old lover, when he was young, dancing in his college flat. Mahler's music, with its feel for the earth, also figures prominently as does the powerhouse pianist, Yefim Bronfman.
Coleman's 34 year old lover is well described. She helps teach Coleman, very late in his life, the importance of sexuality and of human contact, to try to see and accept things for what they are, and to understand the inevitability of change.
Readers who enjoy this book might also enjoy Saul Bellow's novel, "Ravelstein" which raises many of the same issues. Bellow's novel tells the story of a philosophy professor who, like Silk, specializes in the ancient Greeks -- Plato rather than Euripides. Both books are narrated by a friends of the protagonists who are novelists and who request them to write narratives to remember their lives. Both involve stories of sexual passion and speak of the promises and difficulties offered in the United States where people can, in a real sense, become who they are. Roth's novel and Bellow's novel, the products of two of our finest writers in their old age, present good pictures of the potential of American life in our modern day.
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