BOOK REVIEW: THE HUMAN STAIN, A NOVEL BY PHILIP ROTH

 Hello readers and happy Sunday! I hope you're enjoying your weekend. Today I'm back with a book review: The Human Stain by Philip Roth. I read this novel about a decade ago, but recently I found myself  thinking about it again. Sometimes a book stay with you. The Human Stain is a wonderfully complex novel focusing of examination of race and identity, with some politics and human relationships thrown in the mix. I feel that in many ways this novel was ahead of its time. Just the other day, I stumbled on an old copy (with my old notes) and started reading it again. Unfortunately, I don't have the time to reread it just now, not cover to cover, but I suspect that some day I might do that.  The review I will share today was written years ago, but I polished it a bit for this post. 

AND NOW A BIT OF FASHION TALK (AND LINKS SHOWING HOW I WORE THESE ITEMS BEFORE, SUSTAINABLE FASHION ALL THAT....)

As for my outfit, this is just something I put together the other day for a coffee date with my husband. You might remember this blue Amadeus dress (link neither sponsored nor affiliated, it's there because I like this brand) from this post. As soon as I bought this dress, I came up with two ways to wear it. Since then, I have worn it a number of times (see HERE).  Today my outfit proposal is all about playing with accessories. I layered several necklaces with this dress (all of them are old). I've been meaning to do the layered necklace thing for a while, but forgot. As teenager in late nineties and early zeroes, I wore the layered necklace look to school every single day. I used to make necklaces too, so it's been odd how I almost stopped wearing necklaces. Anyhow, I kept the rest of the outfit simple by opting for a straw bag in earthy tones and a brown pair of heeled sandals. I'm pretty sure I'm up to 30 wears with this pair of sandals, but I need to check my fashion archives to make sure. There might be a post about them one of these days. Scroll to read more. 


Alright, let's get back to reviewing this book. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR & MY READING EXPERIENCES
Philip Roth (1933- 2018) was an American author of Jewish origin. Many of his writing is autobiographical so his American Jewish identity is often examined.  Roth was one of the most awarded authors of his generation. I became familiar with Roth's writing during my University studies and I took to his writing instantly. I've been meaning to read more of him for years, but somehow I always forget to look for him when I visit libraries. There's something about his brutal honesty that appeals to me. I imagine Roth is not the kind of writer that will appeal to everyone. He's not very politically correct and he often explores taboo subjects. Moreover, Roth's view of the world, albeit perceptive, is often grim and depressive. 

  So far, I've read three novels by him: American Pastoral, The Human Stain and The Breast. I would say that the book that impressed (and haunted) me the most was American Pastoral. That novel is simply a masterpiece. The Human Stain is quite an impressive novel as well.  It is a novel that won many literary awards and rightfully so. The way it stayed with me over the years is really something. There are similarities one can draw between The Human Stain and American Pastoral. The two actually have one recurring character. What is more, they are both actually part of a trilogy. There's another novel in this trilogy: I Married a Communist. I yet have to read this one, but there's another novel by Ruth that I read and that would be The Breast. That one was interesting, although not on the same level as American Pastoral and The Human Stain. 

“We leave a stain, we leave a trail, we leave 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. The stain that is there before its mark.”
― Philip Roth, The Human Stain

Anyhow, long story short, Philip Roth is a writer I have been familiar for a long time. I plan to read more of him. Roth is not or everyone, but for the right reader, he can be a very satisfying read.  In that sense, I think he is definitely the kind of writer one can recommend exploring. I'm very happy to share this review today. When a novel stays with you for more than a decade, well, that's the best kind of recommendation. 

“There is truth and then again there is truth. For all that the world is full of people who go around believing they've got you or your neighbor figured out, there really is no bottom to what is not known. The truth about us is endless. As are the lies.”
― Philip Roth, The Human Stain

MAKING FUN OF THE ACADEMIC COMMUNITY IN STYLE

I quite enjoyed the abundant social satire in The Human Stain, especially when it was directed towards the academic community.  I mean, anyone who makes fun at academic community so brilliantly has my praise. If anyone needs some reality check, it's that kind of snobbish professors. Although that's not at all what the novel is about, it's certainly one part of the puzzle.  Roth is so good at making fun of everything that it can be distracting. Nevertheless, there is truth in his humour- before you know it, you realize that it's often the kind of stuff that makes you think.  His humour can be dark at times but so is his view of the world. This is a writer that's not afraid to dig deep. Again not the most important aspect of novel, but something I really liked is an attractive amount of social commentary and political satire. I do like when there is some quality social commentary in a book. One doesn't come across it as often as one would like. It seems that Roth really knows what he is writing about. Whether he researched this particular time period and place or relied on memory, he really captures the atmosphere and the politics of the time. 

AN OPEN CRITIQUE OF POLITICAL CORRECTNESS

Among other things, this novel heavily criticizes political correctness. More than being a mere critique of political correctness, this book analyses it. The Human Stain shows how political correctness can be used as a tool  (and indeed it often is). Sometimes forced political correctness can be used to undermine progress in the academic and science community. This novel was written years before the term 'cancel culture' came to existence, but it describes it perfectly.  Looking back, I would say that it was really ahead of its time. After all, the principal character in this novel falls victim to cancel culture. An University professor is 'cancelled' because of just one wrong word. The fact that he didn't mean anything by it  or even that the world has multiple meanings doesn't pardon him in the eyes of the public. 

AN OBJECTIVE NARRATOR THAT TELLS THE TALE OF COLEMAN SILK

The narrator of the novel is a writer Nathan Zuckerman. A well portrayed character with somewhat autobiographical elements to him, Zuckerman  serves as an objective narrator. All in all, Zuckerman is a likable character that connects well with the protagonist of the novel.  In addition, the narrator of this novel is there to tie all the stories, sometimes functioning almost as a private detective. Nobody in this story is quite what he/she seems, there is always some secret to be discovered, some aspect of their personality to be revealed.

Zuckerman is there to create some distance from the fascinating and mysterious protagonist Coleman Silk. It just occurred to me that this might be a reference to The Great Gatsby. There's the friendship between two men, one of them staying loyal to the other, even when all abandon him. True, these two men are much older than Gatsby and his Southern friend Nick, but there's a similar vibe to their friendship. However, there is more to discover here. If The Human Stain can be compared to The Great Gatsby in the sense that it also examines the American dream, it's still a distinctly original work of writing. The modern Gatsby has more secrets and the modern Nick will find most of them out. Nathan Zuckerman functions well as a narrator of this book. 


“Nothing lasts, and yet nothing passes, either. And nothing passes just because nothing lasts.”
― Philip Roth, The Human Stain

THE PLOT: THE INCREDIBLE STORY OF COLEMAN SILK

The plot is very interesting and definitely keeps one's interest. As the story progress, there are a few new characters introduced together with their back stories that get a part to play as well. So, there are subplots as well. The narrative is not chronological, there are digressions but they are meaningful for the story and just add additional interest to the plot.  The past and the present both play a part in this novel, affecting the future. At times the story (or perhaps better to say stories) might be a bit hard to follow, but it never stops being interesting. The idea for the novel is very original; at least I haven't come across it before. An African American character who passes for a Jew so he could get the job of his dreams (teaching literature) but then gets fired because he used a world that can be offensive to African Americans. In a strange turn of events, Silk is accused of being racist towards his own race.  Once the story starts, it really draws you in. I found myself captured by the story of Coleman Silk. I loved the way the author reveals more and more about this fascinating character gradually. I loved the account of Silk's growing up, his boxing days and his interaction with his family. I found it hard to believe how he cut all of his ties with his family in order to pursue a new identity. However, on many levels, Coleman Silk's story makes sense. Who of us hasn't feel burdened by our identity at times? Who hasn't thought of starting again fresh? So, maybe the story of Coleman Silk isn't as incredible at it might seem at first. 

SERIOUS AND TABOO SUBJECTS IT TOUCHED UPON

This novel explores some rather serious and taboo themes from the conflict between the society and the individual to the questions of race, identity, liberty and personal relationships. It seems that Roth is not at least afraid to go into the most serious issues (child abuse, PTSP, etc...). Moreover, his exploration of racial identity is rather bold. The idea that the identity of your nation or race can be a burden to you is certainly controversial yet I'm sure that many have felt it. Moreover, Roth is quite ruthless in his critique of society.  Some aspects of this novel can be seen as a critique of modern feminism and PC culture. As I said, Roth isn't for everyone. 

“There is something fascinating about what moral suffering can do to someone who is in no obvious way a weak or feeble person. It’s more insidious even than what physical illness can do, because there is no morphine drip or spinal block or radical surgery to alleviate it. Once you’re in its grip, it’s as though it will have to kill you for you to be free of it. Its raw realism is like nothing else.”
― Philip Roth, The Human Stain



THE PORTRAYAL OF CHARACTERS

The characterization in this book is brilliant. Roth's portrayal of characters is something I really enjoyed. I could even say it was my favourite part of this book. There is not a character in this novel that is not well described. Naturally, not all of the characters are given great attention, but even with minor characters one feels one gets a grasp on them. When it comes to principal characters, there is often a great attention to detail. Female characters are perhaps a bit neglected, though. 

FEMALE CHARACTERS IN THE HUMAN STAIN
Sometimes the female characters didn't really come to life. Perhaps Roth went too far in some aspects with Faunia Farley. I don't mean that she is one-dimensional character, for she is not. It is clear there's more to her than meets the eye. However, she doesn't fully come to life. Perhaps there is just too much going on about her.  At times I had the feeling Roth pushed some issues too far, especially with Faunia- I don't think that you should use gift and abuse in the same sentence. Roth does that or rather his protagonist Silk when he says something like "It could be the gift of the abuse" - I'll not describe the entire situation now, but it felt a bit odd. On one hand, it seems the writer really wanted us to sympathize with Faunia as readers and make us care for her. On the other hand, Faunia sometimes seemed like a pawn in the plot. 

On the other hand, the characterization of another female character Delphine Roux was right on- I feel a little bad because I enjoyed so much the way he ridiculed the figure of frustrated feminist intellectual.
This novel is such a good example of Freudian slips in language, the words he puts into characters mouths- they really make sense in the context of the story. Delphine was so well portrayed. With her human insecurities masked in intellectualism, Delphine was a character that really came to life. 

THE CONCLUSION: MY FINAL THOUGHTS
Not for the faint of heart. This is a novel that contains some strong language and can be brutal in its social satire. It ridiculous the emptiness of political correctness and isn't afraid to ask some bold questions. It's describes the political climate of the period and place it is set with brutal honestly. The Human Stain shows us the fragility of human knowledge. The plot is engaging and so are the characters.  It is a novel that features credible but flawed characters. The Human Stain is not without some minor flaws. The writing is perhaps too bitter and pessimistic at times, but on the whole this novel is a complex piece of writing that deserves attention.  All in all, it's a successful novel. In my opinion The Human Stain deserved all the literary awards it got and more.

“Because we don't know, do we? Everyone knows… How what happens the way it does? What underlies the anarchy of the train of events, the uncertainties, the mishaps, the disunity, the shocking irregularities that define human affairs? Nobody knows. 'Everyone knows' is the invocation of the cliché and the beginning of the banalization of experience, and it's the solemnity and the sense of authority that people have in voicing the cliché that's so insufferable. What we know is that, in an unclichéd way, nobody knows anything. You can't know anything. The things you know you don't know. Intention? Motive? Consequence? Meaning? All the we don't know is astonishing. Even more astonishing is what passes for knowing.”
― Philip Roth, The Human Stain
Thank you for visiting, stopping by, reading and/or commenting. Take care!

Comments

  1. Great dress and love the bag. I don't know this book!

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  2. I have never read any Roth, but this intrigues me! Thanks for the excellent review, Ivana!

    Your dress is so beautiful on you - great accessorizing! I go through phases with certain things, like necklaces, belts, etc. and wear them like mad...then I don't touch them for years. Nice to see you've come around again on necklaces!

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  3. Lo tendré en cuenta Roth es un gran autor. Te mando un beso y el vestido es muy lindo

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  4. Love your dress Ivana! Thanks for the book review! I've been looking for a few new books to read! Have a great week!

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  5. I've never read any Roth either but your review makes me think that I should.
    I love the Grecian vibes of your blue dress, you and Kezzie are on the same wavelength! xxx

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  6. Great post! I really like the decor of your blog! <3

    https://milentry-blog.blogspot.com/

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  7. Such a fascinating piece you have written on Roth's book. I think it's come full circle and needs to be read again. Especially, what is happening here in the states. Possibly, it was a wakeup call at the time he wrote it, but few noticed. He is one of my favorite authors. Although, I haven't read his work in many years. Thanks so much! BTW..I so adore that bag!

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  8. He is definitely one essential author you want to make time for. Yes, he is complex and such interesting characters he creates. Such a thought provoking post you've created!

    & a beautiful blue dress too!

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  9. This book sounds fascinating. I've added it to my to-read list of books from the library, so thank you for the recommendation.

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  10. Di Philip Roth ho letto Pastorale Americana e mi è piaciuto molto, non conoscevo quest'altro libro, ma da come lo hai descritto sembra davvero interessante, lo terrò senz'altro persente per il futuro!
    Quanto al tuo look, quel vestito è stupendo e ti sta una meraviglia sia come colore che come taglio! Sei splendida, Ivana!
    Baci!
    S
    https://s-fashion-avenue.blogspot.com

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  11. Beautiful outfit, thanks for sharing.
    I hope you'll visit my new post soon. Have a good day!

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  12. As always I'm admiring your in-depth book review. I've only read Portnoy's Complaint by him - a long, long time ago - but The Human Stain sounds quite intriguing, so I might give it a go. Loving that pale blue dress on you - it's definitely one of my favourites of yours - and the bag is gorgeous too. I'm loving pale blue and brown together. xxx

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  13. Sempre molto interessanti le tue scelte letterarie, bellissimo l'abito!

    Kisses, Paola.

    Expressyourself


    My Instagram

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  14. So cool and you are so pretty! :)

    https://www.heyimwiththeband.com.br/

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  15. Hey Ivana, I hope you're having a lovely week so far!

    First of all thanks for another recommendation that seems really interesting! I have to admit I have never read Phillip Roth, but I still have time and this could be a way to start reading the author! First of all it caught my attention that you mentioned that this is not chronological, those kind of stories are my favorites, but at the same time you have to pay attention and sometimes I even take notes. But on the other side, sad to hear that there are not a lot of female characters.

    And I really like the way you set the photos in this blog post, very inspiring and the look also remind me a little bit of a bibliothecary :) That bag is also perfect for carrying a heavy book.

    Pablo
    www.HeyFungi.com



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  16. It’s now on my list to read. Thank you so much for sharing. Have a beautiful day. Hugs.

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  17. I was super curious about the story... :)
    Xoxo
    http://myheartaintabrain.blogspot.com/

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  18. Hi Ivana
    I think this is the kind of book I would love to read!
    But your dress here in this post can rival with such a good read!! your dress is beautiful!
    xoxo

    marisasclosetblog.com

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  19. Dear friend! Your dress is beautiful and fit you very well. You looks very pretty. Thanks for the book review. I would like to read that book contains strong language.

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All your comments mean a lot to me, even the criticism. Naravno da mi puno znači što ste uzeli vrijeme da nešto napišete, pa makar to bila i kritika. Per me le vostre parole sono sempre preziose anche quando si tratta di critiche.

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