on 27 August 2013
American Pastoral is the first and only novel I have read, so far, by this author. At first, attracted initially by the storyline and the award of a Pullitzer Prize, I found it heavy going. I think this was a combination of getting familiar with Roth's style and his attention to detail. However in persevering l was immensely rewarded. This is an epic tale in which the characters are exposed to a huge range of personal triumphs, tragedies and pretty much everything in between. Sucked in, I hoped desperately that the central character's beloved factory, workforce and neighbourhood, his "American Dream", would somehow escape the brutal onslaught of modern economic rationalism, youthful alienation and urban terrorism, but as with those closest to him, these monolithic, heart rendering events brush nurture and nature aside. For all that this is not a book that left me feeling in any way despondent. On the contrary it is packed with every positive human quality imaginable and the belief that whatever may or may not be accomplished the desire to "do the right thing" is paramount. I will certainly read other novels by this author and probably re-visit this one.
Seymour 'Swede' Levov has it all. A star athlete in his college days, owner of a successful glove-making factory, married to a former Miss New Jersey, and living in the big country house he always dreamed of, he is the embodiment of the 1950s American Dream. And specifically, the immigrant dream - Swede is third generation Jewish-American, each generation having become a little more successful, a little less Jewish, better educated, more assimilated, more American. And why shouldn't that progression continue with the fourth generation, Swede's daughter Merry? Born to every advantage, cosseted and loved, what causes this girl to become involved with the anti-Vietnam War movement and, aged 16, bomb the village store and, in passing, kill a local doctor? This is the question that torments Swede during all the long years that Merry is on the run.
The story is told by Roth's alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, who appears in several of his novels. In this one, Zuckerman was at school in Roth's old hunting grounds of Newark with the Swede's younger brother at the time when the Swede was winning glory on the football and baseball fields. To the young Nathan, he was a hero whose sporting skills lifted the morale of the community in the final years of WW2, and who was living proof that success was attainable for anyone from any background in the great meritocracy of the US. It's only after the Swede's death in the present day (late 1990s) that Zuckerman hears the story of Merry and the bombing. So the reader knows from the beginning that the story Zuckerman tells is not in fact 'true', except for the barest of bones, but instead Zuckerman's imagining of it. The struggle to make sense of it all is in fact Zuckerman's rather than the Swede's. As a result, neither Swede nor Merry are fully real, not even in the fictional sense of that word. They are representations - Swede of the '50s and Merry of the '60s. Though that in itself is too simplistic, since Merry actually represents the most extreme aspects of the '60s - the ones that leave Swede (i.e. Zuckerman) baffled and horrified.
Zuckerman talks of the Swede as 'bland', an 'incognito', a 'human platitude'. He is stuck in his '50s rut, a man so pleased with his life that he can't see beyond its boundaries. His reaction to the race riots in Newark is one of incomprehension - it has never occurred to him to try to see the world through other people's eyes, or to consider that the path to success might not be as easy for others as for him. He assumes his values are right and therefore shared by everyone. When Merry plants her bomb, she doesn't just destroy the village post office, she smashes the smug certainties of Swede's world and, by extension, destroys the '50s American Dream he epitomises.
Merry exists not as herself, but only as Swede's idea of her, and as a result her motivations are as incomprehensible to the reader as to her father. At first she appears as the idealised child he adores and later as the object of his anguish and bewilderment. She comes to represent everything Swede doesn't understand about this new generation: who look outwards rather than in, who are contemptuous of the values of their parents, who get enraged about things that don't directly affect them, who think the political system has failed them, and some of whom resort to violence to achieve their political aims. As she grows into adolescence and then adulthood, she turns into a monster, almost feral in her rage against everything Swede holds dear - especially the America that he loves. And when Swede finally finds her again, many years later, she has transformed into something so disgusting in his eyes that she appears barely human. And his tragedy is that still he loves her.
The writing is superb - Roth at the very top of his game. Scalpel-like as he performs his dissection of this man, but filled with emotional power as he describes the Swede's feelings of grief and despair. Beyond the two I've concentrated on, there is a whole cast of characters, each one carefully crafted to fill out Swede's world. Dawn, his wife, desperate not to be forever pigeon-holed as a former beauty queen, but finding in the end that her beauty is a shield she can hide behind when her world collapses. Swede's father, venting his anger and frustration at the world that made his grand-daughter into a monster. And the ambiguous Rita Cohen, the revolutionary friend of Merry who tortures and taunts the Swede, playing on the vulnerability of his desperate love for his daughter, using sex as an ugly weapon in her desire to humiliate.
The descriptive writing is just as strong. Swede's pride in his business is shown through the lovingly detailed descriptions of every aspect of the glove-making process, from selection of the skins through the stretching and cutting to sewing and fitting. This is a place where craftspeople reverently produce items of beauty and quality for a world in which women still keep a glove drawer, with different shades and lengths to match each outfit - a '50s style that also faded as the '60s progressed, with Jackie Kennedy being perhaps the last great glove-wearing icon.
This is an astounding book, well worthy of the Pulitzer it won in 1998. There's enough realism in it to read it simply as a powerful and often deeply moving story of parental love and despair, but it's true power is in Roth's depiction of the massive culture shift that happened somewhere in the sixties, the rebellion of child against parent, youth against authority, citizen against state. And, fairly uniquely, we're seeing it not from the perspective of the young looking back either with indulgence or anger at the past, but from the point of view of that past, that portion of society who saw the future unfold in ways they couldn't understand, their values rejected by the children they had nurtured, their dreams crashing around them.
on 19 December 2002
Philip Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for this riveting, quietly horrifying novel that shatters the idyllic illusion of an America that once might have been, but will be no more. American Pastoral is a brilliant commentary on our inability to effectively see beneath the surface of apparent well-being and contentment in others. The first of the "Zuckerman trilogy," (which ends with The Human Stain), American Pastoral recalls and builds on Roth's most accomplished and self-referential fiction of the past.
As the novel opens, Skip Zuckerman, the childless, unattached, first-person narrator of the trilogy has a chance meeting with a boyhood hero at a baseball game. This hero is Swede Levov, an older man who is still, impossibly blonde, blue-eyed and youthful; a legend within his predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Swede is the very embodiment of "America" and all that "being American" stands for. He is, Skip is sure, incapable of living anything but the perfect, and perfectly rewarding, life.
Swede's brother, Jerry, was Skip's best friend, so when Swede asks for a meeting with Skip, Skip is a little puzzled but not all that surprised. Swede, however, doesn't ask anything specific of Skip, but talks of his sons and his memories of Newark before and during World War II. This meeting, though, is pivotal to the novel's central question and its meaning soon becomes crystal clear.
As the novel progresses, Skip attends his high school reunion and, while making note of the various deficiencies shared by the sixtyish men and women in attendance, becomes convinced that no human being ever really knows or understands another. He is depressed by all the conversation about cancer, divorce and the various problems associated with growing older. It is Jerry, though, Swede's brother, who tells Skip the one thing that will disillusion more than any other.
Roth's brilliance as well as his masterful and well-crafted prose draw us into American Pastoral and allow us to participate in the mundane life experiences of its characters as if those experiences were our very own. We live through school reunions, failed marriages, duplicity and waste as Skip proceeds to a more detailed examination of the life of Swede Levov.
Swede's life, Skip finds out, was nothing like he had imagined it would be. Obsessed, Skip begins a novel that focuses on the life of Swede Levov. Although Skip is making up a lot of his book as he goes along, the story is nonetheless true and it is a story that will resonate painfully with anyone who has ever felt alone, in control, out of control, or who has thought that he or she knew all about someone they have cared about deeply. As the facts about Swede Levov's life slowly unfold, as his secrets are unearthed, the glossy veneer of satisfaction, contentment and perfection begins to slip away from his life. As the man behind the persona is fully revealed, we come to realize, with Skip Zuckerman, that in anyone's life, one torment can, and often does, lead to more and more agony until its inevitability is appalling.
American Pastoral is more of an impassioned dialogue with its readers than a convincing and linear story. This is not a warm and comforting book that will leave a glow in your heart after the last page. In fact, its most convincing and most powerfully-written passages are those in which Swede and Skip discuss and reflect upon human nature's congenital loneliness.
American Pastoral is a painful book; it is a book that explores a dark and lonely side of human nature. But it is masterfully written, in prose that is spare and elegant and, above all, authentic. At its heart, American Pastoral is a gorgeous elegy for the American Dream; a funeral ode to an innocence that has long since passed away.
on 14 January 2016
This is a masterpiece - in its writing, structure and themes. Don't be put off by "yet another" novel dissecting the American Dream. It does, but the humanity mixed with anger and energy are incredible. The core story is so brilliantly framed - that of a father's loss of his daughter, to extreme political violence - perpetrated by her. There can be few more harrowing scenes in any novel than their eventual re-encounter - one of the hardest scenes I've ever had to read. To me, this is a novel about the heartless power of ideas (and intellectuals) to destroy simplicity and love - which, when lost, can never be reclaimed. Its two most repugnant characters are almost from Dostoevsky, with their delight in malevolence: the chilling "Rita Cohen" and the grotesque Marcia Umanoff - the novel ends with her unbearable laughter ringing in our ears. In fact, the nearest novel to this, in its effect, is Dostoevsky's "Devils". Both novels show how the simple values of life are in constant danger, from the tyranny of ideas.
This 1997 novel finds Philip Roth at the height of his powers - as insightful, witty and powerful a dissection of the American Dream as you are likely to find anywhere. Of course, Roth's wordy style is not to everyone's taste, but, for me, is ultimately rewarding as here the author uses his well-established fictional alter-ego, novelist Nathan Zuckerman, to narrate his tale of the fall from grace of Zuckerman's schoolboy friend, 'all American boy (then man)' and all-round sports star, Seymour 'The Swede' Levov, using such verbose metaphors as The Swede's father's (now failing) glove-making business and his 'trophy wife', ex-beauty queen, Dawn's, progressive venture into cattle farming as illustrations of the fundamental, and irreversible, economic and social changes occurring in modern day America (albeit here being predominantly focused on the changes immediately pre- and post-Watergate).
In keeping with one of this author's most distinctive, and impressive, trademarks, Roth once again reveals his narrative through a skilful, retrospective unpeeling (onion-like) as his hero, The Swede, looks back (20 years later) on his once idyllic family existence and tries to make sense of, among other things, his rebellious daughter, Merry's, transition into radical (and violent) politics, his wife's 'cooling' on their seemingly perfect relationship and his father's increasingly archaic social and religious (Jewish) convictions. Throughout, Roth's writing is never less than engaging, switching between the tragic and darkly comic at will, and reminding us (well me, at least) of the author's uncanny ability to construct lengthy expositions, whilst maintaining great simplicity of purpose.
For me, American Pastoral is one of the finest works I have read by Roth, to rank with the likes of Portnoy's Complaint, The Plot Against America, Sabbath's Theatre and Nemesis.
on 13 March 2016
What a crying shame this book is. Up until the old friends' reunion near the end of the opening Paradise Remembered section it is superb, writer 'Skip' Zuckerman giving us memories of his Jewish Newark neighbourhood and boyhood idol Swede Levov, while recalling the teenage times he had with Joy Helpern, whom he has just met again after many years. There are brilliantly rendered, witty and touching scenes here... but then it all goes wrong, horribly wrong, after he hears of the death of the Swede - "I pulled away from myself, pulled away from the reunion, and I dreamed... I dreamed a realistic chronicle." Oh, did you Mr Zuckerman? Given that the Swede refused to say anything about his wayward daughter - and that is who the rest of the book is essentially about - how can what follows be "realistic" or even a "chronicle"? It is, rather, an endlessly repetitive rant about the souring of the American dream for one family, boring, lacking insight into human motivation (hence the inordinate and tedious length to which Roth goes to try and explain it), and implausible, as the more perceptive critics on this page have pointed out. There are two books here and it's unfortunate that the longest one is a dud and comes after the early classic.
on 7 January 2011
Plenty of people have expressed considered critical reactions to this book. While I could bore you with pages of my own, I'll be merciful. My reasons for joining in are amazement at the fact that this seriously good book could receive so may crappy reviews, and a wish to lift the rating a small step towards its due level. This is one of a great novelist's greatest novels. If you haven't yet read it, do so.
on 29 February 2008
American Pastoral is the first of a trilogy so loosely connected that even the publisher draws no attention to it. It wasn't until I had read the third volume - The Human Stain - that I realised I had come in at the end, and went back to the beginning with this book (the second volume is I Married A communist).
But reading The Human Stain first does throw American Pastoral into relief. The writing in American Pastoral is as magnificent, but the combination of plot and polemic far less satisfying. Whereas The Human Stain races along in a taut tension between the uncovering of secrets and the unmasking of humanity, American Pastoral is an obsessional, almost pathologically forensic, dissection of the American Way, with the plot acting only as a frustratingly episodic driver.
On the face of it this is a tale of how a man who is the perfect embodiment of the American Dream is blighted by the sheer simplicity of his perfection. He is undone by deviancy right on his doorstep. It's a deviancy he is powerless to prevent because it comes from the person to whom he is most devoted: his daughter.
It's a brilliant premise - so brilliant you long for more of the book to focus directly on it. Yet much of what you get instead is gloves. Yes, gloves. Your knowledge of the glovemaking process will be mightily improved by this book. And though it works as a device for a while, it comes eventually to feel as if you are being beaten to death by metaphor.
And that is true of many of the other meticulous digressions too. Roth scratches at the itch of Americana with a relentlessness that borders on autism. Since he is such a brilliant writer this mania is not without its insights - and humour. But it makes for a tough read. And when you finally reach the shocking drama of the final pages you are left feeling robbed of the more direct - but perhaps no less effective - narrative that might have been.
The title of this novel refers to Thanksgiving, the one brief period during the year when, according to protagonist Seymour Levov, differences between Americans tend to disappear. Otherwise, in this book differences result in uneasy compromises, chaos and destruction.
The novel is divided into three parts. The first, 'Paradise Remembered', suggests one of those bland, cliquey novels about being Jewish. Its narrator, Zuckerman, begins by gushing about his boyhood hero, the aforementioned Levov, known as the Swede. Swede is what every Jew should aspire to be: good-looking, the top athlete at college, affable, benign and industrious. He even marries Miss New Jersey. Zuckerman rambles like the ex-public schoolboy who believes that Smith Minor's undefeated century for the House is the stuff of legend, unaware that it means nothing to anyone else.
What Roth does here, however, is present the surface impression of the model citizen who has it all. This is blown away in the second part, 'The Fall', in which Zuckerman retreats from view, replaced by Levov's perspective. Most of it deals with troubled close family relationships against a backdrop of 1960s turbulence: Vietnam, changing morals, decaying neighbourhoods. The third part, 'Paradise Lost', expands on this and brings in other friends and acquaintances. No one is what what they at first appear to be, or to be more precise, what the essentially good-natured, self-effacing Levov assumes them to be.
'American Pastoral' is at times a daunting novel. Roth has little time for paragraphs. On each page the reader is faced with large blocks of text within which all dialogue is buried. He also labours many points and I agree with some of the previous reviewers that the book could be shorter. Even so, I found it an ultimately rewarding novel.
on 11 March 2011
this title was recomended to me by a guy i worked for as a volunteer in a book store. i was, at the time, reading the pumpkin eater, which i had spied among some discarded books, and thought i'd give it a try. i didn't get round to reading 'American Pastoral' until several months later, when i picked it up from my local library. i raced though the first half of the book. it is told from the point of view of Zuckerman, an aging writer who devotes himself to finding out about a communities adored hero called Swede. i found the first few pages, when introducing the "main" chacter Swede, to be one of the most striking introductions to a book, i have read,it is written with care and adoration, you can feel the communitys reverence for Swede in every sentence. and it did not stop there from his vivid descroptiions of american-jewish society, to his in-depth psychological analysis, the author grants the narrator an omnipresent view of a "semi-fictionalised" Swede, so you get to see zuckerman's personal relatioship with his brother and his view of swede from afar, and then you get to zuckerman's biography of swede as he tries to embody and understand his life and sufferings, though we don't know how close he is. this technique i enjoyed a lot, but towards the end of the book it seems like Roth neglected the fact that it was written at one-step remove and bypassed zuckerman, which is partly a shame. or maybe i missed something.
after i had read a good portion of the book i lost it, i think i left it on a train. whe i finally got around to reading the second-half i found the prose to be still top-notch, but the narrative not cohesive. each event has a lot of focus, but overall it seemed to meander through nostalgia and it lost me a couple of times.
this might be due to the fact of the interrupted middle, i will go back and read it all they way through at somepoint.