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American Pastoral Hardcover – 5 Jun 1997
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"Marvellous... Raging and elegaic" (Guardian)
"A tragedy of classical proportions...a magnificent novel" (The Times)
"Utterly tragic and compelling. It's one of the greatest modern American novels" (Tatler)
"Wonderful, rich...entirely gripping" (Sunday Telegraph)
"A momentous novel" (Observer)
"Full of insight, full of sharp ironic twists, full of wisdom about American idealism, and full of terrific fun... A profound and personal meditation on the changes in the American psyche over the last fifty years" (Financial Times)
"Brilliantly written...angry, grieving, witty, acute...compellingly and convincingly rendered" (Sunday Times) --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
Now a major motion picture based on Philip Roth's Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece American Pastoral, starring Ewan McGregor and Jennifer Connelly --This text refers to the Paperback edition.See all Product description
Top customer reviews
The genius lies in the ability to imaginatively but forensically explore the situation of late 20th-century American culture and economics as part of a global pattern, i.e. globalisation. A single family becomes the lens for exploring unrest between the generations, between social groups, labour and business, civil rights and race relations, the economics of globalisation, political unrest, anarchy and revolution, the use of violence to achieve restitution, the ambiguity of situations, the feeling of helplessness that comes from the inability to resolve the unresolvable, parenthood, growing up, spirituality and meaning, the role of the observer, perspectives, truth: well the list could go on. But of course all of these themes and more emerge only from an analytical approach to what is an integrated work of imaginative fiction deeply felt and lovingly presented with brilliant style by one of the world's foremost English-speaking authors.
I am also particularly interested in the authorial voice and the intrusion of an observer as provider of the narrative. It provides a fictional dynamic that reflects the puzzling discoveries in physics, psychology and systems theory in a post-modern or even postformal world. Everything scene is seen by an observer, adding ambiguity to complexity, perspective to point of view. A central feature of the book is its revisioning of characters and states of affairs.
In the era of Brexit and the election of Trump, as well as the various forthcoming potential upsets across Europe, you may learn more about the state of affairs in our world today from this wonderful work of literature (dating from the end of the millennium) than from any technical or journalistic analysis.
And, as well as all this, it is a fascinating series of challenges about the nature of writing and the nature of the writer. Roth throws down the gauntlet from the start, asking us not to forget that one of the central characters is his continuing alter-ego , Nathan ‘Skip’ Zuckerman. The story we reading, presented by Zuckerman, into the life of Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov, Zuckerman’s childhood hero, is possibly Zuckerman’s invention. Certain events happen to Levov, but the reason they happened, the psychoanalytical unpicking of them, may be only the writer in the book (not to mention the writer of the book) shaping a chimera.
Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov, whose story Zuckerman tells, was a gifted athlete, an inheritor and emblem of the aspirational dream of America’s European immigrant community. Looking like a WASP, he is Jewish, his family, a generation or so back, by hard work, dedication and talent, rising in the Promised Land. Swede’s success at football, basketball and baseball, and his upright, hard-working personality have made him envied and adored, a kind of hero to others. One of whom is the slightly younger Zuckerman. Meeting again, in late middle age, it is now Zuckerman who has achieved fame, as a writer, and he is long past a time of adulating the seemingly much more simple character of a former sporting hero. Zuckerman in fact perceives the apparently settled straight as a die, unthinkingly patriotic, successful businessman, husband and father that Levov has become as a bit of a simp. The writer rather takes a position of intellectual, metropolitan, sophisticated arrogance. Though written in 1998, there are definite pointers and echoes here of the roots of our divided nation – both here and in the States, between the cultural intelligentsia and those who ‘seem’ as if they inhabit and engage with nuance less. Zuckerman indulges in various fantasies and theories, trying to worm behind the simple, satisfied persona Swede seems to represent. There are several writerly inventions Zuckerman engages in, each of which, again and again, proves wrong. Finally, Zuckerman, sophisticated in his cynicism, dismisses Levov
“There’s nothing here but what you’re looking at. He’s all about being looked at……..He always was…..You’re craving depths that don’t exist……The guy is the embodiment of nothing”
And then Zuckerman finds out how wrong, how very wrong he has been, and how he knew nothing of Swede, nothing of his life.
Swede had reached adulthood and maturity shortly before the end of the Second World War. Enlisting as a marine, trying to meet the manly, right, patriotic challenge of the war, he was still going through boot-camp training when the bomb was dropped at Hiroshima. He took his desire to serve his country into the post-war world. A model citizen, her worked hard, had a developed awareness of social responsibility, married his childhood sweetheart, Dawn, entered and successfully ran the family glove-making business, and fathered a beloved daughter. Meredith, the daughter, was a teenager in the 60’s, at the time of the Civil Rights movement, resistance to Vietnam, and she became intensely radicalised, revolutionary. Merry, the apple of Swede's eye, committed a shocking and violent act whilst still at high school, and then went on the run, hunted as a terrorist. Swede’s family, marriage, business and life suddenly shattered.
Belatedly discovering these events, Zuckerman then weaves this into story. He creates a narrative of motive, a narrative to ‘explain’ how this normal family, and privileged, loved child could have so violently changed. However……because of the constant reminders earlier in the book that narrator Zuckerman was inventing stories and sub stories which were wrong, Roth is reminding us that this too is narrative, story, invention. We know certain facts happened, but the interpretation of why Swede, Merry and Dawn got to where they did, may not be right. Zuckerman ‘blames’ a childhood event for Merry going to the bad – but the event is Zuckerman’s imagined narrative, and may never have happened.
Going forward, to after Merry has gone underground, is a deeply disturbing, highly misogynistic section in the second part of the book, with the introduction of a young Jewish woman who may have been responsible for Merry’s violent radicalisation. This is a section distasteful to read, and highly unsettling – are we being shown an unconscious misogyny, particularly towards Jewish women, which comes from Roth himself, through his alter ego as Zuckerman – or is the author placing himself firmly and consciously on a slab, for the reader to dissect Roth himself?
And then, at the point where the reader might think they have been able to negatively ‘get’ Roth himself, as the creator of all this, comes a section, where, after many years of searching for his vanished daughter in hiding from the law, Swede finds her, living in utter degradation, weirdly, most weirdly, transformed. This is a section of utter heartbreak, riven tenderness and almost unbearably painful humanity. Roth took my breath away in this raw exposure of all our suffering, poor, magnificent, broken complex humanity. Like Zuckerman with Swede, we get it wrong with each other, again and again.
American Pastoral rightly won its Pulitzer prize. It is not in any way an easy book; it is a greatly, painfully challenging one – by turns horrible, horrific, stony, violent, hating and hateful – and full of compassion and suffering. Published in 1998, looking back over a roughly 50 year sweep, it is far from dated, and seems horribly pertinent today.
I shall for sure, read more of Roth’s later work, though I am still, months after finishing this one, processing it.
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Most recent customer reviews
Kind of an AK47 of words.
Maybe the author should learn to choose what he really want to say.
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