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on 1 May 2017
I have read this book before though I didn't realise that when I bought it. The characters in it have real depth and I picked up things I'd missed the first time. I'll probably read it again perhaps a few times!
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on 22 November 2016
This, to my mind, is a poor novel.
The prose, of course, is brilliant. The empathy with all the characters is unsurpassed. The plot is tolerably good.
And I concede that were I American, coloured,or Jewish, I might think otherwise of the novel's merit.
I am none of those and well before the end I felt as though I were being sandbagged when I prefer to be rapiered. There is just too much. No avenue is unexplored in profound but unnecessary detail. There is no momentum. Half as long would have been twice as good.
Furthermore, there were absurdities in the story. The protagonist's explaining away of possible (probable?) genetic consequences was feeble. The French philosopher's episode with the personal ad was preposterous. Yet both were vital to the plot.
We're I a quitter, I would have quit about half way through.
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VINE VOICEon 9 May 2009
Having won all four of America's major literary awards in succession in the 1990s (the National Book Critics Circle Award; the PEN/Faulkner Award; the National Book Award and the Pulitzer) Philip Roth hardly seems in need of another favourable book review, still...

With The Human Stain, Roth introduces us to the main protagonist Coleman Silk, a 71 year old classics Professor so incensed with a false accusation of racism, that he turns to reclusive writer Nathan Zuckerman (Roth's fictional alter ego) to clear his name through writing a book. As far as plot goes, this is it. The novel unfolds as Zuckerman finds out more and more information about Silk's life, a life that has at once embraced and subverted "normality": the "real truth" if indeed it is the "truth" that Zuckerman unveils, is one of the story's great ironies.

Roth's novel is steeped in the politics of its time,1998, and even non-American readers can remember the single biggest moment in Bill Clinton's presidency: his impeachment over the incident with Monica Lewinsky. The incident in itself, and "America's" reaction to it, being one of the many, many sub-themes in this work. These sub-themes are not incidental; they are complicit in shaping Silk's life and Roth writes of the kind of twisted syllogisms: "No motive for the perpetrator is necessary, no logic or rationale is required. Only a label is required. The label is the motive. The label is the evidence. The label is the logic." that once found their social expression through McCarthyism, and lists the deadly "provincial poisons" of "gossip... jealousy... acrimony... boredom... lies" of the small-town mentality (suggestive of a national phenomenon?) whereby reason and truth are quickly forgotten in the face of scandal. Ultimately, this is not only how Silk's carefully constructed life, comes apart, but why it was built in the first place.

It would be unfair not to comment on Roth's brilliant prose, which flows in great long luscious sentences, but without being convoluted. It would also be unfair not to mention the couple of amazing monologues, and various descriptive passages throughout which are exquisitely conceived. It would also be unwise not to mention that if there is a flaw in this novel, might it be that some of the characters seem to be rather too obvious mouthpieces for Roth's own views? Or is this jumping to conclusions?

Regardless, this is literary fiction of the finest calibre: a novel that is a beautifully written, richly textured and readable story of the life of Coleman Silk, and inseparable from it, is an eminently humane, darkly humorous and occasionally frightening commentary on the realities of modern life.
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on 18 April 2017
I appreciate that this is a highly acclaimed novel and it may be that I missed something along the way, but I'm not convinced. As some have said before me, the prose is wonderful. He can pretty much take anything, person or otherwise, and create a mesmerising world in and around them. But the story was pretty weak. (This may be a bit of a spoiler - so do be careful!) The two problems you are told about at the start are not that well fleshed out and The Big Secret is far from convincing and rather inconsistent. So, extremely well written, mediocre story and overly long - but I would still try another one of his books.
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on 30 August 2016
I bought this book as I had joined a book club and I can honestly say I have never read such drivel in all of my life. I dont even know what the point of the story was the main character seemed weak considering all he had been through in his life and at one stage I thought I must have dropped off because I had to go back and read the chapter again. I did finish it but I had to go to wikipedia to findn out what the story was supposed to be about. Lets just say Philip Roth will not be added to my nice to read list!
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Roth once more shows his literary skills in creating this engrossing book, so richly full of themes and subthemes that it causes the reader to pause in reflection on every page. I would rate this epic story (mirroring the ancient Greek conflicts so loved by its main character Coleman Silk) very highly and have no problem placing it in the "classic" category, a must-read for anyone who seeks to understand American culture in the late 20th century.
Despite the rather grandiose ambition of the book (to make a once-and-for-all comment on the whole topic of political correctness in academia), the book is immensely readable and as the story gathers pace, the reader is drawn into a narrative as thrilling and suspenseful as any crime novel (and in any case there are plenty of crimes in here anyway!). The characters are complex and the situations they find themselves in unusual. Huge conflicts emerge behind their differing approaches to life and the book is in some ways like a glorified soap opera with all the human themes one would find in any television drama.
In writing a review of this book, you become aware of quite how rich this novel is. It would be an excellent book for a reading group, or a more academic programme and the topics for discussion which arise from it would be endless. The book tells complex stories about the Vietnam experience, Bill Clinton's meanderings through the Lewinsky story, racism and ethnicity, human ageing, and the irresisitlble pull of romance and sex. Primarily, the book is about the human condition (the "human stain" of the title) and to use a cliché, man's search for meaning. But it can also be read as a powerful human drama, for Roth's fictional narrative is as valid on its own terms as the lessons he seeks to draw from it.
This is a rich and compelling read, highly recommended to anyone who expects their chosen books to make them think about their own lives and the lives of those around them.
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on 17 September 2012
When I was at school, a very very long time ago, a particular English teacher made me promise never to give up on a book. Never before has this promise been tested so completely.

Perhaps I should come clean and explain that I have never read Roth before. I first heard about this book during an interview I heard on the radio. The interviewee was very engaging and in an off hand comment said she was in the middle of The Human Stain. I really don't care where I pick up a recommendation and added this to my Xmas list.

So I don't carry with me the positive experiences of any of his previous work. I can only review this book based on the experience of trying to read it. This is my favourite way to enjoy a novel - to jump in head first and see what happens.


It was impossible to start the book without having picked up from somewhere that some sort of gigantic twist or secret was hidden somewhere within. I think it was by about page 50 that I started to suspect that I'd already worked out the secret. And with a heavy heart I flicked to the back and realised there were roughly another 350 tortuously dull pages to go. The previous 50 pages had already taken a heavy toll. I really don't want to go back to the book to check the actual page number but at one point the main character is a 70 something white guy college professor. Then suddenly he's a teenage black guy growing up and learning to box. So anyway... yes that's the big secret. Somehow this white chap is black and no-one notices.

Didn't Steve Martin already do that in The Jerk? Oh no sorry that was a white guy who thought he was black. At least that was funny.

Each page overflows with impenetrably dense prose which leaves little room, if any, for an adequate story. But in it's defence the pages are so excruciatingly painful that I have lost all fear of my dentist. At one point, for no good reason, they are in a milking shed watching a woman milk some cows. For page after page after never ending page...

Well each to their own. Art finds an audience and this piece clearly has its supporters. Perhaps had I read some of the earlier work then this wouldn't be so jarring and awkward. But I'm afraid I've started and most certainly finished with The Human Stain.
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on 19 August 2001
Yes, this is a very well-written and absorbing book, and it deserves the good reviews that it has received. Coleman Silk's situation is presented in a sympathetic way, and the role that identity politics can play in the assassination of individuality is wryly illustrated.
Phillip Roth's characters are often drawn more as archetypes (although some might say stereotypes) than anything else, so the embittered Vietnam vet and the screwed-up continental feminist, to name but two examples, are convincing as broad types whose particular psychoses we all recognise.
I have no problem with the fact that the main narrator and Coleman are both old men, and that one of them has succeeded in seducing a woman half his age. But I feel that credibility is rather stretched by the introduction of another woman, still in her twenties, having a secret obsession with good old Coleman as well. At one point Faunia tells the seventy-one-year-old Coleman that he is too young for her and that she needs a man of ninety in a wheelchair. I am afraid that this has more to do with the author fantasising about his own future. Both the important women in this book are under middle age, and they both go for much older men? Hmmm. The only important old female character is Coleman's wife, but she's dead from the beginning of the novel, and therefore a voice from the past. In reality women usually outlive men, but I get a horrible feeling that Mr Roth doesn't like them hanging on past their sell-by date....
This novel, while admirably depicting one man's struggle for individuality, presents female characters who wish to be controlled by much older men; a bit too much authorial recommendation, I feel.
Most of the people I know who read Phillip Roth are male, and many of them believe that "political correctness" has gone too far. Although I understand their concern, I think they may sometimes be in danger of replacing one ideology with another. It was somewhat hard for me to read this novel as a young woman, not because I disliked the female characters, but because I couldn't relate to them, nor do I know any women who resemble them. There was that Anne Nicole Smith, but her old thing was a billionaire.....
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on 14 July 2004
This book sat on my bookshelf for over a year before I decided to pick it up and read it. I had only read Roth's Portnoy's Complaint and wasn't too impressed with it. But, when I found out that there was a movie adaptation of the book I wanted to make sure that I read the book before seeing the movie (books are typically far superior to the film adaptation). It didn't take long before I was floored. The Human Stain is an exceptional novel and has completely turned around my opinion of Philip Roth. Without question this is one of the best novels I have read this year.
The Human Stain is the story of Coleman Silk, a retired college professor from Athena College. Coleman retired from his position in the midst of a scandal. He was accused of making a racist remark in one of his classes towards two students. The accusation is patently untrue but Coleman was not the most popular man on campus and things began to steamroll out of control until he left the school. The joke inherent in this accusation is that while Coleman may look like a 71 year old white man, he is actually a black man. Coleman has spent his professional (and private) life denying who (and what) he is. In case this concept sounds too fantastic (a black man who looks white trying to hide the fact that he is black), there is a real life corollary in Anatole Broyard, a New York Times book critic.
This is the Coleman that we are first introduced to. He is in a sexual (and not much more) relationship with 34 year old Faunia Farley. She is illiterate and works as a cleaning lady at Athena College. This too, is a scandal waiting to happen. It is this relationship with Faunia that instigates the telling of the story and we are told very early in the novel that Coleman and Faunia do not live for many more months (by early, I mean within 20 pages). The story is told by writer Nathan Zuckerman. Zuckerman was told most of what he knows by Coleman. For quite some time Coleman tried to get Zuckerman to write a book about the events following the alleged racist remark. The Human Stain (the title of Roth's novel as well as Zuckerman's book) is not quite the book that Coleman wanted written, but it was a story that Zuckerman felt compelled to tell. We must remember that everything is shaded by what Zuckerman knows and what he believes.
There is a long section in the middle of the book dealing with a young Coleman Silk. We see him in High School and get glimpses of how he became a black man hiding behind his white skin and denying his family and why he would have done such a thing. This section deals with Coleman being a young boxer and the relationships with women that he engaged in. For all the power of this book, the section on the young Coleman is the most powerful. I first expected it to break the rhythm of the story, but it fits perfectly and is one of the best passages in the novel.
After being somewhat put off Roth from reading Portnoy's Complaint, this book impressed me so much I'm looking forward to reading American Pastoral. I have a hard time imagining that Roth wrote a better book than The Human Stain, but a different novel won the Pulitzer. Awards aside, The Human Stain is one of the best books I have read all year and is simply exceptional work. After finishing the book, the best I can say is: wow. The book really is that good. I would highly recommend The Human Stain.
-Joe Sherry
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on 6 April 2015
Philip Roth's The Human Stain is an excellent example of what T.S. Eliot described in his essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent." First, let's note that "Roth" derives from the German word for red. And the surname of his petite French professor, Delphine Roux, whose interview costume of a mini-kilt and tights resembles the getup of a French poule, means reddish brown. The novel's hero, Professor Coleman Silk, aka Silberzweig, like Sammy Davis, Jr., is a pale-skinned Negro Jew who can and does pass as Caucasian. Like Hemingway's Robert Cohn, he is also an accomplished boxer. As dean of the fictional Athena College in the Berkshires, he comes to "Roux" having hired Delphine, who perversely has an unrequited crush on him. Her loneliness brings to mind the dictum of Zorba the Greek: "When a woman sleeps alone, it is a disgrace to every man." But at 71, Coleman, aided by Viagra -- whose properties I think Roth misconstrues and exaggerates -- prefers an uneducated but by no means stupid janitoress. The theme of overthrowing one's origins and succeeding in life on one's own terms seems like an illustration of Arthus Miller's essay, "The Family in Modern Drama." As in most novels, there are some improbable twists of plot, e.g., the narrator's naivete in thinking that by moving he can escape the story's villain, or the police department's failure to check Delphine's office for fingerprints after it has been trashed -- by her, not, as she claims, by the just deceased Coleman. The book contains one literary term not found in any dictionary I've consulted: diegetic; but its antecedent noun, diegesis, is defined in an online dictionary as a narrative explanation, i.e., a narrative exegesis, to which latter word it is obviously related etymologically. Roth's complex development of all the book's characters, his Jamesian sentences, and distilled wisdom render this work a tour de force well worth reading and highly recommended.
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