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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 17 October 2017
Big, long, wordy paragraphs that sidestep the places where the plot is unbelievable.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 12 October 2016
In a long writing career, Philip Roth has progressively deepened his themes and his understanding of human characteras well as his skill at the novelist's craft. His novel, "The Human Stain" is both entertaining and thought-provoking. It is a worthy addition to American fiction of the early 21st century.
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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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 6 September 2017
I heard a lot about this book but when I did get round to reading it I found it quite boring. What should have been a gripping story line seemed mundane to me. The chapters were drawn and the atmosphere was too dull to be chilling.
The story telling was generally great but all in all a struggle to get through.
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on 10 October 2007
The central premise in Philip Roth's fulminating diatribe against the maladies of modern America is very flimsy and yet it works, probably because of its flimsiness. The pity is that I can't state it clearly here without spoiling the plot, though other reviewers have done so.
Narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's alter ego, the story revolves around the life of Coleman Silk, the autocratic Dean of Faculty in a small town New England university. Pressured and humiliated into quitting his academic position as a result of an unintentional racial double entendre he blames the subsequent death of his wife on the affair. Seething with resentment and seeking revenge on those within the university who remained silent or actively collaborated in his demise, he finally takes up with a badly damaged, poorly educated backwater girl half his age who is being stalked by her psychotic ex-Nam war vet ex-husband. Silk's life becomes increasingly precarious and complicated, resulting in the inevitable denouement. We learn later that throughout his adult life he had harboured a personal secret (out of self-interest) which made his humiliation almost laughably ironic.
Roth tackles major issues (political correctness, identity politics, racial prejudice, overseas adventurism, dumb education and dumb culture) against a backdrop of an extremely trivial one (the Clinton-Lewinsky affair) and it is a risky undertaking in modern America because of the very issues he is attacking. In particular he lays himself open to claims of cryptic racism but that would be a false claim. The action taken by Coleman Silk is not new; it is one that has been used by American Jews and English working-class men in the past as a means of personal progress and is merely a damning statement about the social climate and pressures of certain societies at certain periods in their history. It has nothing to do with personal shame or self-loathing.
There is some terrific characterisation, notably of Silk himself, his nemesis Faunia Farley, her deranged husband Lester, and Delphine Roux, the alienated French academic hired by Silk, an action that he came to regret. You genuinely come to understand their individual motivations, foibles, weaknesses and neuroses as a result. The writing is dense yet fast-paced and angry. This is the best novel I have read so far published in the current century.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 8 March 2005
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 25 September 2017
There is a scene in this book where the disturbed Vietnam vet husband of Faunia goes into a Vietnamese restaurant that is the most powerful piece of writing that I have ever read.
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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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