Philip Roth – The Breast 2/5
Cynthia Ozick – The Shawl 4/5
Vladimir Nabokov – The Eye 3/5
So these three short novels or novellas don’t really have much to do with one another ostensibly, but I read them one after the other on a Friday sick day and thought a little about their connections or rather what connections I might draw on them. To start, I will tell you what each one of them is about. The Shawl starts off in the middle of WWII somewhere in Poland with a mother and two young women of various ages. They are Jewish and hiding from the Nazis, and the shawl becomes a kind of screen for them in a metaphorical sense. We are confronted with a scene of high drama as they are discovered and unmasked, and the story ends. This is the way the original story ended, ambiguously, and it was over. In this longer version we jump ahead some decades and now they are living in survival in post-war America. The survivor status of the three have led them to a kind of empty listlessness in their lives where none of them really have much in the way of a productive or meaningful life. That’s not to say that nothing is or has happened, but the trauma they faced has led to a shallow kind of existence that seems to not have much fulfillment. This is presented as a lamentable contrast to the tremendous nature of their escape and survival, the details of which are scant. The novella suggest that the very particular trauma of generations outweighs so much other connections. Even meeting another Polish ex-pat, but one much older, who even survived his own pogroms, does nothing to form a bond. The Eye is also about fulfillment in life as another ex-pat plans on and finally probably does kill himself. His reasons are private and personal but revolve around being caught and harassed for having been involved in an affair with a married woman. Much of the rest of the novel involves a kind of identity-less existence, the status of an ex-pat, and various other modern concerns told through a kind of ironic invention. Lastly, The Breast is most definitely a novel about dissatisfaction and unfulfillment. In the novel, David Kepesh, professor of English and Roth stand-in, has turned into a giant female breast. It’s part Gogol’s “The Nose” and part Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” both of which Kepesh teaches and references and even suggests as a reason for the transformation. Throughout the novel, it is often suggested that this is a symbolic change and not really real, but he is constantly assured it is.
Together the three make a strange trio. Ozick’s novella is by far the best with Nabokov’s irony and distance being a little too much at times, as well as, his English language novels just being far superior, and the Roth novella is ok and interesting at times and then grotesque and frustrating at other times.
But all three deal with 20th century statelessness and trauma in some interesting ways. Roth’s is the least convincing because while Kepesh is Jewish and faces oppression, he has not dealt in trauma and lives a perfectly ok, if unsatisfying life. Also, he’s married to a voluputous and caring and funny woman fifteen years younger than him and is a a tenured professor of literature in New York City….so get out of here with the nonsense. I do like the constant assurance that the transformation is real, because like Kafka, it forces us to deal in reality rather than symbolic worlds. Nabokov’s is also really interesting because he tells us in an introduction that there’s not a social message involved, and while his intent doesn’t matter I appreciate this possible reading as a way to understand. Not to look for psychological or symbolic or social understandings and squarely trade in the construction of narrative and character. Neither of which is lacking, but also, the muddled and disconnected storytelling hampered my enjoyment. Lastly, Ozick’s novella is just good. The Polish sections are beautifully rendered as if to create a need to veil the horror experienced, and then the America sections are so banal and bland and fraught with the boredom and ennui of the characters. The stories are not bland, but the tone through the lens of the characters most definitely is. There’s real earnest attempts by the other characters to bring light to the world of the characters and they are simply unable to make it happen for themselves. And while Nabokov was an emigre, I just don’t think he thought through his status in this way or didn’t place it in his fiction. Ozick’s character are feeling and breathing it. And Roth, well, his character tries to bang the nurse with his giant five-inch nipple….so no thanks.