Philip Roth, The American Pastoral (1997)

As a non-American, it is rather daunting to give one’s opinion about Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. This is the first novel by Philip Roth I read, in part because I was intimidated by his reputation, and also in part because I feared I wouldn’t be able to relate to his world. The American Pastoral is a nice surprise. It was not so difficult to read as I fear, and the characters are interesting and arresting (to say the least). 

The first shock was Roth’s writing. It is long since I’ve read anything as emotional and powerful as this. His sentences are a flow of words pouring out in long diatribes, not stilted yet not completely oral. He doesn’t shy away from long sentences, but sometimes alternates with short, stuttering, rambling clauses. There are no convoluted metaphors yet every sentence is rich and colourful. I think I would love to have it made into a play where characters would speak out these sentences. 

The second surprise was Swede Levov’s character. He’s very human, flawed and complex despite looking so simple. He’s Mr. nice guy who tries to lead the American way of life and who discovers that life is never that simple. He never departs from the normality, part banal, part ideal perfection. He follows his father’s career as a glove manufacturer in Newark, marries a former Miss New Jersey, buys the house he’d dreamed of as a kid.

The novel spans from the end of WW2 to the 1970s, and has clear ambitions to be symbolic of America’s evolutions during that long period. Over three generations of Levovs, we see the grandfather struggling to establish his business and earn his place in Jewish America among the recent immigrants, the father already enjoying a certain level of wealth and success looking forward to be received among the best Wasp society, and the daughter who apparently “has it all” and rejects it all. American dream gets shattered by the daughter, an ungrateful, stubborn girl of the 1960s, who not only stutters and rejects her parents, but go further than mere adolescent rebellion by opposing Vietnam war and planting a bomb in the quiet Levov neighbourhood and killing a man.

Merry’s violent act is never explained, and her father basically spends the rest of his life trying to understand what went wrong. I had mixed feelings about Merry, as she remains in the dark. Is she really the result of a faulty education? Is she an incarnation of evil in an otherwise nice family? Does Roth think that the whole 1960s generation was really like that? She comes out as the rebellious teenager going awry, negative, nihilistic, violent, so obsessed with high ideals that she doesn’t seem to realize that their application might be unpractical or even destructive. She’s her father’s nemesis, but it would mean that he deserves being punished for being so mundane and self-centred. She also could be seen as the dark side of America’s innocence: not Swede Levov’s innocence who basically doesn’t care about the rest of the world, lives happily ever after in his little perfect dream, Merry’s innocence would be caring too much about the world (as a young kid she watches TV and sees the Vietnamese monks set themselves on fire to protest the war), up to the point of being able to harm other people in the name of Peace in Vietnam. 

I’m not very fond of meta-fictions, and I did not really see what was the use of the long first part with Nathan Zuckerman introducing the Levov family and obsessing about Swede. I wasn’t particularly interested in Zuckerman’s character, but the rest of the book was really fascinating and I’d be happy to read some more of Roth. I would be very interested to hear American fellow bookbloggers’ take on that book, as I guess my view isn’t that of an insider indeed.

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5 thoughts on “Philip Roth, The American Pastoral (1997)

  1. I am not an ‘insider’ but I agree with your take on the novel. I found it a really powerful reading experience. I was interested in your opinion of the Nathan Zuckerman stuff- I enjoyed it but Roth didn’t take the idea anywhere. It was almost as though Roth just forgot about his narrator!

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