Roth Vs. Coetzee: A Meditation on Male Privilege in Literature

There is a certain irony in comparing these two authors.  The great South African novelist J. M. Coetzee is an admirer of Philip Roth and has written about him several times in the New York Times review of books.  I’m an admirer of Roth as well, though I don’t think he is as great a writer as Coetzee, and I have defended Roth fairly diligently against his most persistent of criticisms, his alleged misogyny.  This criticism goes back at least to Roth’s third novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, which was a bestseller but also is famously smutty, detailing the sexual obsessions of a young man and his repressed upbringing by his strict Jewish mother.

I have never thought that these criticism of Roth were baseless.   What I have thought was that they were one-sided.  I indulged in the usual defense of Roth that acknowledges that there are many men in the world who feel the way that Roth’s characters do, and that Roth is critical of these men, while portraying them sympathetically.  A repeated theme in Roth is the ambivalent nature of the sexual revolution and its effect on those that have lived through it.  This past year I read Roth’s The Dying Animal, another novel that deals with these well worn themes but this time I was given some pause.  Earlier in the year I had read J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace .  The two novels deal with similar subject matter, a college professor having sex with his student.  Coetzee deals with the subject in such a starkly different way than Roth that it couldn’t help but highlight his deficiencies.

Of course there is another reason I am inclined to write this now.  The past few months have been filled with news of sexual misconduct from powerful men in politics, entertainment and other forms of media.  There was never a time that would be better to compare the approaches of Roth and Coetzee toward this subject.  What follows will amount to minor spoilers for both books, but I will keep most plot details to the first half of the novels and not reveal anything that is critical to the resolution of the plot.

Roth’s book is the third of his to include the narrator David Kepesh after The Breast, a Kafkaesque story where David is transformed into a giant female breasts, and The Professor of Desire.  The whole point of these two previous novels is that Kepesh is an intellectual but he is a slave to his carnal lusts, creating a conflict to his character that he cannot overcome.  This sentiment is expressed very early in The Dying Animal through this often quoted line:  “No matter how much you know, no matter how much you think, no matter how much you plot and you connive and you plan, you’re not superior to sex. ”

While I was reading the book it came to my mind that Kepesh is not supposed to be a likeable character.  He in fact laments that he has to wait until he gives a final grade to his chosen student in order to keep the moral police away from him.  The fact that having sex with his students while he is still grading them, creates an obvious conflict for both him and the student doesn’t seem to concern him, anymore than how predatory his behavior is as he attempts to seduce his students.  Kepesh sees criticism of him to be a result of moral hypocrisy.  He talks about how his son is angry at him for leaving his mother to pursue his various lusts, while he remains married to his own wife while cheating on her. The fact that the institutions that he is railing against were created by men to control women in the first place does not occur to him.

Into Kepesh’s life comes a new student named Consuela.  Kepesh most listen to Consuela’s  descriptions of her Cuban family in order to gain access to her body.   He states himself that this is not something he would be the least interested in except for his desire to have sex with her, and  because she has such stunning breasts his obsession with her reaches new levels.  When she inevitably breaks off the affair he is devastated.

How the rest of this short novel plays out I will not reveal, but the title of the work says it all.  The outlook of Kepesh is both amoral and hedonistic, but the question of how much the reader is supposed to identify with him is up in the air.  I have scored online reviews and have found that most of Roth’s mostly male audience identifies with Kepesh very much and finds how the novel resolves itself to be “deep” and “meaningful” despite the fact that Kepesh never really gets called out on his bullshit and Consuela continues to function as an objectified prop.

Roth, despite his many virtues as a writer, is oblivious to the whole concept of privilege.  Take another Roth novel as an example, The Human Stain.  That novel concerns a college professor named Coleman Silk who is dismissed from his position when he uses the word spooks, to refer to ghosts, but it is taken instead to be a racial slur.  The irony of the story is that Silk is half black, and has been passing himself for white his whole career.  How Roth handles this subject is about as wrongheaded as can get, and the novel ends with a speech by a black woman advocating for a “post racial America.”  This novel has not aged well.

Reading The Dying Animal I was reminded of this.  The point of the novel seems to be that older men have sex with much younger women because they need their youthfulness to feel alive.  Young women, on the other hand, get so much more by having sex with older men than they would with somebody their own age.  The fact that Roth represents this as Consuela saying about Kepesh that nobody appreciated her breasts the way he did gives you an idea of the level of sophistication Roth is operating on here.  The entire work is a screed by a man who has been called out on his privilege and wants to attack his critics as unfeeling.

J. M. Coetzee makes it very clear where he stands in the first chapter of his novel, Disgrace.    David Lurie, a college professor in his fifties, is seeing a prostitute once a week to meet his sexual needs.  When this woman ends their weekly appointments he hires a private detective to track her down and then calls her at home.  This short chapter tells you everything you need to know about Lurie.  He is entitled, he doesn’t respect other’s boundaries and he also sees his relationship with this woman on totally different terms than she does, while being oblivious to this fact.

Lurie then engages in an affair with a student, because he considers this the easiest option available to him.  How this affair is portrayed is a sharp contrast to what we see in Roth’s novel.  Roth portrays young women who seek out affairs with their older professor because of an attraction to an older man.   Roth portrays the younger women as being in power because of the older man’s desire for their bodies and inability to control this desire.   Coetzee instead portrays a flattered and somewhat insecure young woman with ambivalent feelings being manipulated by an older person who seems to have no concern about her wellbeing.

Unlike Roth’s novel, the focus is not on the affair, but Lurie’s relationship with his daughter after he leaves his university position, but the affair itself serves as a catalyst for the novel’s main plot and the thing that Lurie cannot seem to see as a manifestation of his inability for self-examination.  When an inquiry into his affair is underway, he is surrounded by mostly sympathetic colleagues who want him to keep his job, but Lurie’s insistent that he did nothing wrong and is surrounded by moral scolds.  Lurie’s attitude is remarkably similar to Kepesh, but while Roth gives us Kepesh’s first person account with all his rationalizing, Coetzee dissects Lurie in a distancing third person that while never explicitly stated, makes his inability for self-reflection subtly apparent.

My favorite scene in the novel  sums up the issue perfectly.  Lurie decides to make a stop on a road trip to visit the father of the girl he had sex with and explain himself.  Lurie has met the man before, knows he is a teacher and a Christian, but instead of issuing an apology he tries to win the man over to his point of view by explaining his actions as a “little adventure.”  To his surprise the father invites him to dinner with his wife and his other daughter.  Lurie reluctantly agrees and what follows is a squirm-inducing scene that illustrates the lengths Lurie will go to in order to be exonerated for his actions while never acknowledging wrongdoing.

Coetzee’s novel has themes that are tangentially related but not relevant to the issue of the affair, mostly involving race.  (A comparison between Roth’s The Human Stain would be another blog post entirely.)  However, there are a number of points in the novel where you could almost feel as if Coetzee is directly commenting on Roth’s novel.  Roth likes to portray critics of how his novels portray women as engaging in a quasi-religious moralizing about a “victimless crime” but Lurie’s awkward dinner with the Christian family shows what a ruse this is.  Sure, they have different moral standards than Lurie and do not fit his ideas of sophistication, but he has unquestionably wronged them, even as he insists that his betrayal of the trust they placed in him as an educator is really a matter of their inability to properly understand him.

Lurie is also as death obsessed as Kepesh.  This may be a justification for his shallow hedonism, or it may be just a fact of life as one lives through his later years.  The two characters are remarkably similar, the main difference is how the author frames their actions.  This different perspectives and a comparison of them could not possibly be more relevant than they are right now.  Roth’s novel is practically a trotting out of every rationalization of entitlement you can hear voiced on a daily basis and it is not an isolated example in his body of work.  A reevaluation is very much in order.