Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Professor of Desire by Philip Roth

Boychik Lit Book Review - No. 34

Here’s my book review of The Professor of Desire by Philip Roth.

Philip Roth is best known for his classic boychik lit coming-of-age story, Portnoy’s Complaint. Remember boychik is Yiddish for a young man with more chutzpah than brains. And, all of Roth’s novels since then seem to be about self-centered males who are thinly disguised extensions of his own fragile ego.

The Professor of Desire is the first-person confession of David Kepesh, an English professor like Roth himself, who obsesses, not about finding love so much as gratifying his urges without feeling too guilty.

We meet him as overprotected young man working in his family’s business. When he wins a scholarship to attend university in London, he has his first adult relationships with a pair of Swedish girls, Elisabeth and Birgitta. Ideal as the situation might seem for a man of his age and lusts, he’s miserable. Elisabeth moves out because he’s inconsiderate. Birgitta stays and is more than willing to please, but her eagerness turns him off.

Flash forward, and David falls for gorgeous supermodel Helen, who led a shadowy past life in Southeast Asia. Ignoring the fact that she must have left her heart there, he worships her, and they marry. One day, she leaves him abruptly for Singapore to take up with her former lover. And not so much because of anything David did or didn’t do, but because she simply doesn’t care enough about him.

Now entering his forties, David takes up with Claire, a sweet shiksa from New England, a caring, sensible woman, and the relationship is too good to be true. Just when David is beginning to suspect he can’t go the distance, his widowed father shows up all excited that his son will finally make a happy marriage.

We don’t get to find out. That’s where the book ends. The Professor of Desire was published in 1977, about the time activists like Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem were redefining feminism. They were mostly successful inspiring a new generation of young women. But Roth seems to be stumbling around, muttering to himself about what it means to be a man. He really doesn’t have a clue.

I didn't have a chance to include this comment in my radio podcast review, but revisiting this book decades later doesn't bring any surprises about gender roles in today's society. But what is striking is the ageism that becomes apparent in Roth's work. At the end of the novel, David is about forty and his father is past sixty. Roth describes the older man as doddering, forgetful, and foolish. And David's second-worst fear, after doubting his own worthiness as a companion for Claire, is that his father will die soon. If this book were written today, the portrait of the father would not be credible unless the man were in his eighties. Even then, many mature readers whose minds are still sharp would find the caricature of the senile dad distasteful.

For Boychik Lit, I’m Gerald Everett Jones. My series of humorous boychik lit novels is The Misadventures of Rollo Hemphill. And you can catch these podcasts at

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