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Reading Philip Roth’s American Pastoral


Edited by Velichka D. Ivanova


Collection AMPHI 7

Toulouse : Presses Universitaires du Mirail, 2011

Broché. 292 p. ISBN 978-2-8107-0160-5. 18 €


Reviewed by Françoise Palleau-Papin

Université Paris Nord-13


This collection of articles on American Pastoral has certain qualities, but also raises a number of questions. The volume is organized in four main parts. The first, entitled “History, Place, Self”, sets up the historical and political context of the novel. Some perceptive arguments can be found among the five articles that make up the section. Aimée L. Pozorski argues that “it is not Vietnam that Merry brought home, but the War of Independence—the war that was the starting point for US violence in the name of upholding an impossible ideal” [34]. Ann Basu presents a narrative analysis and concludes that that “the novel generates self-conscious fictions refusing binding authority, presenting itself as a treacherous text” [85].

The second part examines the “Voices of Dissent”, and gathers four articles of varying interest. Matthew McBride uses a social definition of hysteria to apply it to characterization in the novel. Rica D. Galioto analyzes Merry’s stutter as an “anamorphic function, a monstrous interruption into Seymour’s reality that forces him to confront his own unconscious” [128].

The third section, entitled “Narrating the Pastoral”, opens with an article by Gary Johnson, who has selected perceptive reviews, one by Leah Cohen, and another by J.M. Coetzee, and uses them to analyze Roth’s borrowings from Greek tragedy in the novel. Debra Shostak argues that “The Swede’s suppressions mirror Zuckerman’s back to himself” [170]. Pia Masiero’s fine article considers Roth’s use of indirect discourse in her thirteen-page article, providing informed and helpful comments. One only wishes the piece could have been given more space to allow the author to develop her argumentation more extensively.

The last section, “In Dialog with Books”, considers intertextual references or echoes, except for David Brauner’s article, which deals with incontinence and impurity in Roth’s fiction, bringing together The Human Stain and American Pastoral.  The latter novel is then studied comparatively, with Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! in one article, and in its use of Tolstoy in two articles. David Rampton explains how the novel, “with its paradoxical formulations and difficultly resolvable ambiguities, constitutes a series of partial answers to the questions that Tolstoy’s story provokes for Zuckerman” [234]. An article on the Proustian echoes in Roth’s novel clarifies the misquotation Zuckerman makes of Proust, and engages in an analysis of memory in the novel.

A small number of articles paraphrase Roth’s text. This raises the issue of the collection’s coherence, undoubtedly a difficult one because of the inevitable pressure to publish in time for the students’ benefit. Some contributions seem less necessary than others, while some others may not give their full measure for lack of space. There are repetitions, such as the one stressing the opposition between ideals and realities, for example. Several articles conclude on the mention or brief analysis of the final sentence of the novel, giving an annoying impression of “déjà lu”, although the analyses of that sentence may occasionally vary.

If the collection is meant to be of use to students of the French national examination involved in the trial of being recruited as teachers this year, it is of limited utility. However, several of the articles are interesting in the way they address the novel critically, paying attention to the narrative strategies Roth uses. In this respect, they constitute critical reading for students or their instructors, who may use them as starting points to be developed to reach the level of precision required for the exam. But if this volume is meant to contribute to the current research on Roth, in “a dialogue of critical readings with the text and among themselves” as claimed in the introduction, then the fragmentation of the articles and their faulty cohesion may be an obstacle to that ideal. As such, the collection is an attempt to encapsulate the state of critical readings of the novel today. Let us hope, with the editor, that it may “in turn inspire new readings.”



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