Wednesday, August 25, 2010
American Pastoral by Philip Roth
Seymour 'the Swede” Levov's most stupendous satisfaction in life was being a dependable person. He prepared and practiced the perfect life with obedience, uncompromising dedication to the essential, to things that matter most; the systematic building, the patient scrutiny of every problem, large and small; no drifting, no laxity, no laziness, meeting every obligation, addressing energetically every situation's demands; restrained in his aversions, neutral in his judgments, tolerant and charitable.
Perhaps the Swede carried his self-restraint a little too far? A certain dumbing down and dulling out occurs when one always follows 'the party line', when one is absolutely captivated by other peoples' needs, when everybody else's point of view takes precedent over one's own. Yes, goodness and sobriety bring forth inner tranquility but, after all, “what is so inexhaustibly interesting about mere decency?”
Boredom, however, was not Seymour Levov's problem [any more than it is for the other countless millions of narcissists who inhabit the American Pastoral]. It was the bewilderment which accompanies the opening of the door of the unexpected, the unseen, the counter-pastoral circumstance, the shadowing menace, the emergence of the indigenous American berserk; the confrontation with the transitory and mysterious- the messy, the dark, the hideous.
How to penetrate to the interior of people was a skill and capacity Seymour Levov did not possess. He just did not have the combination to that lock. Everybody who flashed the signs of goodness he took to be good. Everybody who flashed the signs of loyalty he took to be loyal. Everybody who flashed the signs of intelligence he took to be intelligent. And so he failed to see into his daughter, failed to see into his wife, failed to see into his one and only mistress and probably had never even begun to see into himself. What was he, stripped of all the signs he flashed?
Day and night Seymour “the Swede” Levov began to drown in inadequate explanations; overcome by a gruesome inner life of tyrannical obsessions, stifled inclinations, superstitions, horrible imaginings, fantasy conversations, unanswerable questions, loathsome self-limitation, unflagging self-castigation and remorse.
At dinner – outdoors, on the back terrace, with darkness coming on so gradually that the evening seemed to the Swede stalled, stopped, suspended, provoking in him a distressing sense of nothing more to follow, of nothing ever to happen again, of having entered a coffin carved out of time from which he would never be extricated... A lifetime's agility as a businessman, as an athlete, as a U.S. Marine, had in no way conditioned him for being a captive confined to a futureless box where he was not to think about what had become of his daughter, was not to think about how the Salzmans had assisted her, was not to think about...about what had become of his wife. He was supposed to get through dinner not thinking about the only things he could think about. He was supposed to do this forever. However much he might crave to get out, he was to remain stopped dead in the moment in that box. Otherwise the world would explode....
Vintage Books, 1997