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am 24. Mai 2000
Philip Roth's Human Stain shocked me, not with its subject-matter, which I think is by now well known, but by its often amateurish construction. If I didn't know the author's name, I would think I was reading a first novel, one that showed promise but whose author clearly needed time to grow. The characters in this book feel more like ideas than humans. We are told by the author, or rather the narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, what they are like rather than being shown. They carry none of the intense aura of flesh and blood that such recent Roth creations as Merry Levov and Mickey Sabbath did. His main villains are, in fact, nearly ludicrous caricatures: an angry Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD, and an angry, lonely, 29-year-old female professor of French. While the plot is quite interesting, I never felt any kinship with any of the actors in the drama, and thus found it a struggle to continue reading at times. Roth, of course, can still weave together lyrical, beautful paragraphs, but in this particular case I often found myself wondering to what end. This is surprising to me, particularly as I count Roth among my favorite authors, and consider his work of the nineties to be by and large brilliant. I particularly loved American Pastoral, Operation Shylock, and Patrimony, and also had a warm spot for Sabbath's Theater. I Married A Communist seemed a drop-off to me, but nowhere nearly as distressing as that of the Human Stain. Here's hoping a better novel comes out in 2001.
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am 22. Mai 2000
The Human Stain is better than 98% of the dreck that gets published these days, but since I believe that Roth is the greatest American writer, ever, this book gets judged against his other works -- thus only four stars. Roth seems to have begun with a notebook of thoughts and observations, turned them into brilliant prose, and then constructed a plot and characterizations around that prose. The result is a dozen or so interesting but thinly developed characters, including even Coleman Silk, the main protagonist. After all, 360 pages is hardly enough to develop this many characters.
The book also purports to be a commentary on the issues of race and political correctness in the late 90s. God knows we don't need another OJ book, but how can you comment on race in the 90s without mentioning OJ? Further, the book is set with the Clinton/Lewinsky matter in the background, but apart from four or five pages of an overheard dialogue and a few other observations sprinkled here and there (including the dead-on observation that Monica and her generation are so proud of their shallowness), the books leaves it alone.
Although Zuckerman isn't the lout that Rabbit Angstrom was, I would have appreciated Rabbit's take on the state of the union in 2000. I was hoping that Zuckerman could have filled the void left by Rabbit's death, but it was not to be.
Read this book anyway!
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am 12. Juni 2000
The Human Stain is not the best of recent Roth (but then there are few contemporary novels from whatever country as impressive as Sabbath's Theater or American Pastoral). However, it is confirmation that Roth is one of the most necessary of contemporary writers.
This concludes a trilogy of loosely related novels taking a personal examination of important events from post WWII American history. Each is narrated by Nathan Zuckerman (Roth's altar ego), and again Zuckerman is present, but - generally - not intrusive.
Set against the backdrop of the Lewinsky affair, Coleman's own fall from his position as Professor of Classics and dean of a department for a "racist" remark is a tragedy, and filled with anger, on behalf of his friend, Zuckerman traces Silk's life, and his final days (including an affair with a cleaner at the University).
Roth's writing has a passion. His prose may not be smooth and elegant, but there is real emotion underpinning it. Anger at the nature of modern society, the dumbing down, the compartmentalising of people.
Roth's characters are more rounded than in the first Zuckerman trilogy. His subjects now seem real. His writing about a writer, and his problems writing seems to be behind him.
This is a book about learning, about ignorance, about dignity, about shame.
It can be contrasted with the cool prose of JM Coetzee's Disgrace, winner of the Booker Prize in the UK. This novel looks at the fall of an academic after an affair with a student. It is a well written but cold novel. No-one can accuse Roth/Zuckerman of writing cold fiction.
The novel is uneven, but there is much that is poetic in the midst of the righteous anger. Also, in Les Farley, and Ernestine Silk Roth has created two of his most memorable characters.
Many years ago Roth wrote a hilarious baseball novel, The Great American Novel. Roth's recent work (beginning I feel with Deception) has been of an extremely high quality. And it is with this body of work, rather than in that thirty year old fiction, that Roth has finally caught that mythical beast. The cumulative work of the new Zuckerman trilogy and Sabbath's Theater truly are Great American Novels.
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"It was the summer when a president's penis was on everyone's mind, and life, in all its shameless impurity, once again confounded America" (3). Je weiter die Causa Clinton und Lewinsky zurückliegt, mittlerweile sind es zehn Jahre, desto absurder erscheint es, wieso ein ganzes Land und die ganze Welt derart davon besessen war, was ein Mann und eine Frau unter Zuhilfenahme von diversen Körperteilen unter Zweckenfremdung von Rauchwaren getrieben haben. Vor diesem Hintergrund lässt Philip Roth seinen im Jahr 1998 erschienenden Roman "The Human Stain" spielen, der auf faszinierend-mitreißende Art und Weise die Lebenslüge eines Mannes aufdeckt und nebenbei die Oberflächlichkeit und Heuchelei eines Amerikas offenbart, welche für uns alte Europäer in weiten Teilen nicht zu erschließen ist.

Coleman Silk war jahrelang ein höchst erfolgreicher Professor für Altphilologie am Athena College an der amerikanischen Ostküste, bis er aufgrund einer Lappalie seinen Posten räumen musste. Über zwei Studenten, die bisher zu keiner seiner Seminarsitzungen erschienen waren, bemerkte er: "Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?" (6) Dieser Satz bringt Coleman eine Rassismusklage ein, da "spooks" primär zwar "Geist" bedeutet, jedoch auch eine abfällige Bezeichnung für Afro-Amerikaner darstellt. Coleman verliert seinen Job und seine Frau stirbt an den Folgen der Hetzkampagne gegen ihren Mann. In seinem Hass und seiner Trauer wendet sich Coleman an den in aller Abgeschiedenheit lebenden Schriftsteller Nathan Zuckerman, der allen Kennern von Roths Büchern bereits bestens bekannt ist. Zuckerman ist eine Art fiktionales alter ego von Philip Roth und tauchte bisher in neun seiner Romane auf, darunter in der frühen Zuckerman-Trilogie mit den Einzelromanen The Ghost Writer,Zuckerman Unbound und The Anatomy Lesson. Ihm vertraut sich Coleman an und durch eigene Nachforschungen im Freundes- und Familienkreis von Coleman Silk kommt Zuckerman einem unfassbaren Geheimnis auf die Spur, welches am Beginn der Karriere des Professors steht.

Colemans Geheimnis, welches er weder seiner Frau, noch seinen Kinder und engsten Freunden mitgeteilt hat, ist, dass er selbst afro-amerikanischer Herkunft ist, dieses aufgrund seiner hellen Hautfarbe aber in der Lage war zu vertuschen. Was bewegte ihn zu dieser Entscheidung? Wieso teilte er sich nie jemanden mit? Wieso brach er mit seiner eigenen Familie, um sein Geheimnis bewahren zu können? Wieso opferte er am Ende sogar seinen Ruf und seine Karriere aufgrund eines Missverständnisses, welches er mit einem Hinweis auf seine Herkunft hätte beseitigen können? Und viel interessanter noch: Was ist das eigentlich für eine Gesellschaft, in der ein Mann überhaupt auf die Idee kommen kann, seine gesamte berufliche und private Existenz auf solch einer Lüge aufzubauen? Eine Lüge, die ihm keine Ruhe lässt, eine Lüge, die seinen längst verstorbenen Vater wieder zu ihm sprechen lässt: "Look where he had come to hide. And how? Why? Because of his credo, because of his insolent, arrogant 'I am not one of you, I can't bear you, I am not part of your Negro we' credo. The great heroic struggle against their we - and look at what he now looked like! The passionate struggle for precious singularity, his revolt against the Negro fate - and just look where the defiant great one had ended up! Is this where you've come, Coleman, to seek the deeper meaning of existence? A world of love, that's what you had, and instead you forsake it for this! The tragic, reckless thing that you've done! And not just to yourself - to us all. [...] To me in my grave. To my father in his. What else grandiose are you planning, Coleman Brutus? Whom next are you going to mislead and betray?" (183)

Man sollte mit der Verteilung von Superlativen immer vorsichtig sein, aber "The Human Stain" verdient meiner Ansicht nach gleich aus mehreren Gründen das Prädikat Meisterwerk. Mit sprachlicher Brillanz führt uns Roth zu dem Geheimnis eines Mannes, der bereit ist, sein eigenes Leben auf dem Altar dieses Geheimnis zu opfern. Erzähler des Romans ist Nathan Zuckerman, der auch als eine am Plot beteiligte Figur die Faszination und Ratlosigkeit ob der Person des Coleman Silk, die sich beim Leser breit macht, am eigenen Leib erfährt. Die Frage nach dem "Warum", nach Colemans Motiven, beantwortet der Roman nicht, sondern überlässt dies dem Leser und gerade diese geniale Konstruktion von Lücken, die es auszufüllen gilt, ist es, was große Literatur schlussendlich ausmacht. Es wird höchste Zeit, dass Roth mit dem Literaturnobelpreis ausgezeichnet wird. Vielleicht ja im nächsten Jahr...
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am 16. März 2005
Overall, I liked this book, despite the author's oftentimes wordy and dense prose. It was an interesting look at one man's history, a proud man who was brought to heel and hoisted by his own petard in a most ironic way. It seems that the main protagonist in his book, Coleman Silk, an esteemed classics college professor, who almost single-handedly put small, liberal arts Athena college on the academic map, finds himself brought up on charges by the college for using a word that has dual meanings, one of which is racially offensive to blacks, in connection with two students. Coleman has never seen the students at the heart of the brouhaha, as they missed all their classes. Consequently, he has no idea what their racial makeup is when he uses the word that is to cause so much offense.
Coleman is rightly outraged by his colleagues reaction towards him in connection with this incident and, in particular, by one colleague's virulent attempt to castigate him and paint him as the devil incarnate. Coleman then cuts off his nose to spite his face and resigns from the college, holding the college responsible for the death of his wife, when she dies shortly after learning of his disgrace. What the college does not know, and what makes the accusation so ironic, is that Coleman Silk is an African-American who has been passing for white. Therein lies the rub, as Coleman and his life slowly unravel.
Coleman, now in his early seventies, is fighting mad about the way his once promising and respected life seems to be ending. He is not helping matters any, however, when he takes up with Faunia Farley, an under-educated, emotionally troubled janitor at the college who is half is age and has a great deal of personal baggage from her own turbulent past, including an abusive, Vietnam vet ex-husband who stalks her. Coleman is like a man possessed and seems to go into an emotional tailspin, seeking to right what went wrong. To that end he reaches out to writer Nathan Zuckerman, whom he befriends, and asks him to write his story, as he himself is unable to write it. Of course, Coleman is unable to write it, because he cannot do so without revealing the secret that he kept for fifty years from his wife, his children, his colleagues, and his friends.
When tragedy strikes, Nathan Zuckerman is left to put the pieces together and discover what it was that made Coleman Silk the man that he was. This is a very compelling story. The most affecting parts of the book have to do with Coleman's early life, before he decided to pass. It is an indictment of race relations in America at the time of his decision, when someone perceived to be a black man was unable to be all that he could be. Coleman, a very bright and talented young man, seeking to be all that he could be without thinking about race, chose to pass. He was simply not interested in being a role model for those of his perceived race.
There are parts of the novel, however, that do not ring true. His affair with the janitor is a little hard to believe. I suppose that that the reason that Coleman and Faunia come together, other than the obvious sexual one, is because of the inherent, personal pathology that each one brings to the relationship. Of course, the relationship makes Coleman feel young again. Still, it is more distracting that enlightening in terms of the issues contained within the pages of this book. I also found her ex-husband to be more of a caricature and distraction more than anything else, though he is necessary to the plot.
Still, there is much to like about this novel, if one can overlook the somewhat self-indulgent prose that probably could have used better editing. The issues of racial identity are interesting and are the ones that provide much food for thought. It is in these issues that the strength of the book lies, even though the questions that they raise remain unanswered. This is a good book that could have been a great one.
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am 3. Januar 2002
The sheer brilliance of Roth's prose is a pleasure in itself. It rolls lightly and naturally. There is nothing forced and viscous about the flow and none of the I'm-consciously-trying-to-(over)describe-things-as-a-writer syndrome. The disgraced former college dean Coleman Silk is the protagonist of the novel. He is an incognito escapee from his original African American background and its defining forces. He has been living for decades as his own creation, a white Jew of Russian origin, and has had a highly successful academic career. In achieving his goals he has been single-minded to the point of unscrupulousness. His wife and children are unaware of his true identity. His career has ended in ignominy following false accusations of racism. Only Silk can appreciate the cruel irony of this. His wife dies of a stroke due to resulting stress. He starts an affair with a poor (apparently) illiterate woman half his age and begins a life alienated from his hitherto self-made one. Silk had steamrollered numerous colleagues in order to achieve what he wanted as a dean of faculty and so they jump on the bandwagon when the opportunity presents itself to avenge themselves on him. The newly-established virtues of the age are reduced to instruments of politicking in the process. His new relationship becomes the focus of yet another inquisition. Roth lashes out at the falseness of the new conventions and political correctness. Everything ends as an ironic tragedy. The theme seems to be the ultimate futility of striving for the real thing. There is a multitude of characters and some remain somewhat underdeveloped. Maybe this itself is part of the message i.e. a person's knowledge of himself/herself and others is destined to be incomplete and superficial and can be based only on the 'evidence' presented. Les Farley, for example, is like something cobbled together in a DIY store. Overall though the book is highly recommendable.
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am 17. Juli 2000
I am unfortunately not as familiar with Roth's earlier works and previous reviewers, though I have read him, knew of him, and respected him as one of America's great writers. I was nonetheless excited to discover this motherlode of observation, perception and wisdom that deigns touch upon such complicated and socially sensitive matters as race, academic culture, contemporary social pyrotechnics, vietnam, and simply surviving the murk of daily living. As an African American, it was a very pleasant surprise to discover the implicit wisdom of Roth's dissection of what it must be like, or entail, to cross the color line. Roth explores the subject matter with a wisdom and sensitivity and, more importantly, and insigtfulness that is rather staggering. Should I add, for an outsider? But perhaps that is the implicit lesson of the book; that though we may be positioned as outsiders in viewing arcane matters dealing with other races, cultures and societal segments, we may not be at all--that the human stain that brushes against all of us, gives us insight into the plight, the problems, and the possiblilities of the rest of us. Roth's novel is excellent, entertaining and rewarding reading.
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am 26. Juni 2000
I liked this book quite a lot. Set in a small academic community in New England, the novel is about an aging classics professor who in his youth, by incredible strength of will and at great human cost, has dramatically reinvented himself. The plot is driven by the ludicrous excesses of political correctness in contemporary American universities, which appear silly but have dangerous consequences. Several real-life examples of decent people pilloried on PC in the academy sprung to my mind while reading. However, I found the academic drama is much less interesting than the social one, and the human one, presented in this novel. The main character, Coleman Silk, is a light-skinned black man who, at the cusp of his adult life, decides to reinvent himself as a Jew, and spends the rest of his life seamlessly passing. The cost of this act is great: the loss of the family that created and adored the golden boy. Yet what is rejected by Coleman is not blackness but predetermination, the embracing "we", and what is gained is not whiteness but the freedom to be self-determining. His incredible egoism is pretty impressive. While Coleman is a great vehicle for this idea (the idea that race had to be rejected for the individual to emerge), I think the most fascinating character in the book is Coleman's lover, Faunia Farley. Faunia is the illiterate, white, 34 year old cleaning woman taken by the professor, in his 70s, as his lover. Faunia's life reveals the same incredible will to self-determination, regardless of the tremendous costs involved, both to herself and others. Yet hers is a more unusual and, I found, more moving story, one that is slowly revealed throughout the book, and which I won't give away here.
I didn't think this book was great, partly because of an excess of gratuitous viciousness! I often felt like Roth was just using the novel as a vehicle for attacking certain social types who really annoy him. (And I'm sure they are really annoying.) This viciousness is pretty funny, no question, but also basically distracting from what I found more interesting. What I really liked about the book was Roth's insight into what race means and does, and the falseness racial categories contain. Ultimately, in fact, race loses its uniqueness and is shown as just one manifestation of the heavy weight of social constraint that Coleman and Faunia battle in their attempts to become themselves. And this, too, is an excellent point.
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am 30. Juni 2000
Philip Roth is a fearless writer and here takes on the story of Classics professor Coleman Silk, a black man who "passes," living his adult life as a white. A brave undertaking, to be sure, and the first two chapters in which this story unfolds--first through an account of a budding friendship between Silk and Roth's alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, then in a flashback to Silk's youth in East Orange, New Jersey--are typically brilliant Roth: acerbic social commentary, mordantly incisive confessional observations, engaging ideas cloaked in simply beautiful writing. The second chapter is itself a powerful, finely wrought tale. For me, however, the book looses its way and its power, in two dimensions: in the narrative choices Roth makes--repeatedly chopping up Silk's story into multiple, shifting points of view, that seemingly "pad" the narrative with the doings of less consequential characters--and in the characters themselves: unsympathetic, at times simply unbelievable, and motivated implausibly, or, alternatively, all too predictably. Although I welcome Roth's continued attention to the American social scene, and to the particularly American pathologies that in Roth's recent work derange worthy Americans, if one more inhabitant of the Rothian universe pitches Nathan Zuckerman with a story that needs telling, that only Nathan can tell, I swear, I won't buy the resulting book. (But of course I will. Because Roth's our great master and chronicler, and because mediocre Roth surpasses very good anything else.)
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am 28. Mai 2000
There is something marvelous about reading the work of a superb writer at the peak of his form, and Roth's prose is so delicious one is hard put to criticize this work; yet "The Human Stain" must be criticized because it has many fundamental failures; so many, in fact, that in the end the book fails to convince or to satisfy.
The author starts testing the contract with his readers by asking us to believe in this hardly credible platform: a perfect black child, valedictorian of his class, great athlete, superb boxer (unbeknownst to his family), intellecually brilliant, without racial hangups, with green eyes and a skin white enought to "pass," aims for and succeeds in a brilliant career in academia with a specialty in Greek and Roman classics, all along pretending to be a Jew. Well, maybe. In the course of the book the contract is further encumbered by dozens of improbable details, unlikely coincidences, and unbelievable misunderstandings (which cannot be cited here without interfering with the enjoyment of the book by others), until one can no longer participate in the suspension of belief the writer asks from us. The big picture that undelies this novel is surely not believable; but the details? Ah, the details are masterfully drawn, so that the reader proceeds, no longer trusting the ground on which he is stepping, but loving the meticulously crafted scenery that strokes and lulls all his senses so precisely. There is much to learn and to love in those details, even if the plot fundamentally fails.
I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and would not want to have deprive myself of its many pleasures. If in the end I was left unsatisfied, it was because it had an effect similar to that encountered in a flight simulator: one receives the milliard sensory imputs, and one's body and mind reacts realistically to the flight conditions; but one leaves the machine knowing full well that it never got off the ground. This book will not fly you, either, although at times you will feel for sure that you are in the air.
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