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Books: Swamp fever

AMERICAN PASTORAL by Philip Roth Cape pounds 15.99
You want to know what women are? Let's consult the man baldly invoked by a Philip Roth character as: "Most famous author in history": ""Down from the waist they are centaurs, / Though women all above: / But to the girdle do the gods inherit, / Beneath is all the fiends': there's hell, there's darkness,/ There is the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding, stench, consumption ... "

This passage from Lear's "every inch a king" speech (Act IV, scene vi) is surely the locus classicus of male fear of female sexual power. At this point, overwhelmed by his own nightmare imagery, the old, mad king has to break off, crying out for "an ounce of civet ... to sweeten my imagination".

The apothecary to whom Lear's request for that soothing essence is addressed is, of course, part of his delusion at this part of the play. Were he not mad, there would be civet aplenty and all the threat and the pain would be suppressed, the "Stench" covered up by fragrance.

Covering-up is an activity to which Seymour "Swede" Levov, the hero (for once, an apposite description) of American Pastoral, devotes much of his considerable energy. It seems - for a second-generation Jew, at least - to go with the pursuit of the American paradise, a pursuit conducted in the face of what Roth describes as "the counterpastoral ... the indigenous American berserk".

"The Swede", a boyhood athlete of such strength and bearing as to carry the dreams of others with unburdened ease, develops into a man from whom "all that rose to the surface was more surface". A man, dependable, large and muscular, who sweeps up his beauty-queen wife and bright, adoring daughter into the safety of his strong, protective arms. A man by the sweat of whose brow his family is enabled to live in a huge, 18th-century stone house in the country. A man whose dexterity and devotion in relation to the family business of glove-making is conveyed in meticulous, authentic detail. A man who, like Shakespeare's tragic monarch, is helplessly undone by the mysterious forces that are not masculine.

Rarely can a gallery of female characters, in a novel as substantial as this one, have been imbued with such dark forcefulness. The Swede's wife overturns all his assumptions. Her betrayal of him with a man she affects to despise is a matter of ideology as much as it is of morality. His own mistress - for a brief, guilt-ridden interlude - is a woman of "nonsensical calm - ridiculous self-control". A third woman, a fat, loud- mouthed academic, is a crude bludgeon, a "strident Yenta". Another is "a haggard old woman at fifty-four, an undernourished drunk hiding the bulge of a drunk's belly beneath her shapeless sack dresses". Even this creature, sad as she is, has a desperation that is ultimately manipulative and, indeed, violent.

And then there is Rita Cohen. The tiny, well- brought-up Jewish kid turned revolutionary. A symbol of the destruction of everything - Jewishness, family, fatherhood, sport, craft and industry - from which the Swede assumes his identity. A sneering, posturing, taunting embodiment of the fevered imagination of a shattered, Shakespearean king. "It's a jungle down there," she says, pointing "beneath the girdle" in a sudden, shocking gesture. "Step right up and take a whiff - The swamp. It sucks you in. Smell it, Swede."

Not only does Swede Levov suffer, like Lear, "violent harms" to his spirit through the feminine will, he also endures the hurt most acutely in the serpent-tooth turning of the thankless daughter. For it is the actions of Swede's daughter, Merry, that are the real destroyers. The pampered, sweet child grows up a bomb-throwing protester against the Vietnam war, a slogan-fed rejecter of all the steady decencies the Swede has tried to inculcate; has himself so effortlessly and proudly upheld.

Most parents, it has always seemed to me, carry somewhere in the back of the skull a screen upon which the worst kind of horror movie is perpetually playing. It is a vivid sequence of all the pain and misery that can befall each of one's children: abduction, rape, fatal or chronically disabling disease, abandonment, loss of mind or memory, a road accident or suicide - there is no shortage of plot. But most of us, most of the time, are able to keep the door shut on this lurid little cinema. In this book, Philip Roth holds the door resolutely open. And, as Merry Levov's initial violent act proves to be but the trailer for an epic sequence of despair, he holds his gaze - if not the Swede's - in characteristically unflinching fashion.

After the certainties of a youth in which the Swede - gifted with a complexion and hair-colouring whose lightness matched his touch at the sports at which he excelled - evoked universal adoration in his exclusively Jewish neighbourhood, in manhood nothing and nobody are what they appear. And to negotiate all this shifting sand, this alter egoism, Roth resurrects his own notorious and celebrated alter ego of several notable novels, Nathan Zuckerman. So disdainful of surface reality is Roth/Zuckerman that this character we thought dead and buried in The Counterlife is called upon to be the Swede's chronicler.

However, Zuckerman is not enjoying the fullest flush of living. Ageing, childless and alone, he is the incontinent victim of an unsettled mind and a rebellious prostate. But he outlives the Swede, and he articulates the Swede's sense of loss, of confusion, of baffled protest at the storm that breaks around his head.

Zuckerman's is the voice that sets it in the context of the Jewish father - in this case, Lou Levov, "one of those slum-reared Jewish fathers whose rough-hewn, undereducated perspective goaded a whole generation of striving, college-educated Jewish sons". In other contexts, too: the randomness of modern life; the culture of psychoanalysis.

In the past, Roth's increasingly experimental presentation of his alter ego threatened to take his work right off the map. Psychoanalysis seemed to take so strong a hold that one worried that, as valid as reading between the lines may be, there might eventually be no lines to read between. But this is a fine restoration job. Although Zuckerman claims to have "come down with my own strain of the Swede's disorder: the inability to draw conclusions about anything but exteriors", he is not to be believed for a moment. The Swede's character, in all its perplexedness, is drawn out in cumulative detail by Roth's reintroduction of a now sixtysomething, Jewish American contemporary of both himself and Seymour "The Swede" Levov.

While the book is, almost from beginning to end, an open wound, it is a rigorously realised work of profundity and colour, marked by passages of searing beauty. It is even something of an artistic mission statement for which, perhaps, it needed Zuckerman, as much as it needed him to bring alive the magnificent character of the Swede.

"The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It's getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful consideration, getting them wrong again. That's how we know we're alive: we're wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that - well, lucky you."