In the culture wars

The Human Stain by Philip Roth (Jonathan Cape, £16.99, 361pp)
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The Independent Culture

Judging by three recent novels, an ill wind is afflicting academia's ancien régime. Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and JM Coetzee have all portrayed prominent intellectuals in decline, one brought low by disease (in Bellow's Ravelstein) the other two by scandal (in Coetzee's Disgrace and Roth's The Human Stain). Bellow and Roth venerate their deceased subjects; their fictionalised biographies are attempts to appropriate the charisma of the departed by literary magic.

Chick and Zukerman, Bellow's and Roth's alter egos, have been invited to write the memoirs of their friends. Like Coetzee's David Lurie, these fallen mighty lament the decline of Western culture. Devotees of the classics, they are contemptuous of modern education, the counter-culture and PC. All have been virile men, but behind their Olympian poses lurks the dreaded collapse not only of the body but of everything they value.

The Human Stain is a rich and risky book. Roth, like Coetzee, is drawn to the grey areas between black and white. At the novel's centre is a huge irony in which race is used to transcend race and to explore the American dream of freedom - and what it justifies.

Coleman Silk has reinvented himself. The lightest-skinned member of a light-skinned black family, he is resolved to pass as white and ruthlessly excommunicates himself from his impossibly decent family. Roth implies that Coleman's decision constitutes a choice for freedom of the spirit and the right to self-creation without the inhibiting loyalties of race, class or politics.

Married to Iris Gittelman and assumed to be a Jew, he becomes a classics professor at Athena, a Massachusetts college. Promoted to dean of faculty, he wades in with sweeping reforms, making and breaking tenures and putting Athena on the academic map. The dean, despite his surname, is tough as old boots - that is until he resumes teaching Greek tragedy and thereby generates one of his own. He lets slip a single word, spoken in innocence or verbal amnesia, and is accused of racism, a charge against which he cannot defend himself. In the ensuing social maelstrom, friends reject him while enemies trash his reputation. When Iris dies, the victim, he claims, of his tormentors' wrath, he withdraws to write about his injustices.

Was Coleman's fall a result of the excesses of PC or plain old-fashioned lynch-mob rule? Zukerman is fascinated by his friend's dilemma and seduced by his personality. Then comes the confession: at 71, Professor Silk is having an affair with a woman half his age.

Faunia Farley is 34, a janitor and sometime milkmaid with a fatalist's inner strength. She is also illiterate - by choice, she claims - a Boston Brahmin sunk to white trash, haunted by the deaths of her two children and stalked by her ex-husband, Les, a psychotic Vietnam veteran.

The account of their Viagra-enabled affair is both lyrical and analytical. Coleman is drawn to Faunia "because of all he missed by going in the opposite direction". Roth draws a dubious parallel between the maligned lovers and the Clinton/Monica scandal, divining a similar instance of the puritanical frenzy that periodically invades his country.

Roth excels at atmospheres, especially in the chapters on Coleman's heady youth cruising Greenwich Village. There seems no aspect of American life that his vision cannot encompass. His passion for all-inclusiveness strains the boundaries of the book. His questing mind, the pleasure he takes in honing his insights and the rhythm of his prose make terrific reading. But the incantatory style sometimes lapses into curmudgeonly rants.

The use of Coleman's sister as deus ex machina strikes a false note. Ernestine's revelatory arrival at the graveside feels contrived, her extended monologue appended as a kind of commentary on the state of America. This "good and virtuous" black woman becomes a mouthpiece for Roth's own resentments, editorialising and subverting what has already been made obvious in fiction.

Ernestine leads Zukerman into her brother's secret past, thereby sanctioning him as the white bard who will sing the story of Coleman Silk, just as Chick sings of Ravelstein. The Proustian ending is ultimately satisfying, and The Human Stain closes as Zukerman begins to write the novel we have just read.