The Breast by Philip Roth – his most outrageous, fun work, besides Portnoy’s Complaint

The Breast (UK edition / US edition) is one of my favourite Roth fictions and has the sort of funny, mad, energetic exuberance of Portnoy’s Complaint, while being much more absurd and surreal in its premise. There is nothing else quite like it in Roth’s oeuvre. From the opening line ‘It began oddly.’, you it draws you in into a first-person story told by David Kepesh, a literary professor (and the principal character of two later and better known fictions by Roth, Professor of Desire (UK edition / US edition) and The Dying Animal (UK edition / US edition). It is wonderfully comic, yet addresses both serious and fantastical issues, and all the while is utterly intriguing and intelligently done.

David Kepesh, as the title of the novella makes clear, finds himself turning into a human breast, ‘[…] an organism with the general shape of a football, or a dirigible; […] weighing one hundred and fifty-five pounds […] and measuring, still, six feet in length.’ The story deliberately and knowingly plays on two classic stories of the absurd: Kafka’s most famous and brilliant, The Metamorphosis, in which Gregor Samsa struggles, denies, and agonises over coming to terms with his turning into a beetle, and Nikolai Gogol’s The Nose, an equally absurd tale, where the character, Major Kovalyov, finds his nose abandons his face one day, and begins to assume a life of its own, much to the owner’s chagrin.

While Roth could have made this story simply absurd and comical (and it succeeds on those levels alone, especially the relentless, obsessive sexual fantasies and agonies Kepesh experiences, wanting to have intercourse and oral sex using his nipple), what is impressive is the serious, angst-ridden, matter-of-fact way in which Kepesh for most of the time tries without success, and painfully so, to rationalise his situation, believing at one point that he is simply dreaming, another that he is suffering some terrible mental breakdown, and even that, because he believes he taught Gogol and Kafka’s work with such conviction, it resulted in him becoming a breast (a lovely satiric dig at Kepesh’s/certain academics’ belief in their own brilliance and their ability to make an impact on their world through teaching).

Highly recommended for fans of the absurd, fantastical, and joyfully original fiction. The only caveat – frankly, a gripe – is the cost of this novella (as well as other paperback editions); after all – 96 pages for £7.99 RRP, admittedly generously discounted by 30% by Amazon to £5.59. Ok, perhaps it’s not the ‘quantity’, but the ‘quality’ that counts, but I would normally hope that, for this sort price and paltry number of pages, you’d expect a beautiful physically object/high-quality edition, such as those by, for example, Hesperus Press (note: that is a link to their catalogue, as their website is being revamped at the moment) and Europa Editions, with their French wrapper jackets and quality paper. But then those two publishers are indies, so no surprise there as to their quality … please don’t take this moan as a justification not to buy the title – it really is such an original, terrific read, it’s still worth the price.

2 thoughts on “The Breast by Philip Roth – his most outrageous, fun work, besides Portnoy’s Complaint”

  1. I love Portnoy’s Complaint – it’s absolutely hilarious. I’ll have to look into The Breast – seems insane! Where does Roth come up with some of his ideas?! I love his writing style, the way he builds his characters, and his sense of humor.


    1. Hi Nicole – thanks so much for your comment; it’s also really refreshing to learn of someone who has read Portnoy’s – most people I know don’t even know of it; yet those same people know of several of his latest. Weird. Maybe it’s an age thing. Hope you enjoy The Breast – it really is wackidoodle, yet also thought-provoking (as you’d expect from Roth). And if you’re a big reader (I suspect you are), you’ll whizz through it very quickly. All best – and cheers again for sending me your note. Best, bobbygw


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