Friday, April 27, 2018

Reading Roth under a cloud: How a printing error at a crucial place almost ruined a captivating novel for me

Philip Roth, circa 1977
A character in my copy of "The Professor of Desire" makes a startling admission to the narrator-protagonist, David Kepesh, early in Philip Roth's 1977 novel. The vain, glamorous Helen, with whom Kepesh will soon contract a disastrous marriage, is telling her story of having left a rich lover who sought her approval to murder his wife.

Helen says, in part: "It terrified me to know he could even have such a thought. Or maybe it was so excruciatingly tempting that that's why I went running."

Except in my copy, on page 42, that's not exactly how what Helen says looks in print. The adverb appears this way: "excrutiatingly." We've all encountered typos in books. But this one? No, it was not to be believed. But there it was, in a book published by high-toned Farrar, Straus and freaking Giroux!. A pivotal bit of dialogue had suddenly been knocked askew with "excrutiatingly."

That is not an alternative spelling, as when "protester" can also be correctly spelled "protestor." It's just wrong. "Excruciatingly" has a root in the middle that makes it a crutial — oops, that's "crucial" — choice here. It alludes to the pain of execution on the cross: crucifixion. Crux, crucis — Latin. The second "c" is as essential as a nail through the palm.

Is my discomfort about this the ultimate in word nerdiness? Perhaps. But bear with me: we all depend on constructing a scenario in our heads when we are reading novels. Saying what Roth has Helen say would sound the same either way that adverb was spelled. An actress, encountering either spelling in a script. would pronounce it the same. The character in my head wanted to say it with the full force of what Helen discloses to Kepesh. But the text was jarring me with "excrutiatingly." All of a sudden Helen was a wraith, and Kepesh himself faded a little, and his world wobbled.

It brought home to me the fragility of art. I might have put up with "excrutiatingly" in a work of nonfiction. After wincing a bit, and shaking my head — who read the galleys? where were the editors? The author? — I'd go on undisturbed. But Roth is a master of drawing you into a world — more, a consciousness — that he has invented, often expressed through first-person narration. We will not soon forget Portnoy, will we?

So when we learn how Helen dealt with her ex-lover's request, and how it still affects her, we are processing it through Kepesh's sensibility. He's the title character; desire is his obsessive subject of study, with which the specialty of literature he's paid to profess is fated to compete. And desire is essentially excruciating, can we all agree? It will never be excrutiating.

The novel is about 180 pages long. Could I eventually get over "excrutiatingly" on page 42? It was as though Helen's authenticity had been shattered, or at least cracked a bit. Eventually I sort of put her aside when the narrative did, going on to other things the way Roth so often does. But of course she reappears; Roth doesn't waste anything. Yet I was hoping to find one more typo/error to dilute the devastating effect of "excrutiatingly." I was still mad at whoever had been dozing more than 40 years ago when he or she proofread page 42. If some gremlin needed there to be a misspelling in "The Professor of Desire," why did it have to be there?

Eventually, near the end, a minor character, a Holocaust survivor, uses the adjective "lovey," and I almost wanted to believe the intended word was "lovely." A second error, please! A dilution! But Roth's keen ear perhaps intended to bless this gentleman, as a sign of his foreignness, with "lovey."

So I was left with "excrutiatingly" standing out in sordid isolation. Roth's narrative verve eventually saved the day for me. The illusive force of Kepesh won me over. But the nagging unreality of "excrutiatingly" will forever lie at the crux of my experience with "The Professor of Desire."

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