Sunday, April 12, 2009

His Mistress's Voice (Philip Roth)

This week I'll feature my copy of Philip Roth's His Mistress's Voice, published in 1995 by the Press of Appletree Alley in Lewisberg, PA. The title story, which spans just shy of sixty pages, was originally published in 1986 in issue 53 of the Partisan Review. The book is bound in quarter leather with burgundy silk boards and a matching silk slipcase. His Mistress's Voice is limited to only 195 signed and numbered copies worldwide; this is copy #46. Content aside, this is a book that makes a reader long for the days of private presses who were concerned with not only the quality of the text but the actual structure of the books that they printed. As I read through the story I found myself racing to the finish in anticipation of the colophon. I needed to know the paper type (Arches, a French paper mill that has been around since 1492!) and the name of this nostalgic font that linked the letter pairings "st" and "ct" with a subtle flourish (Garamond with Arrighi display). It's a shame books like this are so difficult to track down but it gives me great comfort that something this good was printed as recently as 1995 and that there are still many fine press publishers around today.

Now, let's talk about the actual story. A rambling and seemingly structureless train-of-thought, His Mistress's Voice reads to me as Philip Roth's answer to Molly Bloom's soliloquy in Ulysses. While the title should have tipped me off, it took me about ten pages to grasp that the book's narrator was a woman. While I am a huge Roth fan, I'm no stranger to the criticisms of how masculine and misogynist a writer he seems. Coming from the guy responsible for a letch like David Kepesh (a sexually over-charged professor who narrates three Roth books, The Dying Animal being one of the most uncomfortable books I've ever read) I was shocked to see Roth take this narrative stance in His Mistress's Voice. The nameless "mistress" thinks in sprawling chains of thought fragments, her sentences rarely lasting more than seven or eight words. In fact, the story is riddled with punctuation and desperately lacks conjunctions. It's as if Roth wants to get as far from Joyce's conception of how a woman thinks and give us a different (but still inescapably masculine) take on feminine inner monologue. Yet, what first seemed sexist seems later quite pointed. Early in the story, amidst complaints about her mother and mentions of what she read in magazines like Vogue, the narrator receives a letter from the man she's seeing:

"I did a fandango in the hall after his letter came. I don't think I exhaled while reading. Every single comma the best thing under the sun. I almost passed out. My astrologer will see great things in this letter: the slop is gone, she'll say." (p.24)

We reach a devastating turn later as this man tries to instill in her an interest in classic literature. She read because he made her, and they discussed the books just as he wanted her to:

"I would show him how I'd advanced, and I meant it besides. 'I've been reading Jude the Obscure and can't really see why you're so crazy about it. He is a boring, obvious writer. Jude is a dull, absurd character....I like Phillosten best--an old man with a letch. I'm just halfway but the only thing that saves it at all is that it reads like a magazine saga." (p.50)

This man has given her an entirely new voice, nothing like the "real" voice Roth started her with. It's as if Roth believes that men inherently try to imbue a woman's mind with their own. This is probably the reason we've (to my knowledge) never encountered a female narrator in a Roth book; he believes men are incapable of writing as anyone but men.

(and, coincidentally, "Androgynous" by The Replacements just came on the stereo...)

Gender issues in Roth's books will be eternally discussed, and I feel this story is an important part to that debate. It's a shame it hasn't been anthologized, but I imagine with the Library of America series currently cranking out books this will find a home in some larger anthology.

Where to find His Mistress's Voice
: There's one on eBay right now at a whopping $750. Punching it in to google brings up some book dealers, one of which is asking $3200 for it. I found this one on eBay at around $100 about two Christmas's ago. For you collectors, this is definitely one to just keep an eye out for because a far more reasonable price is sure to be had somewhere.

Now, if only I could find Roth's chapbook "Looking for Kafka"...!

Until next week,

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