The Dying Animal

Over the weekend I saw the film version of Philip Roth’s novel The Dying Animal. Once again it was a jarring experience to see a novel translated into a motion picture. The film, Elegy, starred Ben Kingsley as the professor of literature David Kepesh and Penelope Cruz as Consuela Castillo, the young student he fancies. Cruz fit the image that I had from Roth’s characterization, although her overwhelming beauty was far more than I had imagined. However, Kingsley was nothing like the Kepesh in the novel or the Kepesh in any the other Roth novels where he appears.

What has happened to casting directors these days? I didn’t see the film when it was in the theaters because I simply didn’t want to see Kepesh portrayed by Kingsley, not that I have any great admiration for Kepesh, but only that never once did I think of him with a shaved head, pointy goatee, and unsmiling, somber demeanor. Eventually I succumbed to the DVD version. Watching it was a less than joyful experience.

The novel draws its title from lines in Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium:

Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

In the novel David Kepesh is white-haired, well over 60, a prominent TV cultural critic and professor at a New York college. As is his practice, he holds a party for his students at the end of the academic year, picks a woman from the former-student guests to carry on with for a while, until the next semester when he repeats the routine all over again. In The Dying Animal, Kepesh’s end-of-the-semester woman is Consuela Castillo, an intelligent “masterpiece of volupte" with whom he eventually falls in love, unlike all his previous affairs. Her youth and beauty totally undo him, whereupon he falls into a possessiveness and intense jealousy that eventually leads to the end of their affair.

Several years later Conseula comes to see Kepsch to tell him she has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Kepsch is truly bereft and mourns:

“In every calm and reasonable person, there is a hidden second person scared witless about death.”

Consuela is dying. Kepsch is dying. At the time I read the novel, I felt that’s what Roth was really writing about. It is also the central theme in several of his recent novels, most recently Exit Ghost and earlier Everyman. In Exist Ghost he says that growing old is a massacre. It’s not quite that severe in The Dying Animal, but you sense it is just around the corner.

Far from feeling youthful, you feel the poignancy of her limitless future as opposed to your own limited one, you feel even more than you ordinarily do the poignancy of every last grace that’s been lost…You note the difference every second of the game.

What is it that puts me outside? It is age. The wound of age.

…time is not how much future she has left, and she doesn’t believe there is any. Now she measures time counting forward, counting time by the closeness of death.

In truth, the film also spends a good deal of time dealing with questions of age. As the film reviewer James Berardinelli notes in his review of Elegy:

"Aging is a significant element of this movie, especially as it relates to an intimacy between someone who is closer to death than birth and someone who, ideally, is the opposite."

I concur with Berardinelli who, in contrast to most reviewers of the film or the novel, reflects Roth’s preoccupation with the steadily increasing limitations of growing old. Roth does this with genuine poignancy and so does the film director Isabel Coixet regardless of who she has cast as Professor Kepesh. And I think she has also chosen a better title for the story. “Elegy” is typically a lament for the dead. Here it is a lament for the death of youth, the looming death of a beautiful young women and an aging man.