Shortchanging Philip Roth

On Wednesday, the prestigious Man Booker International Prize, accompanied by £60,000, was awarded to American author Philip Roth. However, media attention was rather dramatically diverted from the awardee by the revelation that Carmen Callil, one of the prize’s three judges, had withdrawn her participation from the panel in protest over the decision.

Claiming nobody would read Roth in 20 years’ time, Ms. Callil complained: “[Roth] goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.”

Was there ever a more subjective reaction to a writer by a judge tasked with objective analysis of a writer’s or a book’s quality? Philip Roth is a great writer, and of course he goes on and on about the same subject, because his subject happens to be Philip Roth.

Philip Roth is a literary genius, which doesn’t mean his books are beyond criticism or are uniformly brilliant. His unusual talent was obvious from the start. At 26, Roth published his first collection of short stories, Goodbye Columbus. The 1959 book was immediately hailed as the work of a virtuoso (“Unlike those of us who came howling into the world, blind and bare, Mr. Roth appears with nails, hair and teeth, speaking coherently” said Saul Bellow in a review).

Although commonplace today, until Roth and Bellow made the Jewish-American experience chic, Jewish writers either anglicized their characters (Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman) or accepted a life at the literary margins (Henry Roth, Ludwig Lewisohn) or sanitized and gift-wrapped Jews for mass audiences (Herman Wouk).

Roth became internationally famous with his hilarious, but shockingly scatological, Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969. The novel, couched as a monologue to a psychiatrist, follows the tortured sexual confessions of a Jewish boy with mother issues through a sidesplitting series of masturbatory vignettes featuring absurd props. Controversy swirled around him. Cultural elites defended him on artistic grounds. But ordinary Jews were mortified by Roth’s exposure of the widespread vulgarity and materialism in middle-class Jewish homes. They called him a self-hating Jew whose books would arouse anti-Semitism. (Mordecai Richler ran the same gauntlet in this country.)

Roth has his failings as a writer and as a person. His postmodern, alter-ego Zuckerman novels can get tiresome in their endless mirroring of Roth’s life and writings. And his ruthlessness toward intimates whose lives he mined for literary gold is legendary.

English actress Claire Bloom was married to Roth for 18 years. Her memoir, Leaving a Doll’s House (1996) describes a creature of pathological solipsism. Once Roth asked her to read the manuscript of what would be his novel Deception. The main character in it is a writer called Philip Roth. The wife of this “Roth,” one “Claire Bloom,” is described as a boring, middle-aged actress. The real-life Bloom was enraged. When he refused to change the name of her character, she threatened a lawsuit, and he caved in. (By her account, this “unbalanced control freak” made her life torture in many other ways; how she stayed with him so long is a mystery to me. He took revenge on her memoir in his 1998 book, I Married a Communist.)

As Roth aged, he softened into affection for the middle class Jews he had so savagely satirized for decades. One of the best books I have ever read was Roth’s American Pastoral. Of this great novel, critic Norman Podhoretz writes, “Here, for once, it was the ordinary Jews of his childhood who were celebrated — for their decency, their sense of responsibility, their seriousness about their work, their patriotism — and here, for once, those who rejected and despised such virtues were shown to be either pathologically nihilistic or smug, self-righteous and unimaginative.” His alternate history of a Nazified America featuring his family in the all-too-believable The Plot Against America in 2004 was also riveting.

Lately, Roth’s books have been obsessed with the aging process. Understandable. He lives in solitude and has endured serious health problems. But Roth’s preoccupation with death, even though filtered through a remarkably capacious intellect, does not seem to have enlarged his soul. There is no philosophical residue to be had from his aging chronicles.

Nevertheless, Ms Callil is wrong: the best of Philip Roth’s enormous oeuvre certainly will be read and appreciated in 20 years — and beyond.

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