The winners lists of major literary prizes are littered with one-night stands. At one time they were the best-dressed talents in the club. Dolled up in fashionable frocks or fancy pants, they provoked promises of eternal devotion. But last night’s prized possession rarely proves to be a lifelong love. Who outside the universities still thinks Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus, a 1999 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best Book winner, was worth chatting up?
The decision to give Philip Roth the 2011 Man Booker International Prize for Fiction in May is the latest literary controversy. Carmen Callil, the founder of Virago Press, resigned from the three-person judging panel in protest. Roth, she said at the time, is repetitious: he carries “on and on and on about the same subject” in almost every book. “It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe,” Callil said, which is an odd way to put a criticism of Roth, with its imagery fit to entertain Alexander Portnoy on his lonely 107 bus ride from New York. “I don’t rate him as a writer at all.”
This was tough talk, and Callil tempered it in a curious piece published in the Guardian. There she explained why — like one of Jupiter’s silly little moons spinning out of orbit — she dissociated herself from the author of one of the funniest novels ever written. She began by explaining the terms of the prize: the winner must be alive, and published “either originally, or in translation, in English.” Furthermore, the prize is “not awarded for any particular novel, but for the writer’s achievement in fiction.” Her full piece resists a summary, so I’ll quote what I think is the point of Callil’s complaint against Roth:
My objections to this outcome [Roth’s win] are many. The international aspect of this prize is its critical difference: to search out and value other voices. This was especially important to me because I believe that we live in times when English-speaking readers need — and want — the access that speakers of other languages have to such books: fewer writers are translated into English than into any other language.
I imagined the prize would, while including English-speaking writers of course, want to celebrate the work of translation and of translators who so widen our understanding of other countries, other cultures.
So, to give this prize to yet another North American writer, when we had such great writers to choose from (the previous winner was the truly great Canadian writer, Alice Munro) suggests a limited vision, to say the least.
There are great moments in Roth’s work. He is clever, harsh, comic, but his reach is narrow. Not in the Austen, Bellow or Updike sense, because they use a narrow canvas to convey the widest concepts and ideas. Roth digs brilliantly into himself, but little else is there. His self-involvement and self-regard restrict him as a novelist. And so he uses a big canvas to do small things, and yet his small things take up oceanic room. The more I read, the more tedious I found his work, the more I heard the swish of emperor’s clothes.
What are “other voices”? I have no idea, though apparently, as a reader, I’m sorely in “need” of them. Callil wants to celebrate them, along with other languages and other cultures. But what, precisely, are these things? Other than what? Voices other than Roth’s? Languages other than English? Cultures other than the English-speaking world’s? And what are “emperor’s clothes”? Are they the same as the emperor’s new clothes in Hans Christian Andersen’s short story of 1837? If so, the point of the emperor’s flashy new threads was that they weren’t real. The story turned on the fact that they didn’t exist. So if Roth, like Callil says, is dressed in them, they shouldn’t be making any noises. What’s this swishing sound she hears?
The weirdness about the mysterious “other” Callil seeks in literature — and fails to find in any of Roth’s books — sounds like corridor chatter in the cultural studies department. Like the emperor’s new clothes, “other voices” don’t exist. There are strong literary voices and weak literary voices. There are fraudulent or derivative ones, and intelligent or seductive ones. There are many different kinds. Occasionally an authentic literary voice comes along that can claw out at you from the page. Dorothy Parker said that William Styron’s words “took your heart and flung it over there.” Roth can do that, and he’s been doing it for 50 years.
Roth’s fourth book, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) is a mad scream of a novel. It is so funny that you can read it once, then years later you remember some of the novel’s best bits and you’re in your office cubicle laughing like a tap-dancing lunatic in a tin foil hat. A novel that funny is an achievement worthy of a writer’s entire working life, and it deserves respect. Had Roth written nothing else, he’d still, in my opinion, be a more worthy winner of the Nobel Prize for literature than the 2003 winner J.M. Coetzee, whose novel Foe (1986) — another campus classic, like Eucalyptus — struck me as pretension passed off as profundity. His fictionalised autobiography Youth (2002) struck me as plain pretentiousness.
But Roth has kept on writing. His reputation, in the four decades since Portnoy’s Complaint, has suffered because of his refusal to be funny on every page, and for what Callil identifies, rightly, as his “self-involvement and self-regard”. Late Roth isn’t funny. It is brutally pessimistic, even nihilistic. But Roth is not a sad old man churning out “narrow” novels about himself from a farmhouse in rural Connecticut.
Roth, like Saul Bellow did, has applied himself to writing short novels in his old age. Last year he published Nemesis (2010), the fourth novel in a series he calls the “Nemeses” books. The first three books in the series — Everyman (2006), Indignation (2008) and The Humbling (2009) — were frightfully depressing reads. Everyman starts with a funeral and tells the story of how the man in the ground got there by wasting his life. Indignation is about a college student drafted to Korea where he dies in a ditch. The Humbling ends with the death of a talent-drained former actor, Simon Axler, who fires a shotgun round into his head. In the novel’s final paragraph, a cleaning lady finds Axler’s body on the floor.
These three books do have their charms. Roth can write like a painter touching up a scene, dabbing at details until the shapes sharpen. Here he is in Everyman, describing a boy after a swim in the sea:
He ran home barefoot and wet and salty, remembering the mightiness of that immense sea boiling in his own two ears and licking his forearm to taste his skin fresh from the ocean and baked by the sun. Along with the ecstasy of a whole day of being battered silly by the sea, the taste and the smell intoxicated him so that he was driven to the brink of biting down with his teeth to tear out a chunk of himself and savor his fleshly existence.
This is fine writing: the detail about the kid’s urge to lick and bite his arm is just right, and a familiar one for readers who grew up in hot climates near the sea. But the trouble with the first three “Nemeses” novels is that these bits of brilliant description aren’t enough by themselves to make you care about what’s happening to the characters. The characters are flat, cartoonish. Roth skimps you with their stories; he seems to take their fates for granted. He could, perhaps, get away with this if his material was less weighty. But with two of the novels working up to a death, and one of them working backwards from one, he needs to make you mind what happens to these people. When Simon Axler shot himself, I found I didn’t really care.
Roth doesn’t do this in Nemesis. Published at the age of 77, Nemesis is a remarkable late gift to Roth’s readers. It is a great Roth novel. Set amid a polio epidemic in Newark in 1944, the novel boils for 240 pages then spills over in the final section and burns you with the tragedy of Bucky Cantor’s life. Roth makes you feel it; like Styron did with Sophie Zawistowska, he rips your heart out and tosses it across the room.
Roth makes Bucky real. He’s the 23-year-old playground director whose mother died in childbirth and whose father was a jailed thief. He’s the natural leader with a simple, honest demeanour. He’s respected by the community and worshipped by his boys. Roth gives this guy the shape he withheld from Simon Axler. He sets Bucky in motion. You can feel for him. Here he is at the funeral of one of the boys killed by polio:
Mr. Cantor could see a few women, wearing broad-brimmed straw hats for protection from the morning sun, bent over and weeding small patches of land adjacent to an advertising billboard. In front of the synagogue a row of cars was parked, one of them a black hearse, whose driver stood at the curb moving a cloth over the front fender. Inside the hearse Mr. Cantor could see the casket. It was impossible to believe that Alan was lying in that pale, plain pine box merely from having caught a summertime disease. That box from which you cannot force your way out. That box in which a twelve-year-old was twelve years old forever. The rest of us live and grow older by the day, but he remains twelve. Millions of years go by, and he is still twelve.
And here he is asking the father of his delightful girlfriend Marcia Steinberg for permission to propose:
He bit into a delicious peach, a big and beautiful peach like the one Dr. Steinberg had taken from the bowl, and in the company of this thoroughly reasonable man and the soothing sense of security he exuded, he took his time eating it, savoring every sweet mouthful right down to the pit. Then, wholly unprepared for the moment but unable to contain himself, he placed the pit into an ashtray, leaned forward, and compressing his sticky hands tightly together between his knees, he said, “I would like your permission, sir, to ask Marcia to become engaged.”
Because Roth hammers so many real details and events into Bucky’s story — so many of the little moments that make one man’s life — it hurts to see Bucky towards the novel’s end: disabled by polio and heavy with misplaced guilt, spending his sad days alone watching TV, eating a Portuguese meal on Sundays, and seeing imaginary flashes of Marcia Steinberg’s pretty face in passing girls.
“Narrow” novelists cannot make you feel fiction this deeply, and few novelists can do it late into their 70s. Callil’s claim that Roth “digs brilliantly into himself, but little else is there” is absurd. Roth’s best characters live with you. They have weight and shape. Long after reading about him, Bucky Cantor — like Alexander Portnoy — can come back to you at idle moments in your office cubicle.
Roth, furthermore, owns Newark. He owns it like Bellow owns Chicago. Interviewed after his win in May, Roth said that when he went to graduate school in Chicago in 1955 he used The Adventures of Augie March as a guidebook to the city. Few writers can put a city’s pulse on the page. Roth, like Bellow, has done it. I’ve never set foot in Newark, but it would be wrong to say that I’ve never been there. Roth brings it to you — the schools, cemeteries and synagogues; the billboards, bus stops and butchers’ shops — in his fiction. Perhaps more than anywhere, Newark is at the ballpark. This is from Portnoy’s Complaint:
On Sunday mornings, when the weather is warm enough, twenty of the neighborhood men (this in the days of short center field) play a round of seven-inning softball games, starting at nine in the morning and ending about one in the afternoon, the stakes for each game a dollar a head. The umpire is our dentist, old Dr. Wolfenberg, the neighborhood college graduate — night school on High Street, but as good as Oxford to us. Among the players is our butcher, his twin brother our plumber, the grocer, the owner of the service station where my father buys his gasoline — all of them ranging in age from thirty to fifty, though I think of them not in terms of their years, but only as “the men.” In the on-deck circle, even at the plate, they roll their jaws on the stumps of soggy cigars. Not boys, you see, but men. Belly! Muscle! Forearms black with hair! Bald domes! And then the voices they have on them — cannons you can hear go off from as far as our front stoop a block away.
I tell you, they are an endearing lot! I sit in the wooden stands alongside first base, inhaling that sour springtime bouquet in the pocket of my fielder’s mitt — sweat, leather vaseline — and laughing my head off. I cannot imagine myself living out my life any other place but here.
None of this will satisfy Callil’s search for the elusive “other” in literature. But it satisfies the terms of the Man Booker International Prize for Fiction. Roth is alive, published in English, and his achievement in fiction is of the highest quality. Callil, elsewhere in her Guardian piece, admitted that the “essential matter” in judging the prize was “the quality of the writer, the body of work achieved and its value to the rest of the world.” Yet Callil didn’t want to judge the prize just on those terms. She wanted to celebrate foreign-language writing and the work of translators. Failing that, any of the 13 finalists apart from Roth, Callil wrote, “would have been acceptable” to her. This wasn’t how she was asked to do the job. If I was hired to paint a man’s house white, then painted it pink because I wanted to celebrate “other colours,” I’d be fired, and rightly so. Instead, Callil quit.
Literary prizes, if they’re to mean more to readers than a trashy one-night stand, should be given to writers for one reason only: because the writer writes well. That is the only thing that matters to serious readers, and it should be the only thing that matters to judges. Serious readers read for all sorts of reasons: to be delighted, to find consolation, for experience. They read to find the thrill of well-wrought words. More than anything though, they read for the same reason that makes the best writers write: because they have to.
That’s what sets literature at odds with the prize-giving committees. It’s why prizes rarely go to the best writers. There is nothing necessary about a literary prize, for a reader or a writer. Prizes are certainly important to writers, because they’re about money and ego, which are as important to a writer as they are to the rest of us. But the prize isn’t essential. It’s part of the chatter of literary consensus: with its trends, fashions and fancy theories; its blazing talents, bestsellers, bovine opinions, and, of course, its search for “other voices”. These are the things that usually decide literary prizes; not the necessity, the urgency, or the quality of the words. It is also the realm of the little literary controversy, where little talents like Carmen Callil make a big fuss off the names of big talents like Philip Roth.
The big controversy of the 2011 Man Booker International Prize for Fiction is that a major literary prize — in a marvellous coup Callil tried to stop — went to the right writer for once. The rare book dealer and writer Rick Gekoski, and the novelist Justin Cartwright, gave the prize to a writer who doesn’t just write well, but who writes his guts out. In Philip Roth, they found a prizewinner whose literature readers can fall in love with for life.