Thursday, May 19, 2011

Roth's Booker

Philip Roth has been awarded the International Booker Award for his body of work. Hard to argue, you'd think, given his career and the highlights contained within it, particularly at the start and the end.

But not so. Booker has a tradition of controversy, and here we are again, with one of the judges resigning over the award. Carmen Callil is the founder of Virago Books and deserves tremendous credit for that - it's an imprint that has rescued many deserving writers from deleted obscurity. But her views here are difficult to accept.

It's a case of "emperor's new clothes", she argues, suggesting that Roth will be unremembered in 20 years time. Well, given that his career has already spanned 50 years and two of his early novels, in particular - Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint - are still regarded as major works, it's hard to see that prediction proving to be true.

He goes on and on about the same subject in every book she argues. Well, that 'something' is, if anything, the human condition, so it's a pretty weighty subject to cover, and surely worthy of serial attention. If you're going to dismiss Roth on those grounds you have to dismiss Dostoevsky, too, amongst others. Melville. Faulkner. McCullers. And on.

And what makes Roth's continued examination of the same themes so interesting is that he does so through the prism of his own experience. So what we read in late Roth is not the same as we read in early Roth. His latest works are extraordinary pieces. He could not have written Everyman at the age he wrote Portnoy. No person could. We are experiencing life through his oeuvre, unfolding and inevitable and unstoppable. That is a wonderful experience to be able to expose yourself to.

A worthy winner, I would say.


Vanessa Gebbie said...

It is a shame, all this. Sadly her protest comes over as merely 'he writes bloke's stuff and I don't like it.'

Ken Hannahs said...

Have you read Anis Shivani's blathering on HuffPo about Roth? That was a difficult piece of tripe to stomach, and I don't even particularly like Roth except for a few of his novels.

Tom Conoboy said...

Hi Vanessa. Sadly, I think you're right. She's writing in the Guardian today trying to suggest otherwise, but I think you have it spot on.

Ken - thanks for the link, an interesting article, complete rubbish. I thought that quote from Engdahl was nonsense when I heard it. I don't think European literature is in a particularly strong place at the moment. And certainly UK literature is weak. I don't think there's any doubt that we're coming to the end of a golden period of US literature, and it is still consistently more interesting and massively broader in scope than anything produced this side of the Atlantic.