When Will Philip Roth Become a Nobel Laureate?

By Taylor, D J | The Independent (London, England), October 15, 2005 | Go to article overview
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When Will Philip Roth Become a Nobel Laureate?

Taylor, D J, The Independent (London, England)

There never was a literary prize yet whose result didn't have at least half a dozen punters gnashing their teeth over the purblind incompetence or naked self-interest of its judging panel. Only the other day, for example, the literary editor of this newspaper produced some notably caustic remarks on the result of this year's Man Booker Prize.

To widen the catchment area a bit, of all the literary grand eminences imagining themselves to have been slighted by Thursday's unveiling of the 2005 Nobel Laureate " those chagrined Venezuelan poets and inconsolable Korean haiku-mongers " none can have been more rightfully aggrieved than Philip Roth.

Busily at large on the international literary circuit since the late 1950s " checking his bibliography in the reference books, I was impressed to find that his first book predated my own birth " Mr Roth is, you would assume, just the sort of writer liable to commend himself to the Swedish literature fanciers in the Stockholm bunker.

Not only has he managed to keep himself in the public eye for the best part of half a century, while lesser talents fell spavined by the wayside, but his novels fairly bristle with the kind of 'relevant' and 'universal' themes on which prize committees are so characteristically prone to fall: racial identity, loss, exile, the legacy of the Holocaust. Operation Shylock, for instance, was a grandly satirical treatment of an attempt to lead the Jews out of Israel and back to Europe, while featuring " just to show that its author was up to all the latest literary dodges " a character named Philip Roth.

Neither, too, has Roth yet succumbed to the winded late-career miseries of so many of his venerable peers. No anguished threnodies to a long-lost sexual past for this boy, and no over-egged evocations of small-town self- absorption la John Updike. American Pastoral (1997) was a terrific state- of-the-nation novel, a genuine engagement with some kind of national consciousness.

The Plot Against America, on the other hand, is a pointed war- era dystopia in which the champion aviator Charles Lindbergh defeats Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election on an isolationist and anti-Jewish ticket. Still vigorously with us, clearly intending to stick around for a very long time, as Martin Amis might say, the diagnoser of Portnoy's Complaint continues, almost biennially, to shape up.

From one point of view " the view that sees literature as literature rather than a sub-division of international power- broking " the Nobel jury's habit of looking the other way whenever Roth's name is brought to their attention is a grotesque dereliction of duty.

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When Will Philip Roth Become a Nobel Laureate?


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