Saturday, September 03, 2005

Roth of the Gods - I*

* This is the first part of a two part post. I realised I had too much to say about Roth to fit it all into one session. This one I talk about Roth in general - the next post (whenever it comes) will pick out my top 10 favourites amongst his books [1]

Let me put this as simply as I can: Will someone please, please, please give this man a Nobel Prize?

Ever since Coetzee won the big prize in 2003, Philip Roth has been my hands down nominee for the next person who deserves to win it. Not, of course, that I think of the Nobel as an important arbiter of the quality of someone's writing - there are too many incredible writers who've never won a Nobel [2] - I just would hate to have to add Roth to that list.

Why should Roth win the Nobel? Before I give you my take on it, you may want to check out the recent retrospective on him in the New York Times prompted by the fact that the Library of America just began publishing his complete works - making him only the third writer, after Eudora Welty and Saul Bellow to receive that honour while still alive.

That said, here's why I think he should win - because he is, without exception, the greatest living writer in the United States today (and yes, I know Toni Morisson is still writing - but have you read her last book!).

To begin with, no other writer I can think of spans the range that Roth does. His work covers the spectrum from quiet social drama (When she was good) to over the top sexual farce (Portnoy's Complaint) to witty surrealism / magic realism (The Breast, Ghost Writer, Operation Shylock) to social / political commentary through fiction (American Pastoral, The Plot against America) to darkly funny explorations of human relationships (My Life as a Man, Deception) to deeply moving novels about love and family (Patrimony). No other writer I can think of has so voracious an appetite. In his best work (The Counterlife, Sabbath's Theatre, Dying Animal, Zuckerman Unbound) these themes come together in a way that is at once brilliant and frightening. At their best, Roth's novels shine with a sort of manic energy, an over the top vision of beauty and excitement, a pitch so high, so fevered that you feel sucked along into the maelstrom of his words, like sitting at a bar where the jazz is so hot that all you can do is shut your eyes, hold on to the table and listen for all you're worth.

Let's take the humour first - Roth is one of the funniest writers writing today, a comic genius comparable to Rushdie and Pynchon, both of whom, one suspects, had a lot to learn from him. As in Rushdie, Roth's humour comes both from his incredible over the top word play (at his funniest, in the Zuckerman novels, Roth is so hilarious that you could do an entire hour of stand-up comedy by just picking up the book and reading) and from the incredibly contrary and ironic situations that his characters almost invariably find themselves in (there's a point in The Counterlife where a woman's impotent lover accuses her of being unfaithful to him by sleeping with her husband!). What sets Roth apart, though is how dark his humour can get. Roth's true gift is for confrontation- there's an edge to his humour - the sense that while you're laughing your head off the characters in the novel are getting seriously, perhaps permanently damaged. This raises the stakes of the writing considerably, but it's a challenge that Roth rises to magnificently. Laughter in Roth is uncertain, almost guilty, you laugh just a little louder than you have to because secretly within you there's a voice in your head that is appalled at what you're laughing at.

It's this sense of guilty pleasure that makes Roth's novels so unique. Roth's philosophy as a writer, it seems to me, is simple - there is no good or bad, there is only the sublime and the ridiculous, the former to be sharpened till it aches with beauty, the latter to be mercilessly laughed at, whatever the cost. Roth does not, in writing about them, judge his characters, instead he shows us, better than almost anyone else I know, how even their darkest, most repulsive sides can be touchingly, endearingly human. Roth's MO is simple enough - take a human situation, dig deep into its most obscene, perverse, disgusting facets, take all the things we are ashamed to talk about or acknowledge, exaggerate them, and then show us both the humour in them and their sad, deeply human beauty. Nowhere but in Roth can a man sneaking out to the graveyard to masturbate over his dead lover's grave be a beautiful expression of true love (Sabbath's Theatre). By humanising the things we typically think of as outrageous, Roth establishes a deep connection between them and ourselves, so that when we laugh or cry in a Roth novel it is really ourselves that we are laughing or crying at.

Crying, you ask? Wait, isn't this Philip Roth? The guy who wrote Portnoy's Complaint and Zuckerman Unbound? What do you mean crying? For all the madcap humour in Roth, for all the fortitious wordplay, the hysterical rants, the caricatured paranoia, there is a deeply serious, meditative and touching side to Roth. On the one hand, raw pain is almost always the flip-side of Roth's humour. His novels are about deeply psychotic and suffering individuals, so that you have only to get beyond the humour (by reading the book for a second time for instance) to be hit by the terrible, unflinching reality that Roth is potraying. Particularly since this reality (especially in Roth's middle period - the Zuckerman novels of the early 80s, for instance) often comes sharpened with a deeply autobiographical feel. What other writer would have the courage to base one of his funniest novels on the premise of a writer whose father dies holding him in disgust for writing a highly successful novel that makes fun of the Jews? Part of the genius of Roth's humour is the way it makes you lower your defences just enough to let the suffering, when it comes, be like a punch to the heart.

But there's also a quieter, more restrained side to Roth. While it's a side that's much more visible in some of his more recent work (The Dying Animal, The Plot against America), making it tempting to call this the new Roth, the fact is that his pre-Portnoy novels (Goodbye Columbus, When she was good, Letting go) have more or less the same quality(though the writing there is nowhere near as word-perfect). And it's a side of him that shows itself at regular intervals throughout his writing - the last twenty pages of Professor of Desire for instance, are almost pure Chekhov, hardly the sort of thing you'd expect from one of the English language's funniest writers. The best example of this kind of writing that I can think of is Patrimony: a beautiful, deeply moving account of the writer's relationship with his father (with Roth, of course, one is never sure how much is true and how much made up, he blurs the lines too easily). Roth's latest work The Plot against America is also a good example - it's a quite, restrained book, written with incredible skill.

And that, I think, is the final reason why Roth deserves the Nobel - to be willing to constantly re-invent yourself throughout your lifetime is an important feat in itself, but to be willing to try something completely new and different at 72, and to be able to pull it off with the skill of a master at the height of his powers, is simply unbelievable. The truth is that I think Roth deserves two Nobels. One for the incredibly funny yet incredibly dark writer of the Zuckerman series and the David Kapesh series; a writer who combines the sense of humour of Joseph Heller with the intensity of Robert Lowell or Sylvia Plath. And the other for the quieter, more mature, more beautiful writer of books like Deception, Sabbath's Theatre, The Plot against America and Patrimony who is easily Bellow's rival in American letters.

You there, over in Stockholm, are you listening?


[1] In the interests of disclosure I should list the novels of Roth I haven't read. They are: His Mistress's Voice, I married a Communist, The Human Stain and Our Gang. I also haven't read his non-fiction work. You can find a complete bibliography of Roth's work at the bottom of my earlier link

[2] Another promising subject for a post, and one I fully intend to get to - eventually.


Blogger Jabberwock said...

Great post. Am with you completely on Roth deserving the Nobel (except that holding up Nobel winners as representatives of literary greatness is a somewhat dubious exercise in the first place!)

Have posted quite extensively about Roth myself - check out these two links:

1:40 AM  
Blogger Falstaff said...

Jabberwock: Thanks. Agree completely about Nobel being fairly dubious - but one can always hope!

I'd read the post about Plot Against America earlier - it summed up how I felt about the book so perfectly that I almost didn't feel like writing about it in this post. Also, I suppose this means I shall have to read I married a communist. sigh!

7:46 AM  
Anonymous Karthik said...

Awesome post. I've only read Portnoy's Complaint and Plot against America, but loved them both. Now I want to go read a few more.

Thanks again for a comprehensive post.

7:15 AM  

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