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Philip Roth is a genius

Carmen Callil isn’t

28 May 2011

12:00 AM

28 May 2011

12:00 AM

Carmen Callil isn’t

‘Prizes are for little boys,’ said Charles Ives, the American composer, ‘and I’m a grown-up’. That, most sensible people will agree, is a proper response to the world’s follies. But when a gong is struck for outstanding work over a lifetime then there can be merit in it, which is why we should give three resounding cheers to the judges who last week awarded the Man International Booker Prize to Philip Roth.

Those bent on mischief might go further, and offer an additional cheer to those judges who, by nominating Roth, outraged their fellow arbiter Carmen Callil. A self-appointed guardian of ‘international’ writing, Miss Callil stood down from the panel, declaring Roth to be too ‘narrow’ a novelist to receive the honour. By making a stand on a matter of principle, she made herself look like a dunce; a prize dunce.

Few people who have read Roth over the past five decades will think the judges were being eccentric. It has become a cliché to call him the finest living American novelist, but that is what he is. He stands without embarrassment alongside the major figures of American fiction, going back to Mark Twain, and while few literary reputations are set in stone it is a fair bet that his novels will be read generations from now by book-lovers who want to understand something of Jewish American life in the second half of the 20th century.

It is certainly true that only Jewish America could have produced a writer like Roth. And it is arguable that, with his brilliant comic gifts buttressed by a first-class mind (this is a man who believes absolutely in the moral necessity of high culture), he is unique. The humour may occasionally be hard to take. Sabbath’s Theater in particular is not for faint hearts. Yet what a voice his is: bracing, unsentimental — and tender.

Tastes vary, true, but reading the opening sentence of a Roth novel is one of the supreme joys of modern fiction. No matter how many times the Roth fan has visited Weequahic, New Jersey, every return to this small, teeming world is a fresh adventure. Perhaps this is the narrowness of which Miss Callil complains. But most great writers are rooted in small worlds, whether it is Hardy’s Wessex, Proust’s Paris, or William Trevor’s Ireland. The smaller the world, the wider is the writer’s (and the reader’s) sympathy.

Which reader of intelligence and curiosity does not relish Roth’s long, muscular sentences, which brim with felt life? Not that intelligence is everything. Saul Bellow, who was very bright indeed, and loved to let people know it, is almost unreadable. To use a metaphor from cricket, Roth is the kind of batsman capable of scoring a century before lunch. Bellow, by contrast, preferred to push the ball back to the bowler, to demonstrate the correctness of his defensive strokes. Reading Roth is almost a physical thrill. Reading Bellow is like wading through treacle.

So what is it that Miss Callil doesn’t get? Here’s a clue. We must, she declared after standing down from the judging panel, ‘value other voices’. Here’s another clue. She had done, she said, ‘considerable research’ into the writers of China, Africa and Pakistan. This is the critic as school swot! Miss, Miss, can I have a gold star?

We should indeed value all kinds of voices. Surely that is why writers write, and readers read. Therefore it must follow that the voice of a Jewish man from New Jersey, amplified through the conduit of two dozen books, is worth at least as much as any other. Particularly when that voice speaks as clearly as Roth’s.

The really narrow view belongs to Miss Callil. To her literature is a form of social work: all writers have voices, and all voices are equally valuable. But they are not. Literature has got nothing to do with good intentions, and everything to do with talent. As Kingsley Amis, a superb critic, observed in this magazine 28 years ago, after somebody had said that Elizabeth Taylor was not an ‘important’ novelist: ‘Importance in literature is unimportant. Good writing matters, and only good writing.’

There could hardly be two novelists more different than Amis and Roth, though there are certain similarities in temperament. But Roth knows, as did Amis, that good writing has nothing to do with civic virtue or political balance. Literature is not a school speech day, with prizes for all and a jolly good show. It is a tyranny, however much the likes of Miss Callil resent it.

When V.S. Naipaul won the Nobel Prize for literature, Philip Hensher wrote that he was a writer of such stature that his nomination brought honour to the award. A similar claim can be made for Roth. He is a great novelist.

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