Michael Henderson

Philip Roth is a genius

Carmen Callil isn’t

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.

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