Carmen Callil’s very public disagreement with her fellow Booker International judges is only the latest episode in the long and troubled relationship between Philip Roth and women readers.
Since the 1970s, he — along with the since-deceased Saul Bellow and John Updike — has routinely been labelled a misogynist by feminists. In the 1990s they seemed to have a point, when his former wife Claire Bloom published her autobiography Leaving the Doll’s House. According to the book, Roth’s demands in the divorce settlement included $150 an hour for the time they’d spent discussing her scripts. He also wanted $62 billion for her failure to honour their pre-nup. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that Roth’s first novel after her revelations was I Married a Communist, in which a mentally unstable actress publishes a book telling lies about her ex-husband.
And yet, as Roth has explained many times, it’s no part of the writer’s brief to be nice. To denounce him for dodgy sexual politics, he suggests, is to miss the point so completely as to be “numb to fiction”. His characters may not always treat — or think about — women the way that current pieties demand. But the inconvenient fact is that neither do many men in real life, which is what Roth is out to explore as honestly and often mercilessly as he can.
The turning point in his career was of course Portnoy’s Complaint. When his early short stories — published in 1959 as Goodbye, Columbus — landed him in trouble with many fellow Jews for their supposedly anti-Semitism, Roth had responded, for what would prove the only time in his life, with something approaching decorum. After all, his next two novels, Letting Go and When She was Good, were firmly in the tradition of Henry James. But then in 1969 Alexander Portnoy came roaring out, with his protracted but very funny scream of anger at being expected to be a good Jewish boy — and his battle-cry of “let’s put the id back in Yid!” Even now that several of the book’s themes (especially guilt-inducing Jewish mothers) have been copied so much as to become clichés, the rage and energy still come scorching off every page as Roth gives it to his critics with both barrels.
Nonetheless, as the (remaining) members of the Booker panel said, what makes Roth’s career genuinely remarkable — possibly even unprecedented — is that he’s stayed so brilliant for so long. True, in the early 1990s his relentless playing of fictional games, complete with a character called Philip Roth, did seem to be heading for a dead end. But then along came another darkly comic foul-mouthed roarer to put things right. Sabbath’s Theater, starring the blisteringly fearless ageing libertine Mickey Sabbath, proved that Roth still had the power to amaze, illuminate and shock. Among other things, the novel also took on precisely the sort of feminists who’d been on Roth’s case for so long. It now seems the received wisdom that his great Nineties masterpiece is American Pastoral — undeniably a great and powerful book. Yet, for the full-strength Roth experience (not a comfortable one, admittedly) Sabbath’s Theater is surely the one.
Then again, last year’s Nemesis is pretty great too. These days, with Roth in his late seventies, the laughs have largely disappeared — but instead Nemesis gives us real (and heartbreaking) tragic grandeur. And like all the best Roth novels from Portnoy onwards, it also ends with a killer punchline.
So no, with due respect to Carmen Callil, this is a rare example of an international award going to a writer who fully deserves it. Now, all we need for justice to be done is that Roth wins the Nobel…