Archive for May, 2011

The Cannes Film Festival organisers banned Lars Von Trier, but had no problem in exhibiting the works of two Iranian directors banned by their own country!

Incredible as it may sound, the just concluded Cannes Film Festival while lionising two Iranian moviemakers, stopped from working because their country felt that they were antinational, went and banned a Danish director for a remark considered hurtful to the Jews.

In the first instance, Jafer Panahi and Mohamed Rasoulof have been under arrest of some sort in Iran, whose rulers feel that the two helmers have been making a kind of cinema that questions their authority. In the second, Lars Von Trier, celebrated for his Dogma 95 (that tried taking cinema back to its natural roots of no-props, no artificial lighting, etc) and a host of films, including Breaking the Waves and Dogville, was banned by the Festival in its concluding days, because he jocularly told a press conference that he was a Nazi and he sympathised with Hitler. He was declared persona non-grata soon after the conference, which followed the competition screening of his Melancholia.

Known to have been suffering from severe depression for some years now that forced him to stay in bed without wanting to even get up and fetch a glass of water, Von Trier has had this knack of getting himself into messy situations. In 2009, he presented Antichrist at the Cannes competition, and with some frighteningly distasteful scenes of genital mutilation, the movie raised uncomfortable questions.

Von Trier, who suffers from fears and anxieties, including the phobia for fl ying, talks of doom and the end of the world in Melancholia. One journalist after watching it called him a “psychic circus master”. The apocalypse tale that often plays out like a fairy tale did attract its share of boos as it did claps when its press show ended at Cannes. Despite an arresting performance by Kirsten Dunst as the film’s lead protagonist (she won the Best Actress Award on the closing night), a haunting Wagnerian soundtrack and an almost ethereal country house location, Melancholia often appears lifeless.

Dunst’s Justine has just married Michael (Alexander Skaarsgard), and the movie follows her as she goes for her reception to her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her rich husband’s country home.

We soon realise that Justine is suffering from depression or melancholia through her strange behaviour that forces her to wander off ever so often from the evening’s ceremonial dinner. In an important way, Justine’s dark moods appear to be a forewarner of a planetary collision that is all set to wipe away life from the earth.

Melancholia in the end seems to be echoing its maker’s own depressive tendencies. And we have seen that all along — particularly in the way his female characters are written and portrayed. Right from Breaking the Ways to Dogville to Dancer in the Dark to Antichrist to Melancholia, his women have been shown as suffering souls, leading tortured and crucified existences. When the ban came at Cannes, (although his work was allowed to remain in the race), Von Trier joked again by saying that he felt a little happy about it, perhaps further irking the Festival and the Jewish community.

The American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors & Their Descendants, an umbrella organisation of survivor groups, said: “This is a welcome action, which declares to the world that the suffering of victims is not a fit subject for mockery or casual self-promotion. The organizers of the Cannes Film Festival have eloquently taken a determined moral stand against cavalier expressions of hate and insensitivity to those brutalised by the Nazis — Jew and non-Jew”.

One man’s meat is another man’s poison. The Festival, which banned a renowned director apparently to respect the sentiments of Jews, did not think twice before smuggling in the films of Panahi and Rasoulof from Iran, where they are considered insensitive and unpatriotic. Here, the Festival deemed it fit to help these two men in their right to freedom of expression.

But Von Trier’s right to comment — and come on, that was but a silly joke — was admonished, and the punishment was unjustly severe. Now, you do not ask your guest — and Von Trier has been a close friend of the Festival head, Gilles Jacob, a Jew himself, and a darling of Cannes for years with several of his movies getting in there — to get out, whatever be the provocation. And this was far from serious, and in fact Von Trier’s Nazi remark produced laughs at the press conference.

The sheer duplicity of the Festival is disturbing given the fact that it did not think twice before getting the Iranian films clandestinely out of the country. Panahi’s This Is Not a Film may be the ultimate underground movie: made for €3,200, shot on digital video (and, at one point, an iPhone) and smuggled into France on a USB thumb drive that was hidden inside a cake.

Shot almost entirely in Panahi’s posh flat, (indicating that he is quite rich), the documentary chronicles a day in his life. Like most Iranian movies in which the line between fact and fiction is unclear, his work

shows him attending telephone calls, watching television and discussing a script (which may never translate into a film, at least not for a long time). His visitors or interrupters vary from a neighbor looking for a dog-sitter to a friendly, young garbage collector to his daughter’s large pet iguana.

Rasaoulof’s Goodbye, also made surreptitiously, about a woman trying to leave Iran, won the best prize for director in the A Certain Regard section.

Both films are just very ordinary, and if Goodbye won an award, I think it was more to do with the helmer’s plight in Iran rather than strictly its merit. Sometimes, the jury’s decisions are overtly political. Remember Michael Moore’s Bushbashing documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004 at Cannes, where the movie won the top Palm D’Or? That year, the jury was presided over by the American cult director and reported Bush-hater, Quentin Tarantino. Nobody really believed that Moore deserved the award, but well, then.

The Cannes Film Festival has always had this political kink, and as we all know it emerged in 1939 out of a political necessity. The French found the Venice Film Festival firmly in the grip of Fascists and Nazis, who were merrily rewarding propagandist cinema. The French, feeling suffocated and neglected in such an atmosphere, decided to have their own movie festival. Unfortunately, Cannes in its inaugural edition in 1939, had to draw the curtains a couple of days into the Festival when Hitler’s armies marched into Poland, signalling the start of World War II. It was only in 1946 that Cannes could restart.

In the late 1960s, workers’ and students’ agitations in France and elsewhere in Europe led to the Festival winding up prematurely. One of the agitators was the brilliant French critic and director, Francois Truffaut, who had then been debarred from the Festival for his scathing criticism of it.

He wrote that the Festival was encouraging third-rate commercial French cinema, ignoring artistic fare — a tendency that still persists. But all said and done, Cannes does make amends. Truffaut later went on to be a favourite of the Festival with many of his works screening there.

(Source: Gulf Times)

He was a young promising techie, all 24-year-old, coming from the land known for sugarcane growers, Mandya. He had passed his Mechanical engineering in distinction. It was not difficult for him to land in a good position in any company, but all he wanted was a job in Tata Consultancy Services. Reason was simple: the girl with whom he was in love was working in TCS. A girl who was also from the same place was selected to the company through campus interview.

Why am I telling all this? There’s a reason and you all should know it. Let me just go to the flashback before coming to the main point. Deepak Marigowda was very intelligent and passed in distinction throughout his studies. It was his percentage in Class 12 which made his parents to enroll him for Mechanical Engineering. He was a promising student, but away from home, life in the hostel and you can imagine the rest…

In his second year of his course, he met Pallavi from Nagamangala, also from his own district. She was an IT student there. It didn’t take much time for their friendship to end in love. Everything looks fine when there are no responsibilities and life looks colourful during college days. Their love went stronger and stronger by each passing year and she was selected for TCS in the campus interview. He was very smart in his studies and his friends knew how he even helped his girl in her studies too.

After their studies, the girl joined TCS and he too soon followed her, because she meant everything to him and he didn’t want to lose her at any cost. After a month’s training in Bangalore both were posted to the Chennai branch. Their love continued without any hindrance until the girl’s parents came up with wedding proposals. Everything was normal and sweet till then and suddenly, the girl changed her mind. She was ready to give up her love and guy for the sake of her parents. Coming from a Brahmin family, she feared that her parents might face problems in the future if she gets married to a guy who was a Gowda. She even started avoiding him telling that if she marries a Gowda guy, it would be a problem for her younger sister to get married in future.

Things began to worsen very soon. The love of five plus years started taking a backseat and honour of her family became an issue. The guy told about his affair to his family members. Though they initially resisted his wish, they agreed to visit the girl’s parents to seek her hand for their son. Father of the girl insulted the parents of the guy and didn’t allow them to enter the house as they belonged to a different caste. The girl kept silent and the guy’s family was humiliated.

The pain of rejection and humiliation to his family was little too much for the guy, he even thought of ending his life, but his friends’ timely intervention just saved his life and he was immediately shifted to a hospital, where he was admitted for three days. After his discharge, he continuously called the girl, her father, her uncle and other family members telling how much she mattered for him. He cried and begged for her hand, he told them if he doesn’t marry her he would end his life, but no, no words made the girl or her parents to change their mind.

He often wondered if it was his mistake not to go ahead with a registered marriage when the girl had told him once in Chennai, as they were from different castes. He wanted the nod from both the families and had refused her idea. But god alone knows why things change and all are puppets in his hands!

He had saved all her letters, SMSes, cards and had recorded some of their conversations on his cellphone. He might have not imagined that they would come in public later… On May 22, 2011 he decided to put an end to all this… How? By committing suicide and leaving behind a series of questions in his death note… Sample a few of them:

  1. Why two laws — one for girls and another for boys??!!
  2. If a guy cheats a girl, the whole media gangs up against him, NGOs sit dharna in front of the guy’s house, they book cheating case against him, and make sure that somehow he marries her and gets justice.
  3. If a girl cheats a boy, why bury the issue?
  4. Didn’t she know that I was a Gowda when she fell in love?
  5. Who will give justice to me and my family?

He also told that he couldn’t imagine his life without her. He was not ready to marry someone else in the future as he couldn’t imagine anybody else in her place. All he could say was he was cheated by her and she was responsible for his death.

Now, what next? Will media fight to get him justice? Will NGOs get time to sit dharna in front of the girl’s house? Will police book cheating case against her and make sure that Deepak’s soul and his family gets justice? Will this also be buried like other cases? Who will answer Deepak’s questions??!!

Deepak Marigowda, a young techie from Mandya, ended his life as he was betrayed by Pallavi, a girl from Nagamangala, who was in love with him for the past five years.

Was stirred watching the programme on the incident. If a guy cheats a girl, the whole media gangs up against him, NGOs sit dharna in front of the guy’s house, they book cheating case against him, and make sure that somehow he marries her and gets justice(!)

The same thing has happened now, but with a small twist in the tale… Who will give justice to the soul of Deepak and his family members?

Anybody who had heard the conversations, his pleadings and cries with the girl’s family members, his death note would also ask the same question: Why two laws — one for girls and another for boys??!!

DOHA: Qatar has already attracted plenty of attention for the futuristic and colorful designs of its dozen proposed World Cup stadiums — including one shaped like a traditional Arabic fishing boat and another like a sea urchin.

Now the architects have unveiled detailed plans that will allow organisers to remove as many as 170,000 seats — including one entire stadium — from nine of the venues and send them to 22 locations in the developing world.

At a stadium conference in Doha this week, they said the initiative was aimed at insuring the World Cup would leave a lasting legacy.

“If we build up to the capacity which FIFA requires, afterward we would have a lot of white elephants around this area,” said Karin Bertaloth, whose firm is designing six new stadiums and two that will be upgraded.

“I don’t think Qatar needs this capacity.

We have the concept to build first tier of the stadium permanently and the second would only be for 2022.” Many of the stadiums also have plans to incorporate hotels, parks and even a spa, or the flexibility to be converted for athletics or other sports.

The push to consider the future of World Cup stadiums is nothing new, but has taken on much greater emphasis in Qatar, where a population of 1.6 million people means football clubs can barely fill a 15,000-seat stadium let alone some of the 80,000 behemoths that are required for a World Cup.

It also coincides with changing attitudes in stadium design, with developers under pressure to build facilities that are cheaper, more sustainable, and which have a long-term use beyond a sporting venue.

“Cities need to think about how a stadium can be used for alternative uses in the context of city, of the neighborhood, of the community it is in,” said Mark Fenwick, a director and partner with the designer of Education City, which will reduce from 45,000 seats to 25,000 after the World Cup.

Fenwick and others said Qatar’s approach also was inspired by the mistakes of past World Cups and Olympics, with several architects complimenting their presentations with photos of stadiums like those from the 2004 Athens Olympics which largely have gone unused or the Bird’s Nest in Beijing which is now little more than a tourist attraction.

South Africa, too, is struggling to make use of its 2010 World Cup stadiums.

Those in the northern cities of Rustenburg, Nelspruit and Polokwane, and in Port Elizabeth and Cape Town were all built from scratch.

They occasionally host games, but the cost of running the modern sites outweighs the income derived from small local crowds.

The company managing Cape Town’s $600-million, 65,000-capacity stadium — which held a World Cup semifinal — decided not to continue its contract after the tournament.

It has hosted just six club football matches this year.

Durban’s new Moses Mabhida Stadium is also rarely used, but will form the centerpiece of an expected Olympic bid from the east coast city.

“We are concerned,” said Eugene van Vuuren, a technical adviser for the 2010 World Cup who spoke at the three-day, Stadium and Venue Design and Development conference.

“We are sharing the stadiums and it is going well with all the existing stadiums.

But the new ones in Cape Town, in Durban, until they get it right where the rugby guys are joining the party they will always have a tough time.” Qatar not only wants to ensure it avoids empty stadiums but is hoping its venues can help transform and even build communities outside of the capital Doha.

Many of the 12 are being proposed for areas that are little more than patches of sand, and are expected to either be a destination for sports or education or the anchor for new residential developments.

“In Qatar, it’s less about the financial aspect of it as it is about what the World Cup can do for the country,” said Dan Meis, whose firm is building Sports City stadium which will have moving seats, a moving pitch and a retractable roof.

“The idea of creating buildings to be multipurpose and long use, it ends up developing a lot more and that becomes a legacy for Qatar.

The World Cup comes here, changes the country and creates development and experiences the country didn’t have before.” But Qatar is also using the World Cup to raise its profile on the international stage and that is where the stadium donations come in.

It plans to donate two 15,000-seat stadiums, eight 10,000-seat stadiums and 12 5,000-seat stadiums as part of a larger football development program that it says will “contribute emphatically to development of football and local society.” Van Vuuren welcomed Qatar’s offer to give away the seats but warned that it needs to factor in the upkeep and management of these new stadiums.

“It’s not just good to give facilities but you have to maintain and upkeep it,” he said.

“When you are in poorer countries, they just can’t do it.” Markus Pfisterer of the firm GMP also cautioned Qatar not to go too far in removing stadiums after the games, warning “that if you take it away and give it to somebody, you will have an empty parking lot at the end.

This is in our opinion not good for Qatar.”

(Source: Qatar Tribune)

GENEVA — A flowering plant has been found at an altitude of above 4,505 metres (14,780 feet) on the central Swiss alps — a European record, Basel University, said Tuesday.

“It is almost a miracle, but at 4,505 metres, at 40 metres below the Dom peak in the canton of Valais, the … Saxifraga oppositifolia has been recently discovered,” said the university in a statement.

Purple Mountain Saxifrage

“It is the highest elevation flowering plant that has ever been documented in Europe, and the location is probably the coldest point in the world where a flowering plant has been found,” it added.

The plant, also known as the purple mountain saxifrage, is common in mountainous areas.

But it was found for the first time at such high altitude between solid rock by botanist Christian Koerner.

Scientists said that at such an altitude, the plant regularly has to endure night-time temperatures of below zero degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit) and winter temperatures that plunge as low as -20.9 degrees Celsius.

In summer temperatures reach a maximum of 18.1 degrees Celsius.

(Source: AFP)

Photo: Purple Mountain Saxifrage/ Flickr

Qatar has reported a higher average personal income and the highest number of people satisfied with their current salary within the GCC countries, according to a Middle East salary survey conducted by Bayt.com.

The results of the survey, conducted in January this year covering 13 countries, were discussed yesterday at an employer round table event organised by the leading job site.

The survey participants were from Algeria (516), Bahrain (97), Egypt (1229), Jordan (570), Kuwait (332), Lebanon (289), Morocco (420), Oman (119), Qatar (289), Saudi Arabia (1677), Syria (247), Tunisia (143), and UAE (1646).

Qatar had the highest percentage (10) of people who earned a personal monthly income of $8,001 or more, $5001-8000 (15%), and $3001-5000 (17%).

Qatar, along with Bahrain, had the lowest percentage (8) of those who earned under $500 per month. Qatar reports a higher number (53%) of senior level employees, and UAE, Qatar, and Oman a higher employee turnover.

If 43% respondents from Qatar held two jobs over the past five years, it was 40% in UAE and 35% in Oman. Markets with higher expat labour (UAE, Qatar, Bahrain) shows greater acceptance of fixed pay structure.

As many as 60% of the respondents from Qatar expressed a medium level of satisfaction with their current salary, taking the country to the top slot in this segment.

Relatively higher proportion of dissatisfied employees are in Algeria, Morocco and Lebanon.

Qatar has respondents who save a relatively good sum of their salary, with 7% saving 51 to 75%, 16% saving 21 to 50%, and 13% saving 16 to 20%.

More than half of the total respondents are of the opinion that their current pay is lower than other companies in their industry.
Only Tunisia and Oman have one third of the sample stating that their pay is competitive with the market. In Qatar, 27% felt their pay is competitive with the market, 56% said their pay is lower than other companies in the industry, and 5% said it is higher than other companies in the industry.

(Source: Gulf Times)

The Economist magazine has accused India of hostile censorship after officials prevented the distribution of the latest edition because of a map showing the disputed borders of Kashmir.

Customs officers ordered that 28,000 copies of the news weekly should have stickers manually placed over a diagram showing how control of Kashmir is split between India, Pakistan and China.

Both India and Pakistan claim the whole of the tiny Himalayan region and have gone to war twice over its control since 1947.

New Delhi imposes tight restrictions on all printed maps, insisting they show all of Kashmir as being part of India.

“India is meant to be a democracy that approves of freedom of speech,” John Micklethwait, editor-in-chief of The Economist, told AFP. “But they take a much more hostile attitude on this matter than either Pakistan or China.”

He added: “This is an act of censorship, and many wise and sensible voices in India see it has no point.”

The map is used as an illustration for the front-page story of the latest edition of the magazine on “The world’s most dangerous border” between India and Pakistan.

The Economist still hoped to distribute the edition once the stickers had been added. The map is available on The Economist’s website.

Kashmir is divided between the two nuclear-armed neighbours along a de facto border known as the Line of Control. It closely matches the frontline of fighting at the end of the first India-Pakistan war over Kashmir in 1947.

“We are just told ‘it is the law of India’,” Micklethwait said. “The map is impartial, accurate and fair. We show everyone’s claims, and it is also realistic as it shows where the unofficial border actually falls.”

The magazine has clashed in the past with Indian authorities.

In December an entire issue of The Economist was pulped on the censors’ orders over a map of the region, and its publishers predicted the May 21 edition was likely to hit trouble.

Offending maps in The Economist and other foreign publications are routinely targeted by the censors’ office, which stamps each page stating that the borders as shown do not reflect India’s claims.

“As a point of principle we are against changing our articles,” said Micklethwait, speaking by telephone from London on Monday. “So we mentioned the problem in a piece pointing out how touchy India is on this.”

The magazine also printed a warning saying the map was likely to be censored. “Unlike their government, we think our Indian readers can face political reality,” it said.

Sham Lal, a senior official in India’s ministry of information and broadcasting, declined to comment on Micklethwait’s remarks. “We have no knowledge and no comments to make on this matter,” he told AFP.

Wilson John, a Pakistan expert at the Observer Research Foundation think-tank in New Delhi, said that the map was seen as a national security issue by the Indian government.

“This is about sovereignty,” he said. “I’m not surprised as this behaviour is an accepted norm in India.

“Mapping in this region has been an issue for many decades and, because the territorial dispute is far from resolved, maps will remain a problem.”

He added India was generally proud of having a free press but that Kashmir “always creates sensitivities that have to be kept in mind”.

Muslim-majority Kashmir has been a flashpoint since it became part of Hindu-majority India at partition in 1947 when British colonial rule of the subcontinent ended.

India and Pakistan nearly went to war over the region again as recently as 2002.

Relations between the countries have improved since then, but were hit by the Mumbai attacks in 2008 when Pakistan-based militants killed 166 people.

Micklethwait said India was now an increasingly modern economic powerhouse with a growing number of Economist readers.

“Other publications have had the same problems, but perhaps we have been more in their face,” he said.

“China will not distribute whole issues for other reasons, but there is no country I know in the world that takes the extreme attitude that India does.”

(Source: AFP)

PARIS — Sex selection of foetuses in India has led to 7.1 million fewer girls than boys up to age six, a gender gap that has widened by more than a million in a decade, according to a study released Tuesday.

In Indian families in which the first child has been a girl, more and more parents with access to prenatal ultrasound testing are aborting a second female in the hope that a subsequent pregnancy will yield a boy, said the study, published in The Lancet.

The increasingly lopsided ratio of girls to boys is larger in wealthy households than poorer ones, the researchers reported.

Between 1980 and 2010, they estimate, four to 12 million girls were aborted because of their sex.

“Selective abortion of female foetuses, usually after a firstborn girl, has increased in India over the past few decades, and has contributed to a widening imbalance in the child sex ratio,” they conclude.

The female shortfall for the zero-to-six age bracket was 6.0 million in 2001, and 4.2 million in 1991.

“Increases in selective abortion of girls are probably because of persistent son preference combined with decreases in fertility,” the authors say.

The mean number of children per Indian woman fell from 3.8 in 1990 to 2.6 in 2008.

Selective abortion of female foetuses accounts for two to four percent of female pregnancies in India, roughly 300,000 to 600,000 per year out of 13.3 to 13.7 million carrying a girl in 2010, the study found.

From 2001 to 2011, the practice increased at a rate of 170 percent, slowing from 260 percent over the previous decade.

In the study, researchers led by Prabhat Jha of the Centre for Global Health at the University of Toronto, analysed census data from 2011 and earlier.

The also examined over 250,000 births from national surveys to calculate the difference in the girl-boy ratio for second births in families in which the first-born child had been a girl.

They found that this ratio fell from 906 girls per 1,000 boys in 1990 to 836 girls per 1,000 boys in 2005, an annual decline of a half of a percent.

Declines were much greater in mothers who had gone to school for at least ten years than in mothers with no education at all. The same trend held true for wealthier households compared to poorer ones.

If the first child was a boy, however, there was no drop in the girl-boy ratio for the second child, showing that families — especially those better off and more educated — are far more likely to abort girls if the firstborn is also female.

By contrast, “we did not yet see any clear evidence of selective abortion of firstborn female foetuses,” the researchers said.

Unlike Beijing, New Delhi does not enforce the kind of “one-child policy” that led to the selective abortion of firstborn females in China.

The practice has left the country with 32 million more boys than girls, creating an imbalance that will endure for decades. In China, 94 percent of unmarried people aged 28 to 49 are male.

But first-pregnancy female abortions might increase in India too if fertility continues to drop, particularly in urban areas, the study warned.

A 1996 government regulation designed to prevent the use of ultrasound for prenatal sex determination is widely flouted, the researchers say, pointing out that few health providers have been charged or convicted.

“The financial incentive for physicians to undertake this illegal activity seems to be far greater than the penalties associated with breaking the law,” S. V. Subramanian of the Harvard School of Public Health said in a commentary, also in The Lancet.

(Source: AFP)

Strangely detached from the furore surrounding his Booker prize, America’s grand old man of letters is nothing if not a stayer

Philip Roth

When Philip Roth accepted the biennial International Booker Prize honouring some 60 years of his fiction, from Goodbye, Columbus to Nemesis, he sat at a wooden table in the studio adjoining his airy Connecticut retreat looking as much like a retired priest, or judge, as the Grand Old Man of American letters, pushing 79. His performance to the camera was typical: laconic and graceful, but cool. Combined with a dig at his international translators, a long-suffering crew on the SS Roth, was an ironical detachment, even grandeur.

Once again, this solitary man, obsessed with his never-ending personal story, had been cornered by literary fame. “This is a great honour,” he concluded, after speaking for less than a minute, “and I’m delighted to accept it.” The camera continued to roll as, tongue in cheek, his mouth moved in a tiny, but telling gesture, half “You can’t be serious”, half “Will that do?”

Roth’s scepticism was prescient. The International Booker shortlist included Marilynne Robinson, Anne Tyler, Rohinton Mistry and Philip Pullman. Scarcely had Roth’s win been made public than one of the judges, the former publisher Carmen Callil, dissociated herself from the verdict. Roth, she declared, was a bad case of “emperor’s clothes” (sic), a writer who “goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book”.

And one thing was quite certain, said Callil: no one would read him in 20 years’ time. From a farrago of post-feminist disdain, that last judgment was the most eccentric of all. Roth, who made his debut in 1959 with a brilliant novella, Goodbye, Columbus, and hit the international headlines with Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969, is nothing if not a stayer.

He was born into a family of second-generation American Jews from Newark, New Jersey, “before pantyhose and frozen food,” he says, in the year of Hitler’s accession to power, 1933. His parents were devoted to their son. “To be at all,” he writes of his mother and father in his autobiography, “is to be her Philip [and] my history still takes its spin from beginning as his Roth.”

Younger than Mailer, Vidal, Miller, and Vonnegut, he came of age during the 1950s, in Eisenhower’s America, together with Styron, Updike, Bellow, and Heller. This was a generation of young American men who wanted to remake the great republic after the horrors of the Second World War and to achieve that through literature.

For a long time, Roth was one of the pack leaders in an outrageously gifted fraternity. Now, with the exception of Gore Vidal, all his fellows are gone. He sits up in Connecticut, splendidly isolated, working day and night, a lonely and rather tetchy old man. He celebrated this life in his 1979 novel, The Ghost Writer: “Purity. Serenity. Seclusion. All one’s concentration and flamboyance and originality reserved for the gruelling, exalted, transcendent calling. This is how I will live.” Rarely has a great comic writer taken himself quite so seriously.

Such isolation is not just the choice of an obsessive artist. From his earliest days, Roth has endured the kind of attention that would drive the most dedicated headline hog into solitude: incessant self-abuse jokes, a persistent drizzle of low-grade hostility, typified by Callil’s outburst, and the envious scrutiny of literary minnows. Roth would probably agree with the American humorist Peter De Vries who observed, of American literary life, that “one dreams of the goddess Fame – and winds up with the bitch Publicity”.

Variously entitled “The Jewboy”, then “Whacking Off”, then “A Jewish Patient Begins his Analysis” before finally emerging as Portnoy’s Complaint, the novel that catapulted him into a world of banal public curiosity has a lot to answer for. Roth has devoted his life to fleeing its Furies, insisting he cannot identify any single experience from which this hilarious coming-of-age fiction originated. Its themes, pace Callil, are the constant themes of Roth’s mature fiction – the sexual identity of the Jewish-American male and the troubling complexities of his relationship with the opposite sex.

A novel in the guise of a confession, it was taken by hundreds of thousands of American readers as a confession in the guise of a novel: Portnoy became an immediate bestseller. For some readers, a slice of liver would never be quite the same again. For Roth, the novel set the template for all his work, the exquisite torture of literary self-contemplation. “No modern writer,” says Martin Amis, “has taken self-examination so far and so literally.”

After Portnoy, Roth took refuge from celebrity in his alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, and from the pressures of American literary life in long spells of travelling across Europe and England, culminating in his marriage to the actress Claire Bloom. Both this middle period of his fiction, dominated by the Zuckerman novels, and his second marriage (his first wife, Margaret Martinson, from whom he was separated, died in a car crash in 1968) became increasingly troubled by his unrelenting quest for artistic fulfilment.

The Zuckerman books (for example, The Anatomy Lesson and The Counterlife) delighted and exasperated Roth’s critics and fans. “Lives into stories, stories into lives,” says his biographer Hermione Lee, “that’s the name of Roth’s double game.” The novelist himself hates to be asked about his alter egos. “Am I Roth or Zuckerman?” he gripes. “It’s all me. Nothing is me. I write fiction and I’m told it’s autobiography; I write autobiography and I’m told it’s fiction. So since I’m so dim and they’re so smart, let them decide what it is or isn’t.”

As much as the wild humour of a man given to hilarious and memorable comic riffs, this prickly arrogance is typical of Roth. His self-assured belief in his inordinate originality first animated and then poisoned his relationship with Claire Bloom who, having declared that she wanted “to spend my life with this remarkable man”, divorced him in 1995, after years of provocation.

Roth had put some of his adultery into fictions such as Deception (1990), a ruthlessly exact account of an affair with a cultivated English woman. Bloom got her revenge in 1996 in Leaving A Doll’s House. “I no longer gave a damn whether these girlfriends were erotic fantasies,” she writes. “What left me speechless – though not for long – was that he would paint a picture of me as a jealous wife who is betrayed over and over again. I found that portrait nasty and insulting.”

Now Roth was free. Confounding F Scott Fitzgerald’s maxim that “there are no second acts in American lives”, he hurled himself into a frenzy of composition. “If I get up at five and I can’t sleep and I want to work,” he told the New Yorker, “I go out and I go to work.”

He writes, standing up, in an office set apart from the main house in which he lives alone. Never a day passes when he does not stare at those three hateful words: qwertyuiop, asdfghjkl and zxcvbnm. “So I work, I’m on call. I’m like a doctor and it’s an emergency room. And I’m the emergency.”

The turning years of the 20th century and 21st century saw the extraordinary late flowering of his gifts in American Pastoral (1997), The Human Stain (2000) and The Plot Against America (2004)). The mature prose of America’s elder statesman of letters has the sheen, rhythm and simplicity of greatness: words written and rewritten in almost monkish seclusion. Actually, as old age has crept up, Roth has now begun to abandon his country home, spending the winters in New York where he can eat in restaurants and meet a dwindling circle of friends.

He continues to write every day, with uneven results. The Humbling (2009), a “short novel” in the Everyman sequence, was not a success. Nemesis, his most recent publication, was more widely acclaimed. The Observer praised “the sheer delight of his style – that sustained, lucid, precise and subtly cadenced prose that can keep you inside the dynamic thoughts of one of his characters for as many pages as he wants”.

With the approach of his inevitable exit, Roth’s subject is still, as Martin Amis has put it, “himself, himself, himself”. He remains vigilant about posterity and his acceptance video tells us that he knows that the International Booker is a PR stunt, not the real McCoy, if such an award can ever exist in books. The one prize that really matters – the Nobel – is still the one he hasn’t got.

Born 19 March 1933 in Newark, New Jersey to Herman and Bessie Roth. His father, a salesman, provided the inspiration behind Roth’s 1991 novel Patrimony. He read English at Bucknell and Chicago and has written more than 30 books over six decades. Roth is twice divorced.

Best of times After becoming the 1998 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, for American Pastorale Roth was also awarded the American National Medal of the Arts that same year by the National Endowment of the Arts in Washington

Worst of times It is widely considered to be an injustice that Roth is yet to receive a Nobel prize for literature.

What he says “Only in America do these peasants, our mothers, get their hair dyed platinum at the age of 60, and walk up and down Collins Avenue in Florida in pedal-pushers and mink stoles, with opinions on every subject under the sun. It isn’t their fault they were given a gift like speech, if cows could talk, they would say things just as idiotic.”

What others say “[his books have] stimulated, provoked and amused an enormous, and still expanding, audience…his imagination has not only recast our idea of Jewish identity, it has also reanimated fiction, and not just American fiction, generally.” – Rick Gekoski, book dealer and panel member for the international Booker Shortlist.

(Source: The Observer)

Photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS

‘To give this prize to yet another North American writer suggests a limited vision, to say the least’

Carmen Callil

As one of the three judges for the 2011 Man Booker International Prize for Fiction, announced on 18 May, I have spent the past 18 months tracking down writers from all over the world. The requirements of the prize are that the winner should be living, and that their fiction should be published either originally, or in translation, in English. The prize is not awarded for any particular novel, but for the writer’s achievement in fiction. This brief provided me with the opportunity to read hundreds of novels, to ferret out writers I had never heard of before, and to spend months contemplating other cultures, histories, love stories, lives, the most exciting reading I have done for many a year. The winner of the 2011 prize of £60,000 was announced in Sydney on Wednesday: Philip Roth.

My objections to this outcome are many. The international aspect of this prize is its critical difference: to search out and value other voices. This was especially important to me because I believe that we live in times when English-speaking readers need – and want – the access that speakers of other languages have to such books: fewer writers are translated into English than into any other language.

I imagined the prize would, while including English-speaking writers of course, want to celebrate the work of translation and of translators who so widen our understanding of other countries, other cultures.

The Man Booker International prize allows for a separate prize for translation. If applicable, the winner can choose a translator of his or her work into English to receive a prize of £15,000. Of the four awards given thus far, only one has been given to an author not writing in English, the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadaré. And now, with the choice of Roth, this money continues unused. I hope the sum is accumulating.

I did considerable research into the writers of China, Africa, India, Pakistan, the Arab World, Sri Lanka, the Caribbean and more. We read novelists ranging through well-known and lesser known writers from Europe, South America, the US, Asia, Israel, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

So, to give this prize to yet another North American writer, when we had such great writers to choose from (the previous winner was the truly great Canadian writer, Alice Munro) suggests a limited vision, to say the least.

This is not a matter of nationality. You can’t group writers into teams or competitions like the World Cup or the Ashes. The essential matter is the quality of the writer, the body of work achieved and its value to the rest of the world.

There are great moments in Roth’s work. He is clever, harsh, comic, but his reach is narrow. Not in the Austen, Bellow or Updike sense, because they use a narrow canvas to convey the widest concepts and ideas. Roth digs brilliantly into himself, but little else is there. His self-involvement and self-regard restrict him as a novelist. And so he uses a big canvas to do small things, and yet his small things take up oceanic room. The more I read, the more tedious I found his work, the more I heard the swish of emperor’s clothes.

Hard to admire him, hard to see him on the long list, hard to award him this international prize. But I could have done it – after all, I am used to the mysteries of other people’s tastes – had it not been for the following: during the past 18 months favourite writers of each of us bit the dust because one or other of the three judges did not care for them, did not think them fine novelists. Each judge was in the same position, of course, vis à vis some of the finalists.

There were 13 writers on our final list. Any other of the 13 would have been exciting choices for the readers for whom judges work. Any other of the 13 would have been acceptable to me. I have judged many prizes, and compromise has always been necessary. There is a form of compromise when a second choice, acceptable to all judges, is agreed on. This was not the procedure followed and under these circumstances I could not lend my name to the choice of Roth, so I retired from the judging panel.

In retrospect I realise that I should not have capitulated and should have asked for a reassessment and full discussion of each of the other finalists. The depth of humanity, all those different qualities one looks for in great writing are represented in huge measure among them. This puff of indignation is for them, and for the translators who labour in the vineyard on behalf of many of those on the list – not always successfully, but for all who read in the English language. Reading their work so extensively has been a great gift (and could be for others) and for this I shall always be grateful to Man Booker.

(Source: The Guardian)

Carmen Callil: photo – http://www.themanbookerprize.com/