Archive for May 25, 2011

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

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‘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/

My Life in Doha: Between Dream and Reality
Rachel Hajar, MD
Strategic Book Group
Price: $16

It’s July 1978, and the summer at its peak with intense, blinding light at 40 degree Celsius. The sky was deeply blue and cloudless, and a young Filipina doctor, born and brought up as a Roman Catholic, arrives in Doha with her husband and two children. The very touching of the Qatari soil is like a dream, for she had neither dreamt of coming to Qatar, a name which she had never heard of before meeting her husband, nor of marrying an Arab cardiologist from Qatar, says Dr Rachel Hajar, a cardiologist and the director of non-invasive cardiology, Hamad Medical Corporation, Doha, and married to Dr Hajar Ahmad Albinali, also a cardiologist and former health minister in Qatar, in the beginning lines of her memoir – My Life in Doha: Between Dream and Reality. Doha Corniche was the first place she visited after arriving in Doha and she might have never dreamt that the Pearl Oyster Fountain along Doha Corniche would make the cover for her memoir in the later years!

The work is remarkable not just because it is written about Arab society and culture, but also because it gives first-hand experience of the author, an outsider, who was accepted by the conservative society with open arms. The book is all about her personal experience and narrates how she met her husband and came to live in Qatar. It also gives an insight into her good rapport with her in-laws, recollections of her early experiences and her insights into another culture.

She admits that the world was obviously different from the one in which she was brought up and reveals what it is like to live within the heart of a culture that’s not her own and the social changes she has witnessed through the years and most importantly, the evolution of her perspective about the region and its people.

With a physician’s eye for detail, she weaves a fascinating tale of how her love story transcended cultural and social habits in a traditionally patriarchal Arab Islamic culture. She blends art and science in a convincing manner. The chapters read easy and a tinge of humour and stories of the past help the reader to maintain the flow of reading. The author takes fascinating side trips into the history and literature surrounding incense, the Islamic call to prayer, the marketplace, and compares and contrasts Christian and Islamic festivals.

Dr Rachel describes the celebrations of Eid very vividly. In fact, she compares and contrasts Christian and Islamic. But she also says “both are occasions for prayer as well as a time devoted to family and friends and the fulfillment of social obligations.” She continues: “The template of the celebrations of Christmas that I remember is not so much different from the celebrations of Eid. The two feasts highlighted that Muslims and Christians shared the same beliefs and behaviors. The milieu for the celebration of Eid and Christmas may be different but both encode in their festival and prayer ritual the concepts peace, joy, love  —  and hope.” (P. 177)

Qatar, the thumb of Arabia, becomes the home of Dr Rachel. She is no more an outsider. She is one among the Qataris. There is a kind of happiness and belongingness when she says: “The first time I gave my children their Eid card written in my distinctive Arabic script, it created a sensation in the family. My newfound skill in writing Arabic letters languished when they outgrew Eidiyas.” (P. 175).  “There is a certain satisfaction in being able to deny yourself food and drink and an excitement in anticipating iftar. Once the fast is broken, food tastes so good, and water so sweet.” (P. 195)

As an insider she describes how Qatari kitchens buzz with activity during Ramadan as women prepare and experiment with new recipes for iftar, the breaking of fast. She goes in detail about the traditional delicacies like thareed and harees, “the two dishes known from pre-Islamic days”. (P. 188). Not to leave behind Loqaimat, a desert which inspired her husband to compose a whimsical Arabic verse. She also narrates the stories behind the traditional sweet dishes Mahalabiya and Umm Ali.

She also examines issues like wearing black veil, history behind it and how being a mother of five children, she volunteered to wear the Qatari veil when her children  reach adolescence. She gives a detail account of markets, on how she learnt to shop for fresh fish and carpets in Doha’s markets.

She is fascinated about Majilis, where ideas, news and thoughts are exchanged. She gives an insight on the nuances of majilis, serving coffee, an integral part of Arab hospitality, burning incense, driving in Doha, tent parties and farkha, a door within a door.

She dedicates two exclusive chapters for her in-laws, one for Abui (my father) and Ummi (my mother). She fondly remembers how her father-in-law, Sheikh Ahmed , became an Islamic  judge, his judgments, writings, reading, collection of books, sense of humour, majilis, his curiosity about the contents of Rachel’s “sling bag, which she carried everywhere”, and lastly slow decline of his health and death.

Rachel fondly remembers how her mother-in-law, whom she called Ummi baked khubz, mahalla and chebab, besides preparing laban, a sweet dish. Always in her veil, Ummi’s world in the house revolved around kitchen. The author gives an insight into how a whole lamb is cooked in Qatari families.

The writer not only goes in detail about anti-smoking campaigned by her husband in the country, but also gives first-hand experience of patients who suffered heart problems, thanks to their habit of smoking.

She keeps the tender love which blossomed between her and her husband for the last chapter. She replaces “the sun in his life not only in Portland”, but also in Qatar and “shines over his heart”.

The author is fond of flowers and loves watering her plants in the balcony. She likens her wedding and life in Qatar to a lotus flower which adapts and flourishes in a foreign climate. “The lotus flower is exotic. Like me, the flower is foreign in this part of world. But with tender loving care, it might survive and flourish, the way I did.” (P. 286).

It is almost impossible to understand a culture by just looking in from outside, which is like peeping through a window at events happening on the street. One has to live the life within a culture to fully comprehend its perceived mysteries. Moreover, it is difficult to get a glimpse of different aspects of Qatari life and Dr Rachel records her observations and impressions of the culture and society in detail throughout.

DOHA: A MAJORITY of representatives from human resources departments of local companies on Tuesday alleged that the discrimination in salaries between European and Asian expatriates was leading to discontentment among Asian workforce in Qatar.

Participating in an interactive session organised by bayt.com, a premier job surveying agency of the region, one of the representatives said, “We have lost some good workers just because of this discrimination.

There cannot be any justification for giving two persons the same position but different salary.” Supporting him, another Qatari HR personnel said, “The public sector can afford to pay more money and can hire people of different nationalities with varying pay structures.

But a private company cannot.

At the end of the day what matters for us is profit.

We cannot hire a European accountant for a monthly salary of QR20,000 when we can get an Asian accountant for QR5,000.” Another representative of a local company said that while there was enough justification for having two salary structures, one for Qatari workers and the other for non-Qataris, there was no justification whatsoever for discrimination among non-Qataris in terms of salary packages.

However, a couple of HR personnel tried to justify different salary structures for different nationalities.

A representative said, “We have to understand that the cost of living is higher in Europe than in Asia and, therefore, a European expatriate’s expectation in terms of salary is higher than that of an Asian expatriate.

Hence, we cannot have the same salary structure for both.” Sales vice-president of bayt.com Amer Zureikat quoted a recent survey on salary and said, “Sixty-eight percent of employees in the GCC care only about their salaries rather than work environment or job satisfaction.

Eighty-five percent of the working population was ready to switch their career because of the rising cost of living.”

(Source: Qatar Tribune)