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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)