The writer who moved on from himself


PROFILE: PHILIP ROTH:He is accused of being sexist, but the winner of the international Booker prize has proved his literary stature

Goodbye, Columbus,

But irritation he has often caused, largely to the many women who regard his fiction as sexist. There is some truth in their accusations. It is not that Roth particularly demeans his female characters; it is just that his preferred narrators, notably Nathan Zuckerman, tend to be a variation of a stock figure: the American writer preoccupied with his greatness, his Jewishness, his libido, his age. Roth’s fiction has been, until relatively late in his career, largely autobiographical, and he was his own favourite subject.

But years pass, and, with them, a writer either remains in the same place or moves on. Roth, who received the Pen/Nabokov Award in 2006 and the Pen/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction the following year, did move on. The publication in 1997 of American Pastoral marked an interesting development. Roth, for so long a writer obsessed with self, emerged as the chronicler of his country.

It was exciting, and it also brought to the fore other aspects of Roth, his interest in history and his concern for the role of the Jew. That commitment had been evident already in Operation Shylock(1993), but it was obscured then by the Roth ego, which overpowered a novel about bringing the Jews out of Israel and back to Europe. Too much of the narrative was taken up with a character who had stolen the Roth identity, and the novel became convoluted.

In Sabbath’s Theater(1995), a huge, exuberant and overbearing performance, Roth offered the swaggering egoist Mickey Sabbath centre stage.

No wonder then that American Pastoraltook everyone by surprise. It won the Pulitzer Prize. In late career Roth had begun to consolidate his claims as the writer to take over from Saul Bellow and John Updike.

Mention of Bellow and Updike leads to the central dilemma that has stalked Roth for most of his career: he was neither quite the great Jewish writer that Bellow was, dissecting the difficulties of the Jew caught between the desire to become American and the cultural bond with Europe, nor was he John Updike, urbane, pleasing, witty, and everywhere. Not only was Updike’s prose hard to match, but Updike the civilised Wasp also created a clever Jewish character, Henry Bech. Also, while Updike’s sex scenes were written with the eye of a trained visual artist, Roth’s handing of sexuality was far more frantic and macho.

But Bellow and Updike are both dead, and now, at 78, Roth, the smart alec from New Jersey, has become the great American writer he always considered himself to be.

Born into a modest family in Newark in 1933, Roth is tall and surprisingly courtly considering the rigour and bawdiness of his earlier work. He is known for being tidy and not too friendly. He has large, haunted eyes and does not give interviews. Since his divorce from the British actress Claire Bloom he has lived alone in a mountain retreat in Connecticut.

The flowering of Roth’s later period has continued with novels such as I Married A Communist(1998), The Human Stain(2000) and The Plot Against America(2004), which features Charles Lindbergh as an isolationist president leading an anti-Semitic US during the second World War. Last year Roth published one of his most passionate and sympathetic novels, Nemesis, which looks back to the polio epidemic that tore through Newark in 1944, when Roth was a boy. Far more than a nostalgic nod to the past, it is a great book.

The reality about Roth is that he has always produced fine work. Beyond the self-absorption and the comedy Portnoy’s Complaint(1969) is still as fresh and as funny as it was when it shocked an earlier generation. The Counterlife,dedicated to his beloved father, a shoe salesman, is a dark and heartfelt study about life and mortality (1987), which may well emerge as Roth’s masterpiece.

Nathan Zuckerman, flawed and human, is one of fiction’s great characters. The sexism and ego of Roth can certainly offend, and obviously bothers the irate Booker judge Carmen Callil. But the prize has been awarded to a committed writer for a body of work that spans more than 50 years. Not all of his books are great, but Roth has urgency, rage and a belief in the novel, which explains not only why he won the Booker but why he deserved to win it.

Curriculum vitae

Who is he?The US writer whose books include Portnoy’s Complaint, American Pastoral and Nemesis.

Why is he in the news?He has controversially been awarded the Man Booker International Prize.

Most appealing characteristicHis determination and commitment to fiction.

Least appealing characteristicHis preoccupation with male sexuality as a literary theme.

Most likely to say: “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Least likely to say“Of course I’ll give you an interview.”