Somewhere in a small windowless room sat a man who calculated the probability of Philip Roth winning the Nobel Prize for literature, each year, for at least the last two-and-a-half decades. Or perhaps it’s just an algorithm now. At any rate, with Roth’s death on Wednesday, a staple set of odds at Ladbrokes has likely come to an end. Why, despite a prolific body of work, every other literary award in the United States and beyond, was one of the greatest 20th-century exponents of the novel and the English language denied the ultimate recognition? It’s because America is many things. But it isn’t exotic.
Since the mid-1990s, anyone who read Roth in the “civilised world” (a McDonalds and satellite TV are good barometers of post-socialist civilisation) already had a pretty good idea of America. Recently, even in novel-length fiction, there are writers like Junot Diaz who will seduce you with their accessible references, and a sort of self-deprecating view of male desire, to fool you into thinking that the consonance the reader feels with their work — the result of globalisation — is a genuine experience of art, of sublime resonance.
Roth, like America, was not exotic. At least not since the ’60s. A New Jersey-born Jewish writer is almost as much of a “white male” as a WASP. But not quite. Perhaps that’s why he appeals to someone like this writer, New Delhi born and bred, and many others, in locations far removed from his own. Roth’s genius lay in writing like the local outsider — the Jew in the America of his youth was much like the Bengali in Delhi today — no matter how hard we pronounce our consonants, we’ll never be truly North Indian. Roth took the anxieties of not belonging, and opened up a country, its journey through post-war modernity, with a kind of feverish overwriting that was as much a revelation as Ernest Hemingway’s sparseness.
Portnoy’s Complaint remained Roth’s most well-known work. For those uncomfortable with the idea of Freud’s primary separation and the anxiety that stems from it, it was easy to dismiss Alexander Portnoy as a vehicle for a Jewish pornographic fantasy, a tale of diasporic desire that confirms all the myths the white man has about the rest of us: lusty, insecure, a little too clever and after “their women”. But Portnoy is an exaggeration that exposes the fallacy of all desire, and its ludicrousness. His slavery to his libido is a way for men to laugh at themselves. And if you happen to read it during puberty, it might help that while even Holden Caulfield comes of age, there’s always comfort in Portnoy’s frustration, which emanates not from biology but the need (however reprehensible) to belong to and acquire people.
In Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth followed Aristotle’s dictum — begin with what you know. In some ways, he follows that maxim through his work. But great writers of fiction are not mere chroniclers, even if it is of the self. His two most beloved narrators are Nathan Zuckerman, a thinly-disguised alter ego, and Philip Roth himself. Often, especially in The American Trilogy, we are taken to Weequahic High school to understand the glory and ignominy of being Jewish in the afterglow of post-war America. But from the very particular microcosm of his life, he paints the picture of societies in transition, of the lies and suffering of a golden age.
By the 1990s, Roth has peaked. This was when he wrote what became among the greatest portraits of political ideas and epochs in fiction — the American Trilogy. In American Pastoral, the certainties of the “good life”, of the idea of the perfect man — handsome, rich and respected — that took root in the ’50s is destroyed as the next generation confronts their forbearers’ hypocrisies. A book that begins in Weequahic, New Jersey with Zuckerman recounting the legend of his teenage years, Swede Levov, takes us to the limits of non-violence in practice, of a Jain rigidity that informs the politics of Levov’s darling daughter. Between that beginning and end, the good life is confronted by the sharp, unyielding morality of the Vietnam generation. But like all things unmoving, the young were also shattered by their own certainties.
In I Married a Communist and The Human Stain, McCarthyism and the the ’90s race politics are laid bare, the honour of political conviction, the hidden shame of exclusion and desire exposed. That he brought so much of himself into the narrative has often led to the writer being confused with the character: Is Roth, like Portnoy, a sexist? Or a self-hating Jew? The truth and lies of literary fiction are something he often spoke of, and through his work, he managed to go where journalism and research cannot.
Towards the end of his career, Roth wrote of the infirmities of old age, of impending death, as in Everyman. With Exit Ghost, he bid farewell to Zuckerman. His alter ego had left the world he knew for a life of solitude because of his incontinence. The journey that began with Portnoy, seems to begin to end with a longing for that lost frenzy. But the politics of the Bush era, the hopes of modern medicine, and Roth/Zuckerman’s battle with the world does not allow for such self-indulgence.
Yes, Roth wasn’t exotic. He wrote of excrement and sex, of politics and weakness. And a country we all think we know. But that’s what prose fiction is: An elevation of the everyday, of the words all of us use to write letters and emails and grocery lists, and to wring from them something that speaks to more than yourself. The good people who dole out recognition from Sweden seem not to have recognised that.