Philip Roth has won the 2011 Man Booker International Prize, which is awarded every two years to a living writer for their overall contribution to fiction. This choice has caused considerable controversy, as one of the judges, Carmen Callil, who is an author and founder of the feminist publishing house Virago, resigned from the judging panel rather than endorse the decision of the two other male judges. She is reported as saying: ‘He goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe’, and ‘I don’t rate him as a writer at all’.
I’m not well placed to comment on her first objection, as American Pastoral, the book Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for in 1998, is the only one that I’ve read. (I did read the bit about the liver in Portnoy’s Complaint forty years ago but that doesn’t count.) And based on American Pastoral, I think he is capable of great writing. But I nevertheless know what she means about him sitting on your face.
The book is in three parts: Paradise Remembered, The Fall, and Paradise Lost. In the first part, Nathan Zuckerman, who has appeared in a number of Roth’s books and functions as his alter ego, recalls details in the life of Seymour Levov, who lived in the same Jewish neighbourhood inNew Jerseyas he did during the Second World War. Levov, called ‘the Swede’ because unusually for a Jew, he is blond and blue-eyed, was a great athlete, and now appears to be a successful business and family man. Zuckerman meets him in 1995, and concludes that while he is genial and liberal-minded, he has no inner life at all – his life ‘just unravelling … like a fluffy ball of yarn’. But later meeting the Swede’s younger brother at a class reunion, he learns that in 1968, at the age of sixteen, Levov’s daughter, Merry, was responsible for a bomb blast in a local postal agency that killed an innocent bystander. Zuckerman concludes that the Swede must have felt himself to be somehow responsible for her actions, and the rest of the book is a reconstruction of the disintegration of the family, both before and after the bomb, from the Swede’s tormented point of view. Of course Zuckerman can’t know how the Swede actually felt – but Zuckerman – aka the author – can make him feel anything he likes.
The Swede’s experience is clearly offered as a microcosm ofAmerica’s loss of innocence through its involvement in the Vietnam War (assuming it was ever innocent). While Merry is growing up, the Swede’s life seems to typify the third generation immigrant’s achievement of the American dream; he even lives onArcady Hill Road, to underline the point. Then his daughter’s act ‘transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral – into the indigenous American berserk’. To further underline this point, Merry has the radical Weathermen slogan on the wall of her room (a year early, as it happens) – ‘We’re against everything that’s good and decent in honkyAmerica. We will burn and loot and destroy. We are the incubation of your mother’s nightmare’. What can the Swede, with his liberal values, do in the face of this? I find his dilemma both confronting and compelling.
Yet, strangely, the structure of the story seems to undercut this parable. We know from the meeting of Zuckerman and Levov that he has three children from a second marriage, all of whom appear to be a source of pride and pleasure to him. This second marriage is not encompassed in the story as imagined by Zuckerman; his account ends on an unresolved and sour note in 1973. But if Levov does find happiness, what are the implications of this for the counterpastoral?
There are many passages I’d like to quote to show the power of Roth’s writing; here’s just one. ‘But for the wilted weeds that managed to jut forth in wiry clumps where the mortar was cracked and washed away, the viaduct wall was barren of anything except the affirmation of a weary industrial city’s prolonged and triumphant struggle to monumentalize its ugliness.’
So what about ‘sitting on your face’? Roth seems to me a very self indulgent writer. There are too many reflections, too many digressions, simply too many words – and despite the power of many of them, you can’t always breathe under the onslaught.
No female character is treated sympathetically, but I won’t even start on the charges against Roth of sexism.