I’m about to start reading the new Philip Roth novel, “Nemesis”, his 31st book since “Goodbye, Columbus” in 1959. As more than a few reviewers are pointing out, Roth has been reclassifying his work recently, so that the new novel and the three that preceded it (“Everyman”, “Indignation” and “The Humbling”) are grouped under the title “Nemeses”, making their thematic links explicit. These four late novels are essentially Roth’s exploration, in pared back and stripped down prose, of the absurdity and the impossibility of trying to face down death. I’ve been saving this book for a train journey I’m taking tomorrow, down to Glossop in Derbyshire – appropriately enough, for a memorial service for my grandparents.
I think Roth is unique in that his new novel has had near-uniform great reviews, but no one has once suggested that it’s a return to form. Roth has essentially never been off form. After fifty years he has produced, at an extraordinary pace, probably the most sustained body of work in world literature. He is doubly unique in that his later books are easily his best. From 1995’s “Sabbath’s Theater”, he has explored and critiqued his country’s turbulent twentieth century (“the American berserk” as he puts it in “American Pastoral”) with astonishing force and vitality, harnessing a controlled rage to a nostalgic vision which is never in the least sentimental. He has done this throughout his career while rarely straying in his work from his hometown of Newark, New Jersey, and his upbringing as part of the Jewish lower-middle class. At the moment we’re getting a new novel from him every eleven months, an enviable rate with few drop-offs in quality.
It’s surprising then that he still hasn’t won the Nobel Prize for literature. He’s in his late seventies, and if it doesn’t come in the next few years, then it never will. This would put Roth in the same company of other Nobel-ignored geniuses as James Joyce, Proust, and Joseph Conrad, but it would be a great shame all the same. Which is meant as no criticism, implied or otherwise, of this year’s laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa. I can’t say anything about him, because I’ve never read a word he’s written – entirely remiss on my part, as his books do look fascinating.
Reading about Llosa when the prize was announced put Philip Roth in my mind in another way though. A quick scan of Llosa’s biography will tell you the main facts about his career in South America. In common with other writers from that troubled continent, Llosa has been writing at the intersection of literature and politics for decades, at a real knife edge. He even ran for President of his country in 1990, to which politics’ loss was clearly literature’s gain. This made me think of Philip Roth because, in the 1970s, disillusioned with all the comfortable trappings of fame and success in the USA, Roth started actively involving himself in the struggle of persecuted writers in the Soviet bloc (experiences which informed his novella, “The Prague Orgy”). In interviews, he admitted that part of him wished he had a similar threat hanging over his head as Vaclav Havel, to give his work more urgency. Disillusionment with success is luxury compared to the threat of imprisonment and political persecution, as Roth was only too aware.
I wonder then if this has any bearing on Roth’s failure to win the Nobel Prize, so far?Christopher Hitchens wrote, around the time Harold Pinter won, that the playwright was being rewarded for nothing more than his vociferous anti-Americanism. Llosa’s career places him firmly in the tradition of the writer-as-dissident. A quick look at the list of recent Nobel laureates shows, perhaps, a common theme in that they have all in some way confronted in their lives or careers the legacies of imperialism, colonialism, and the abuse of state power. On his side, Roth has literary excellence, but his career has in no way been a struggle against the odds, against repression, or aligned in favour of the dispossessed.
It depends then what the Nobel committee is awarding when they set the prize. An excellent body of work, or an exemplary career? Failure to win before he dies would have no effect whatsoever on how much his work is valued, or on how much he has contributed to literature, but it would be a crowning achievement for the man who is probably the world’s best living writer.