You are here

Rick Gekoski: 'In Praise Of Philip Roth'

Rick Gekoski: 'In Praise Of Philip Roth'

A speech delivered in honour of the winner of the Man Booker International Prize at the Banqueting House, London, on June 28, 2011

In Philip Roth's I Married a Communist, Nathan Zuckerman is in high school, learning what, and how, to read. There is nothing genteel about his initiation:

"Talking about books as though something were at stake in a book. Not opening up a book to worship it or to be elevated by it or to lose yourself to the world around you. No, boxing with the book."

Reading, if it is worth doing at all, rouses us to passionate response, advocacy and opposition. But boxing with books is relatively painless, compared to boxing about them. When you judge a literary prize, taste and judgment collide, egos can be bruised, and a prestigious award is at stake.

It has been a remarkable experience sitting on this Man Booker International Prize panel, itself an education in what, and how, to read. Carmen Callil's ferocious commitment, range and energy were as inspiring as Justin Cartwright's acuity and novelist's eye for what really matters. For more than a year we met once a month, cooked supper for each other, discussed what we'd been reading, admired, and more often challenged, each other's taste and discrimination, filled our glasses, wondered why Justin wasn't eating enough, or I was eating too much, talked, pontificated and argued, harrumphed a lot (except for Justin), ate a pudding and argued a lot more. Animated by disagreement, like a family in a Philip Roth novel.

The Prize recognises and honours "an achievement in fiction" by a living writer who either writes in English or is widely translated into English. It is a wonderfully ambiguous formulation. It means: you decide. The process is daunting but stimulating, narrowing the world's finest writers of fiction - we considered some two hundred names - down to a list of finalists. I wish it were possible to pause here in praise of each author on our list. But the delight of reading them, across the full range of their work, demands to be amplified, not summarised and implicitly diminished. We chose each of them with profound admiration and respect.

Of the thirteen names on that list, five are writers in translation, and they - and we as readers - have had to overcome the intractable problem of their being stripped of their own words. I am no linguist, and am uneasy in this territory, about which I have two tentative observations to make. First, that we constantly encounter the problem of not understanding what another person says or means. Not because they are speaking Cantonese, but because of who they are, and that they are speaking at all. James Kelman, twice a finalist for this prize, makes the point with characteristic bluntness, when one of his characters, frustrated by his failure to understand and to be understood, says:

" never knows what other people are fucking talking about... We were supposed to speak the same language but did we fuck...I forgot if I was talking, who I was talking to. I came in and out of perception like I was on dope."

This piece of applied Wittgenstein suggests that shared perception is the problem. How much of our inward world of association, memory, and meaning is shared by others? Is all utterance basically private language? There is constant, and often unacknowledged, linguistic misapprehension between adults and children, men and women, English and Americans, people of different faiths, backgrounds, or classes. "Oh man, you don't know where I'm coming from," people used to say.

All tongues are foreign tongues? Not quite - if you ask the way to The Hermitage it helps to understand Russian. It helps even more if you wish to get the most out of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. But the great majority of us - and this is my second point - have grown up reading these authors, and dozens of others in translation, with enormous profit and respect. I prefer reading Dostoyevsky to reading, say, Thomas Hardy. I may miss his language, but I still get the extraordinary emotional power, the memorable characters, the play of ideas, the thump of the narrative.

From the start of our deliberations the judges agreed on two rough criteria: first, that we wanted to reward a great writer, and that such a writer would be defined by the very best they could produce, disregarding work of lesser quality. And second, we uneasily invoked the notion of the "masterpiece," believing that a great writer produces works of enduring depth and universal quality, that embed themselves in the canon and set the standards against which other works may be assessed.

Sounds like Philip Roth, doesn't it? In revisiting him over these last months, I've been struck by how various his work is, how styles and topics and themes appear, work themselves out, and morph into something quite different. It is remarkable how full of ringcraft his mature fiction is, how it circles and jabs, steps back, pushes at you relentlessly, follows with an uppercut. When you read Roth you can not only feel under attack, you want to fight back. I can recall few of his novels that don't provoke an occasional but overwhelming desire to shout "will you shut up!" at a character or his author: to counterattack ("counter" is one of Roth's favoured terms). How often, reading him, do we pause for breath, put the book down, pace about, sit down, chuck a pail of water over our heads?

I have begun by citing this boxing metaphor because it puts squarely the problem of reading, and evaluating, Philip Roth. Indeed, he is quite clear that the metaphor applies to his own work, which, he observes, "Won't let up. Gets too close." The challenge is inexorable, and sometimes infuriating. As a reader you cannot but respond, and you have a choice. You can decide that you are being bullied, hectored, asked too much for too little, and walk away. Or you may believe, as I do, that the fierceness of the demands of a Roth novel is so potent, the quality of the intelligence and narrative gift so percipient, and the issues of such importance, that you are positively anxious to come out for the next round.

This doesn't all happen right away, all this biffing and counter-biffing. Roth's first two novels are measured, accurate, and correct, largely the effect of reading too much Henry James as a graduate student, and introjecting his voice. It was not until 1969, ten years after that marvellous collection of stories, Goodbye Columbus, that he generated a voice that felt comfortable and his own.

Portnoy's Complaint had a huge effect on my generation of readers, and seemed to enfranchise the way we really were. The men, anyway. Rather embarrassing, but freeing too. People began to think and to talk, and to write, differently after Portnoy. All of a sudden the mainstream novel felt fresher, more outlandishly authentic.

An outspoken, and outrageous, product of the times, intoxicating and exasperating, it is the first Roth novel that you feel compelled to box with. Alexander Portnoy's couch-bound monologue of maternal fixation and erotic compulsion - scanning the shelves of the fridge for potential sexual partners - is sufficient, almost, to give kvetching a bad name. He is defined by appetite, omnivorously mouthy: eating, licking, talking. He's not much of a listener though, being less engaged by what comes out of his girlfriend's mouth than by what he can put into it.

This is a joke in bad taste, prompted and sanctioned by the new Roth, who loves the knockabout humour of the street corner. Here he combines what he calls "the aggressive, the crude, and the obscene, at one extreme, and something a good deal more subtle and, in every sense, refined, at the other." Both playful and serious, the Portnoy monologue sets a new tone, and captures perfectly the incessant buzzing and swarming of consciousness. This hyperactivity doesn't just happen on the psychoanalytic couch: Roth's Jews are usually like this. It's even true, I gather, of Gentiles, only less so.

Portnoy's Complaint sold and sold, but if it set Roth up, it also set him back. He was uncomfortable with everything but the increased income, couldn't tolerate the ceaseless, almost prurient, interest in his every movement. He had no wish, or perhaps no immediate capacity, to write about it. During the next decade he writes two Kepesh novels, The Breast and The Professor of Desire, Our Gang, a parody of the Nixon years, and The Great American Novel, which is, naturally, about baseball. The predominant note is Kafka-esque: a man turns into a gigantic female breast, the President drowns in a plastic bag, midgets play professional baseball. Here is a writer learning new and marvellous tricks, his deeper concerns, perhaps, hibernating, in abeyance.

Enter Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's finest alterego, first as the purported author of a comic quartet of books that finally deal with the post-Portnoy fallout, but later (in 1986) and more profoundly in The Counterlife. It is the central Roth text, exhausting but enthralling, positively frantic with thinking, talking, and arguing. We forgive all the fuss, we welcome it, because the issues are of consequence, the prose as balanced as the characters are askew, the controlling intelligence lucid and compelling.

At his brother's funeral Zuckerman can't deliver the expected, conventional, eulogy (wishing instead to compose a counter-story about Henry's sexual life). He feels terrible about it: "This profession," he says, "even fucks up grief." That's fair. It fucks up everything, and then makes a book out of it. There's something curiously, paradoxically, satisfying about the process, in which every thought, feeling and belief is shadowed by its opposite.

This is the natural habitat of the ironist. "Without contraries," Blake tells us, "is no progression," and the world of The Counterlife amplifies this: at times it is unclear who is dead and who is alive, who is writing and who is being written about. The reader never knows, quite, what to believe. What is written is erased, and rewritten; love offers solace, but we feel constrained; freed, we yearn for connection; we are retarded by both belief and disbelief; others crowd us, and we retreat into loneliness, and find company therein; clarity darkens, and darkness illuminates.

And - about all of the above - we tell stories: "The treacherous imagination," Zuckerman informs us, "is everybody's maker - we are all the invention of each other, everybody's a conjuration conjuring up everyone else. We are all each other's authors." I think, therefore you are. We are all storytellers, all autobiographers, which is how we make ourselves and the world. Facts are arranged and become fictions, and fictions are formations of fact.

I love this, the sheer audacity of it, which makes the world into a resounding chorus of creative energy. But as my grandmother used to say when passed the chopped liver, "you might like it, me it gives gas." All this reflecting and self-reflecting and reflecting about self-reflecting - the myriad mirrors of the mind at work - might easily be dismissed as wise-guy stuff, though the wise guy is the shadow, of course, of the wise man.

But The Counterlife is not a post-modern novel, obsessed by its own processes. Actually, it's rather old fashioned, as Conrad is too: informed by profound respect for the simple values of a passing age. The Counterlife is dedicated to "my father at eighty-five," an exemplary man whose values have become as archaic as the form of life from which they issued. Dignity, selflessness, singleness of purpose, moral clarity. To a modern, secular and sceptical intelligence these bedrock virtues are as questionable - even, perhaps, as undesirable - as they are admirable, but they continue to inform Roth's work.

The one eulogy that Nathan Zuckerman does manage to write in The Counterlife is, of course, his own, and it has a moment of self-definition that seems to reveal what Philip Roth would say about himself, if he said such things directly: "Nathan as an artist, as the author paradoxically of the most reckless comedy, tried, in fact, to lead the ethical life, and he both reaped its rewards and paid its price."

This moral urgency is obvious if we review his recurring themes: assimilation and integration of an immigrant community; parents, children and the complex strains of family life; education and its effects on the development of the self; the decline of American cities; urban and suburban life; the counterculture and the revolt against the military industrial complex; sexuality and the drama of being a man; relations between the sexes, religions, and races; the nature of the writer, his voices and guises.

Throughout, as the ground and reference point, is the topic of the nature of Jewishness. And like an absent presence or present absence, there is the black hole of the Holocaust. Zuckerman's mother, suffering from dementia in Miami Beach, when "asked if she would write her name.... took the pen from his hand and instead of "Selma" wrote the word "Holocaust," perfectly spelled.... Zuckerman was pretty sure that before that morning she'd never even spoken the word aloud."

Roth, who was born in 1933, grew up safely thousands of miles from that horror, in an immigrant Jewish community in which the situation in Europe shadowed daily life. Desperate appeals for asylum and support from "the old country" were harrowingly common, families worried, sought frantically for information, lost touch with relatives, grieved. What was happening was unimaginable, and demanded to be imagined.

What was possible, though, was for an emerging generation of writers to begin to assemble the figure of the modern Jew who was not defined by victimhood, as if to release him from that history. To make a Jewish character and world that is gritty, secular, sexy, irritable, self-engrossed, smart, compassionate, selfish - fully flavoured, fully present - to make it, to reformulate it, and to make it some more.

Roth is thus sometimes associated with a group of novelists - Salinger, Malamud, Bellow - who presumably by virtue of their Jewishness have common concerns. Perhaps there is something a little obvious about this? I'd prefer a comparison between Roth and Samuel Beckett, whose pared down world of compulsive, isolated consciousness prefigures The Counterlife, in which the consciousness is, as it were, pared (and paired) up. Vladimir and Estragon carping and kvetching and shrugging their shoulders, longing for contact with the neglectful Godot. Waiting. He never visits us! He never calls! He never writes! Recognise the voices? One of them was named Levy in an early draft of the play.

Alone, on a bare stage, thinking in the void. "I am a theatre," Zuckerman tells us, "and nothing more than a theatre." In the latter sections of The Counterlife we locate surprisingly few of the thousands of details that, Colm Tóibín has observed, make up a novel: descriptions of objects, faces, clothing, food, landscapes, smells, colours, tastes. It is a world curiously stripped of specificity. Why give all this up, which is near as damn it what a novelist does? The holiness of minute particulars: I can not only vividly recall John Updike's extended description of eating a macadamia nut, I can still taste it. ("He could write any kind of sentence imaginable," Roth says, in wistful admiration.)

Of course Philip Roth can make a densely tangible world, but here he chooses a barer stage, in order not to deflect attention. From what? From the voices, of course. The absence of described stuff is purposive, it would get in the way not so much of our eyes, as of our ears: it would affect the acoustics. For the clamorous voices - no wonder he thinks Jews are always shouting - reverberate better, bounce about more actively, in the absence of furnishing.

After The Counterlife - as after Godot - there is not much more to be said on the subject. The effect of this complex meditation on the nature of telling a story seems to free both Zuckerman and his rogenitor Roth into a remarkable creative period, in which one major work follows another: Operation Shylock (1993), Sabbath's Theatre (1995), American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), The Human Stain (2000), The Plot Against America (2004). There's still a whole lot of shouting going on, but the meditations are less self-reflexive, the topics larger and more sharply focused. "It's just astonishing," said Saul Bellow, "that he brings these books out one after the other, so serious and so well developed in the construction. I wish I understood it. I'm very impressed."

In 1982, Hermione Lee published the first, and I think still the best, book on Philip Roth, then in mid-career, but already, as she says, "the most stylistically dazzling, funny, compelling and audacious of all living writers" - though she couldn't know that the best was yet to come. No one could have supposed that he could extend and deepen the range of his sympathy, his intelligence, and his magnificent narrative gift. Nemesis, which came out in 2010, is as masterful as his first collection of stories, Goodbye Columbus, which won the National Book Award in 1960.

Nemesis is dedicated to Hermione Lee, which seems fair acknowledgement of her role in making Philip Roth available with such perspicacity to readers who might otherwise find him uncongenial, too noisy or self-referring. Her book flawlessly explains the Roth world, though it has one oversight in it. In the 2010 Preface to the new edition, she notes that Roth has won "every prize in the literary pantheon (except, notoriously, the Nobel)." He hadn't won The Man Booker International Prize either. He has now, and Hermione will receive it on his behalf.

Philip Roth cannot be here tonight, and is presumably, as I speak, sitting at his desk in Connecticut, here he lives. Never mind Connecticut, I mean at his desk. That is where he lives: "I turn sentences around," he says. "That's my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and turn it around again..." He is with us in the presence of those sentences, and in the abiding effect of his works.

In 1960 I read Goodbye Columbus, astonished by the potency of it, its nerve, the quiet assurance of the prose. Fifty years later I read Nemesis, the story of a good man struck down by polio who makes the wrong choices for the right reasons, and was moved to pity and fear, as we are by tragedy. It is a great treat that, in a few minutes, we shall see a video of Philip Roth reading the last seven pages of this novel.

It is one of the deepest pleasures of my reading life to honour Philip Roth, in this distinguished company, as the winner of the Man Booker International Prize for 2011.

About Dr Rick Gekoski

Dr Rick Gekoski is one of the world's leading bookmen: a writer, rare-book dealer, broadcaster and academic. An American who came to England in 1966, and now a dual UK/US citizen, he has established two private presses, The Sixth Chamber Press and The Bridgewater Press, which issue finely printed editions of leading writers, novelists and poets. Dr Gekoski is the author of three books which trace his major enthusiasms, Staying Up, Tolkien's Gown and Outside of a Dog, as well as a critical study of Joseph Conrad and the Bibliography of William Golding. As a broadcaster he has written and delivered three series of Rare Books, Rare People for BBC Radio 4, which he followed with two series of Lost, Stolen, or Shredded: The History of Some Missing Works of Art. Dr Gekoski teaches creative non-fiction for the Arvon Foundation, and sits on their Development Board, and is a Trustee of English PEN. He was a Man Booker Prize judge in 2005.

Dr Rick Gekoski, Chair Man Booker International Prize for 2011
Dr Rick Gekoski, Chair Man Booker International Prize for 2011