Those of you who follow my feminangst blog, GirlPoems, will know that earlier this year I got a bit hot under the collar about the whole Philip-Roth-winning-the-International-Booker thing. Not particularly because Roth won it — rather, because of the treatment of Carmen Callil by a lot of asshole (male) journos after the final decision caused her to walk off the judging panel.
Robert McCrum (one of the journos in question) advocates that Roth is one of the greatest writers the world has ever seen… or at least, that he should win the Nobel Prize for Literature, which is essentially the same thing. Callil counters that essentially, if you’ve read one Roth novel, you’ve read ‘em all. Roth has his pet issues — Americanness, Jewishness, and the collision between the two; family, especially Jewish family, and of course, heterosexual sex and plenty of it — and he returns to these themes again and again and again in his many, many, many novels. Seriously, this guy is prolific. 27 novels, three short story collections and a dabbling of non-fiction to his name, all published in the last 53 years… that’s an average of 1.6 books a year, for goodness’ sakes. If there was a Nobel Prize for Dogged Literary Persistence, then yes, hands down, it was made for Roth and no one else.
But when the International Booker news broke, I found I could only side with Callil from a feminist, this-is-blatant-sexism-and-the-nastiest-kind-at-that point of view… because I’d never read a Philip Roth book. I’d heard plenty of folk, and not just ladies, say that his books tended in the direction of the coarse and misogynist (”no, no,” cry his fanboys, “he’s not a misogynist! He just writes about them! It just so happens that his protagonists in every single book are misogynists!”), but I couldn’t just take their word for it. I decided: if this guy is big enough and special enough to win all these awards; if he’s a big enough deal for a top hack like Robert McCrum to get all cave-dweller on people’s asses about, well then, I had better read one of his books and see for myself what the deal was.
I’d heard that Portnoy’s Complaint was the biggest, the best, and the most Roth-ish of them all… so when I found it in an Oxfam for three quid, it seemed like fate.
Warning: here be spoilers.
Surprisingly, I enjoyed the book. It’s formally very clever — delivered as the rambling monologue of protagonist Alex Portnoy to his therapist, the narrative is free to get up close and personal with the kind of psychological turmoil that is never normally spoken of. As Roth has noted himself, the therapist-patient set-up allowed him to write freely and filthily about topics like incest-fantasies and masturbation, providing a handy get-out-of-criticism-free card. After all, how could you believe in a character who held back information from his therapist for fear of being offensive?
And Alex Portnoy is offensive — self-serving, self-pitying and arrogant throughout, he wishes violent death upon his parents, waxes lyrical on the stupidity of Christians and all other non-Jews (whilst at the same time trumpeting, “I happen to believe in the rights of man, rights such as are extended in the Soviet Union to all people, regardless of race, religion or color”), and repeatedly uses and abuses women (seriously, avoid this book at all costs if you’re offended by the word “woman” being used interchangably with the words “c*nt” or “tw*t”). He is totally blind to his own despicable behaviour and the repurcussions it causes, as he moves through the world despising and blaming everyone else in it for his supposedly-all-encompassing, actually-rather-trivial personal problems. A teenage boy who worried that he’d given himself cancer from masturbating too much or panicked that he’d go blind when he accidentally ejaculated into his own eye, Portnoy grows up into a man who endlessly curses himself for being sexually attracted to a girl who doesn’t read books and cannot spell; a man who attempts to rape a woman he meets in Israel because she is Jewish, looks like his mother and tells him once and for all that he’s a pathetic, self-aggrandising moron. In short, this book is the garbled autobiography of an absolute and utter w**ker (and I mean that both literally and figuratively: I have never before read a book whose pages are so lovingly devoted to the act of masturbation).
However, Roth is kidding. I now realise that a lot of the THESE BOOKS ARE MISOGYNIST FILTH! brigade are a bit too quick to jump on the Roth’s-fiction-is-obviously-autobiographical bandwagon. It’s utterly, utterly clear from the obvious holes, double-backs and endless revisions Alex makes as he progresses through his own narrative that we’re supposed to think that he’s a dishonest, self-pitying, woman-hating shit. And it’s the fact that we’re laughing at him, not with him, that makes the book so riotously funny.
Come at it from the angle of yes, it’s obvious that this guy is a hateful little so-and-so, rather than someone we ought to be rooting for. Then, it’s possible to giggle at Alex’s total horror when, halfway through the book, he pauses in his jumbled recollections to announce to the therapist that he’s got it: he’s found the root of all his problems with women! The root, it turns out, is the fact that his mother — his own mother! I mean, ew! — touched his penis while potty-training him. From then on, Alex is convinced. He ditches his first serious girlfriend because she says that, in the event of their entirely hypothetical engagement, she would refuse to convert to Judaism on account of the fact that Alex himself is an atheist. He ditches his second serious girlfriend because she refuses to give him head and then, when she finally does after months of bullying on his part, she’s a bit rubbish at it. And he leaves his all-time fantasy woman threatening to commit suicide mid-holiday in Europe because after their menage-a-trois with a prostitute, she felt a bit seedy and used. Of course, all these romantic disasters are nothing to do with him — they’re because of his hideous Oedipal potty-training! It all makes sense!
So yep, it’s a funny book. It’s a fun read, too — written in a messy stream-of-conciousness that appears random and arbitrary, it reflects the jangled nature of human thought and memory while at the same time reading smoothly and effortlessly, a stylistic sleight-of-hand that does give me a glimpse into the reasoning behind the OMG! I Heart Philip Roth 4EvAR! brigade. Most fun of all was reading it on the bus: my favourite moment was the realisation that I was sitting next to an elderly Scottish wifey, blithely making my way down a page that had the words WHACKING OFF written in large block capitals in a big empty space near the bottom. Apparently, the book caused outrage when it was published in 1969. I can tell you, it still has the power to move a Scottish wifey from her seat nearly half a century later.
However — and this is where I’ll make myself super unpopular — I don’t think Roth deserves to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Sure, I should probably read some more of his gazillion books before I say for sure, and that’s why I’m being a bit tentative. BUT: this is widely spoken of as His Very Best Book, and if this is the best he can do then no, he aint no Nobel Laureate. I have only read one Don DeLillo book, too (so far), and that was Cosmopolis, which a lot of the DeLillo fanclub don’t really rate that much. And yet, Cosmopolis had me thinking,”wow, OK… I can totally see why people are rabid about this guy. I can totally see why people say he should win the Nobel.” Perhaps most importantly, I came away from my first ever DeLillo experience thinking, “I have got to read more of this guy’s books!” With Roth, I’m thinking, “that was better than I expected,” and also “hey, some people have got him really wrong.” But I’m also thinking, “I kind of don’t really get where the rabid fanboys are coming from,” and also, “I can see why women really hate his stuff”, and also, “yeah, not so fussed about reading any more of Roth’s work any time soon.”
All of which leads me to conclude: give the Nobel (and the International Booker, for that matter) to some of the far more deserving North American writers (DeLillo, Atwood, McCarthy) first… then maybe we’ll talk.
What are you reading this week?
(Photo via Bloomsbury Auctions)