I didn’t think I, or indeed anyone else, would ever be in a position where it seemed somehow necessary to defend Philip Roth. Not that he has ever engendered consensus: his 50-year writing life is sound-tracked by accusations, wails of misogyny, shouts of anti-Semitism, bellows of solipsism, but in amongst all the white-noise of white-hot controversy, doubts were rarely, if ever, expressed about his abilities as a novelist. Roth’s sentences, his precision, his acute eye for masculine hubris and weakness, his feral rage and comic timing always proved the counter-balance to those who were firmly, staunchly against him. Now, in the wake of Carmen Callil’s protest at his winning of the Man International Booker, even this seems up for debate. A host of commentators over on the Guardian are queuing up to thank her for voicing the opinion they always knew was right: that Roth is an overrated bore, a writer with whom readers today, let alone in 20 years, should not bother. It is a position both laughable and indefensible.
American Pastoral was the first of Roth’s books I came across, and it remains to my mind his defining work; intelligent, fierce, beautiful, sad and deeply felt. I’ve gone on to read almost everything he’s written and no matter how bad (The Humbling, Our Gang, The Great American Novel) there is always something to be gleaned, a few scattered moments where the dormant, sleeping grandeur of his style shines through. In his best work (The Counterlife, Sabbath’s Theater, The American Trilogy), however, he seems to be writing at another level entirely; as though he has access to something that other writers – other people – do not.
In his essay published in Faber’s excellent The Good of the Novel, Ian Sansom recounts a creative writing course he is teaching. He tells them to read Roth, to read American Pastoral: ‘Roth should create a rage in you,’ he explains. ‘He should make you ashamed. He makes me ashamed to be human and to pretend to call myself a writer; because in comparison to this sort of writer I am nothing: you are nothing.’
Roth can do that to you, you can read a passage, a chapter and just wonder how the hell he did it, and how he made it look so fucking simple. But that comes later, much later; what happens at first is that you marvel at the sentences, their weighty construction, their perfect word choice, then fall headlong into his characters and places. And in his best work he sustains this alchemy over the course of an entire novel; characters yawning into life, their own lives blasted and buffeted by a world that neither understands them, nor cares; men and women who have the complexity of authenticity, who rage and fight and fuck and cry just like real people do.
Roth writes about middle-class white American Jews – this is a common criticism – but his concerns are the human experience, the effect of place on personality, the pressure of family, love and tradition on the individual, and also the dark power of aspiration and the delicacy of contentment. These are not exclusive to New Jersey, not excusive to Semites – but their exploration, depiction and examination are exclusive to Roth.
To call Roth a bad writer is to be a bad reader. It’s perfectly possible to not like his books, to dislike his portrayal of women, but to accuse him of a lack of talent is just being wilful. Read the reunion party at the beginning of American Pastoral, and the dinner party at its end; the scenes by the graveside in Sabbath’s Theater, the reveal of Coleman Silk in The Human Stain . . . read them and tell me you’re not in the cradling, wrinkled hands of a master; tell me that they don’t delve into the heart of what it is to be human, to love, to hurt, to die; tell me that the prose doesn’t swell and burn, that you can’t almost smell the warm, slightly sour breath of his characters as they speak; tell me that he doesn’t confront the darkness of our lives with candour, rage and vigour; tell me that there is no beauty; tell me you don’t want to read on; tell me that this is average, run of the mill, boring, solipsistic tripe; tell me, show me, explain it to me. And I’ll call you a liar. And mean it.