Philip Roth: Too (New York) Jewish for a Nobel?

Many Jewish authors have won the Nobel Prize for Literature before, but is the 'uncouth' Philip Roth's Jewish identity just too in-your-face for the judges in Stockholm?

My Swedish is not great, but when earlier today the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded, I knew that Phillip Roth had not won. No offense Alice Munro – confession, I have not read her – but giving the award to Munro, is like giving an award for best smartphone to a Blackberry (sorry Canadians) when there is an iPhone around.

A colleague condescended: "I never liked Roth," a put-down to me, a Miltonist and teacher of Renaissance literature, who really doesn't know better. A couple of decades ago, someone would have mentioned the more elegant, supposedly more disciplined and intellectual – and Nobel Prize-winning - Saul Bellow. Roth, as the story goes, is Bellow's vulgar counter-part, obsessed, with his body, and when he's long enough distracted from that, the bodies of women. Woody Allen was a spermatozoa in Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex, and Roth – with a nod to Kafka – becomes a 155 pound "breast." He's the modern example of the celebratory, sometimes self-despising , Jew, and the Swedish judges, one can speculate, just find him uncouth.

Roth began his career masturbating in Portnoy's Complaint (he did it how?!?), though graduated to other perversities. And then there is the persistent obsession of what he calls himself in Operation Shylock that "pervasive, engulfing, wearying topic...the Jews." For the Nobel committee in Stockholm, Roth is undoubtedly not only too vulgar, but too vulgarly Jewish. True, Jews have won the Nobel in literature before, Bellow, S.Y. Agnon and Nadine Gordimer to name a few, but none of Roth's in-your-face variety, dwelling, even luxuriating in, what he calls the "antimonies" of his Jewish identity.

But saying that Roth is too Jewish is like saying the Leopold Bloom of James Joyce's Ulysses is too Irish, or the London depicted in Eliot's The Waste Land too English. Roth may not be Joyce or Eliot, but if the latter began to question our ideas of narrative and identity, Roth is their natural inheritor, and it's not only in the boutique part of the college catalogue called "American Jewish Literature." Roth is the only living writer who has been collected in the classic The Library of America series; yes, he's in there with Hawthorne, Melville and Twain – where he belongs.
Israelis may see in Roth's Operation Shylock a dizzying act of ventriloquism, a novel about "The Situation," but the book is not about Jewish identity or Israeli identity, but contemporary identity, the more and more problematic possibility of telling stories about ourselves. Freud opened up the way for an understanding of the self as composed of different psychic agencies; Roth transforms them into fiction. "Look," the protagonist says with exasperation in Shylock, "I've got more personalities than I can use already." And though Roth is like an American Odysseus, telling story after story, he acknowledges that often reality does not fit the stories we want to tell: "Better for real things to be uncontrollable, better for one's life to be undecipherable and intellectually impenetrable than to attempt to make casual sense of what is unknown with a fantasy that is mad."

Evan to say that Roth is only about the manifold personae that he creates and undoes (Portnoy, Zuckerman, and "Phillip Roth") is to fail to see how his works chart out larger themes of love and mortality, especially in the magnificent works of the nineties: American Pastoral, The Human Stain, and Sabbath's Theater. The latter may be the most persistently and shockingly crude of them all, but the lecherous vulgarity is often interrupted by lines of near Sophoclean magnitude, as in: "What a bother we are to one another - while actually nonexistent to one another, unreal specters compared to whoever originally sabotaged the sacred trust." And if Roth has not done enough to depress us in that work, it ends in an "interview" with a 100 year old man, who has buried wife and children – the most depressing scene in contemporary literature. And rejoinder to Bellow fans: The intricately controlled and elegant Nemesis, Roth's last masterful work, reads like a novelistic version of a Renaissance sonnet. So much for the undisciplined Roth.

To be sure, Roth is the most Jewish of writers, but perhaps in the more traditional Biblical sense that he sees that it's only in the particular – and the particular for Roth is his own very Jewish life – that ideas of universal importance can come to the fore. And though it sounds like being a spoilsport (and one of the worst variety, crying anti-Semitism), it may be that the judges in Stockholm, in considering – or rather overlooking – the work of the world's greatest living author, not just Jewish or American, only saw the unsavory Roth from Newark. Indeed, these days, the Nobel committee has no problem awarding other Jews prizes – but let them stick to molecules, sub-particles and chemical bonds, but not novels, certainly not those of that vulgar New York Jew, Phillip Roth.

Professor William Kolbrener, Chair of the English Department at Bar Ilan University, is author of Milton’s Warring Angels (Cambridge 1996), and most recently Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love (Continuum 2011); his introduction to the first Hebrew translation of Milton’s Areopagitica was recently published by Shalem Press.

Reuters