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Philip Roth, the Nobel Prize, and History

Today’s New York Times Book Review contains an interview that Philip Roth gave to Daniel Sandstrom, cultural editor at the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. The interview features a classic 25-word Roth answer to a 50-word question about his failure to win the Nobel Prize:

You have been awarded almost every literary prize, except one. And it is no secret that your name is always mentioned when there is talk of the Nobel Prize in Literature — how does it feel to be an eternal candidate? Does it bother you, or do you laugh about it?

I wonder if I had called “Portnoy’s Complaint” “The Orgasm Under Rapacious Capitalism,” if I would thereby have earned the favor of the Swedish Academy.

Sometimes you cannot earn the favor of the Academy even if your accomplishments reflect a full half-century of some of the finest works of modern American literature, 31 books in all, ranging from Goodbye, Columbus in 1957 to Everyman in 2007. Sometimes you can earn the Academy’s favor with no accomplishments at all.

 

The interview also features Roth’s remarkable response to a question about his treatment of the male characters in his novels — a sentence extending 116 words, which begins with Roth’s description of the challenges facing those characters and ends with an important insight about history:

[I]f you look at the male characters in your books, what traits do they share — what is their condition?

The drama issues from the assailability of vital, tenacious men with their share of peculiarities who are neither mired in weakness nor made of stone and who, almost inevitably, are bowed by blurred moral vision, real and imaginary culpability, conflicting allegiances, urgent desires, uncontrollable longings, unworkable love, the culprit passion, the erotic trance, rage, self-division, betrayal, drastic loss, vestiges of innocence, fits of bitterness, lunatic entanglements, consequential misjudgment, understanding overwhelmed, protracted pain, false accusation, unremitting strife, illness, exhaustion, estrangement, derangement, aging, dying and, repeatedly, inescapable harm, the rude touch of the terrible surprise — unshrinking men stunned by the life one is defenseless against, including especially history: the unforeseen that is constantly recurring as the current moment.

History is not a matter of bending arcs; or something the right side of which one gets on; or warning the 21st century against returning to the 19th. Those are mere rhetorical constructs. History is the result of daily acts in an ever-changing present: “the unforeseen that is constantly recurring as the current moment.”

One day literary historians will marvel at the Academy’s failure to honor Philip Roth, while diplomatic historians will marvel at the decision to honor Barack Obama, whose Nobel Prize address, given “at the beginning … of my labors on the world stage,” noted that “my accomplishments are slight,” a statement still true more than five years later. 

Roth’s interview is a major piece of writing masquerading as an interview. Nowhere in his own book, Reading Myself Among Others, and nowhere in Claudia Roth Pierpont’s book, Roth Unbound:  A Writer and His Books, does he make anything as poignant,   eloquent,  and clear as the magnificent summation of his life’s work in this interview on the eve of his 81st birthday, which is March 19, 2014. 



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