Boyd Tonkin: The Nobel plot against America?

The week in books

When the biennial Man Booker International Prize came into being, cynics muttered that, at last, here was a Booker gong that Philip Roth could win and so satisfy the transatlantic tastes of the sponsoring hedge-fund. Rather impressively, in 2005 the inaugural trio of judges for this lifetime-achievement honour silenced the doubters by selecting not an American but an Albanian: that wily master of the political fable, Ismail Kadare. Since then, Chinua Achebe and Alice Munro – estimable chocies both – have taken the prize. But on Wednesday, at the Sydney Opera House, it was announced that this time Roth has indeed prevailed. The 78-year-old novelist emerged from his Connecticut seclusion not just to thank old admirers but to seek new ones, voicing the hope that "the prize will bring me to the attention of readers around the world who are not familiar with my work".

Does Man Booker recognition make it more, or less, likely that Roth will finally snare the Nobel Prize that has eluded him for so long? Hard to call – as with anything connected to the capricious Swedish Academy. A while ago, I took part in a panel discussion with the Academy's then permanent secretary, Horace Engdahl. Everyone wanted to know if Roth somehow suffered from a standing Nobel veto, as Graham Greene apparently did. Not at all, Engdahl maintained: there was no barrier in place to his eventual success. Yet in 2008, Engdahl bowed out with a notorious interview in which he scorned the alleged parochialism of US authors and blamed them for not participating in "the big dialogue of literature... That ignorance is restraining."

Oh dear. Euro-myopia can sound just as dumb and vexing as the Anglophone variety. Not that the author, within the past 15 years alone, of American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain, The Plot Against America, Everyman and Nemesis needs to bother about the prejudice of Swedes. What's interesting, if still depressing, here is the limpet persistence of morbid fantasies about the "other" that you find in "European" or "Anglo-Saxon" descriptions of the culture on the far side of the fence. I deploy the scare-quotes because I have never for a second seen how any halfway-intelligent human being could believe in those abstractions. Yet as the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair proves in a much more tragic vein, such spectres can sway events.

Roth's plea this week for a new international constituency that he might touch "despite all the heartaches of translation" sounds to me like a coded bid for support beyond the entrenched anti-Americanism of some global opinion-formers. With luck, this latest celebration will encourage new ways of reading him as well.

There's a deeply ironic side to the alleged incompatibility of his fiction with some non-Anglophone ideal of literary excellence. In effect, Roth in the first decade of the 21st century became a more purely "European" writer that ever before – even though the creator of The Prague Orgy and the other "Zuckerman" fictions had never needed lessons in narrative self-consciousness done to a Mitteleuropäische recipe.

Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling and Nemesis count as "short novels" for Roth, in sensibility as much as bulk. They demand to be read in the light of the bleakly compressed and clutter-free aesthetic of terminal wisdom that Edward Said, in his classic study of the subject, called Late Style. If you look around for antecedents and counterparts to the remorselessly introspective and linguistically austere minimalism of senior Roth, they exist more prominently outside the English language than within it. File him not with Bellow, Updike and Mailer any more, but with Bernhard, Handke and Beckett.

Whether in expansive or niggardly mood as narrator, Roth counts as a genuinely global talent and so merits this award. However, it worries me that the Man Booker International has gone to English-language authors three times in succession. In this round, the final field of 13 authors included just five who write in other languages. Among them was the extraordinary Spanish iconoclast Juan Goytisolo, who has kept his special flame of adventurous integrity in literature and life alight for almost 60 productive years – right up to his refusal, in 2009, to accept a Gaddafi-funded prize in Libya. Maybe he should take the Nobel now.

The world comes to Bloomsbury

Taking place both at its gloriously nutritious store and in the British Museum, the London Review Bookshop's "World Literature Weekend" returns on 17-19 June. Illustrious vistors include Cees Nooteboom (in conversation with AS Byatt), Javier Cercas, Manuel Rivas and Daniel Kehlmann; and Najat El Hachmi (right) will join fellow-Catalans Teresa Solana and Carles Casajuana. In a literary version of extreme sports, a "live translation" event will see Kehlmann setting the challenge of a new text to Shaun Whiteside and Mike Mitchell. I will join other judges to discuss the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Full details and bookings at www.lrbshop.co.uk/wlw2011

Applause for the law of freedom

How piquant that a leading judge should win the books division of the George Orwell Prize, named for a former colonial policeman who in "Shooting an Elephant" imperishably showed the shoddy masquerade that law becomes when it has no true legitimacy. Posthumously, Tom Bingham – Master of the Rolls, Lord Chief Justice and Senior Law Lord, who died in September – took the prize for The Rule of Law (Penguin). With masterly lucidity, his book ties the authority of justice to its practice and protection of universal rights. Bingham's law is the safeguard of liberty and dignity for all, not their cage. In the spirit of the book, Lady Bingham accepted the award with a defence of the Human Rights Act - one of her late husband's great causes – against its lazy denigrators. Which of its rights would the sniping critics prefer not to enjoy, she asked. The right not be tortured? Not to be enslaved? To freedom of speech? To a fair trial? Orwell, no worshipper of wigs and robes, would have cheered.

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there