D J Taylor: When will Philip Roth become a Nobel Laureate?

The jury's habit of looking the other way when his name comes up is a grotesque dereliction of duty
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The Independent Online

To widen the catchment area a bit, of all the literary grand eminences imagining themselves to have been slighted by Thursday's unveiling of the 2005 Nobel Laureate - those chagrined Venezuelan poets and inconsolable Korean haiku-mongers - none can have been more rightfully aggrieved than Philip Roth.

Busily at large on the international literary circuit since the late 1950s - checking his bibliography in the reference books, I was impressed to find that his first book predated my own birth - Mr Roth is, you would assume, just the sort of writer liable to commend himself to the Swedish literature fanciers in the Stockholm bunker.

Not only has he managed to keep himself in the public eye for the best part of half a century, while lesser talents fell spavined by the wayside, but his novels fairly bristle with the kind of "relevant" and "universal" themes on which prize committees are so characteristically prone to fall: racial identity, loss, exile, the legacy of the Holocaust. Operation Shylock, for instance, was a grandly satirical treatment of an attempt to lead the Jews out of Israel and back to Europe, while featuring - just to show that its author was up to all the latest literary dodges - a character named Philip Roth.

Neither, too, has Roth yet succumbed to the winded late-career miseries of so many of his venerable peers. No anguished threnodies to a long-lost sexual past for this boy, and no over-egged evocations of small-town self-absorption à la John Updike. American Pastoral (1997) was a terrific state-of-the-nation novel, a genuine engagement with some kind of national consciousness.

The Plot Against America, on the other hand, is a pointed war-era dystopia in which the champion aviator Charles Lindbergh defeats Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election on an isolationist and anti-Jewish ticket. Still vigorously with us, clearly intending to stick around for a very long time, as Martin Amis might say, the diagnoser of Portnoy's Complaint continues, almost biennially, to shape up.

From one point of view - the view that sees literature as literature rather than a sub-division of international power-broking - the Nobel jury's habit of looking the other way whenever Roth's name is brought to their attention is a grotesque dereliction of duty. From the angle of international prize culture, alternatively, it is routine.

Though still occasionally held up as a beacon of disinterested supra-cultural light, the Nobel committees are, of course, quite as politicised and susceptible to influence as any other group of Western citizenry, and capable of bending to the prevailing wind with the sinuousness of a yew bow. Nobel history, close inspection reveals, is littered with laureates whose presence on the list is down if not to wholly non-literary reasons than for reasons in which considerations over and above literature played a part. Why else did Winston Churchill win in 1953 or Alexandr Solzhenitsyn in 1970?

No one minds the courageous embodiments of good causes appearing on the Stockholm podium, but what about the hulking absences and silences that are such a feature of the prize's century-and-a-bit history? Observers traditionally attest to the Nobel's Anglo-Saxon leanings. Certainly, the last decade has brought us Pinter, Naipaul and Heaney, but a trawl through the ranks of literature laureates reveals a hulking file of missing persons.

To watch a television series such as Channel 4's recent History of the Novel is to appreciate the absolute dominance of American fiction over practically every other variety in the past century, yet just as contemporary juries can find no place for Roth, Updike, Mailer or, before his death in 1994, the late Peter Taylor, so their pre-war atavars turned up their noses at Theodore Dreiser, James T Farrell, John Dos Passos and Upton Sinclair - the literary equivalent of passing over Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo for a European young player's selection in favour of a couple of makeweights from the Latvian second division.

None of this is to disparage the Nobel committee's achievements in bringing non-European colossi to the attention of the blinkered Western readership - the wonderful Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, for instance, who scooped the pot in 1988. On the other hand, it would be a terrible shame if literature, of all human activities, turned into the cultural outreach of the Equal Opportunities Commission.