Philip Roth made a rare public appearance last week. After being lauded by a panel of four literary scholars, the celebrated novelist read the last pages of his latest book, “Nemesis,” at an event sponsored by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
Just hours before, he learned that he was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for his body of work over half a century, which includes 31 books.
Like many moments in Roth’s career, this latest prize was not without controversy.
Following the announcement, one of the judges, publisher Carmen Callil, resigned in protest from the panel. She told the Guardian that her dislike of Roth was based on his literary shortcomings. “He goes on and on about the same subject in almost every single book,” she said. (Callil’s Virago Press published Roth’s ex-wife Claire Bloom’s memoir.)
At the YIVO event, Roth, 78, heard only praise. “In my view he stands alone: the greatest literary mind and talent of our time,” Jonathan Brent, YIVO executive director, said.
Brent and Roth have a long connection: They have been friends since 1979, when Roth contacted Brent after reading his review of “The Ghost Writer.” And Roth would frequent Brent’s father’s Chicago bookstore.
Brent, Bernard Avishai of Hebrew University, Igor Webb of Adelphi University and Steven Zipperstein of Stanford University, offered their own interpretations of “Nemesis.” Described by Brent as “a deeply Proustian novel of memory and loss,” “Nemesis” takes place during the wartime polio epidemic of 1944, set in a Jewish neighborhood in Newark and at a summer camp in the Poconos.
They all somehow circled back to Roth and the Jews.
Avishai quoted Roth, “Jews are members of the human race. Worse than that I can’t say about them.” For Brent, Jewishness is an “invisible factor in life of Roth’s characters, though with visible consequences.” Webb described the quarrel in Roth’s work between first and second generations, and Zipperstein spoke of community, whose embrace is stifling for Roth, who has neither the ability to live with it nor without it.
As Zipperstein said, “one need not look very far” for Roth’s Jewish preoccupations. He quoted a 1983 Paris Review interview in which Roth said, “It isn’t what it’s talking about that makes a book Jewish — it’s that the book won’t shut up. The book won’t leave you alone.”
Few superfluous words were said; there were no introductions of the speakers (their bios appeared on printed programs), no interaction between the panelists afterwards, and the question period was halted after one question, when Zipperstein suggested that everyone wanted to hear Roth.
Seated on stage, the novelist quipped, “It’s a tough act to follow: Four smart Jewish boys, all cracking jokes.” He set the passage in context, and then beautifully read the last few pages of “Nemesis” — his admitted favorite pages in the book. Roth took no questions afterwards, although a few people managed to approach him with copies of his books, which he signed.
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A few female audience members remarked privately about how “male” the evening was, with Roth and four men discussing his work, which is sometimes criticized for its depiction of women. (Was that “same subject” Callil complained that Roth goes “on and on about” the male ego?)
Brent said afterward that Roth had suggested the panelists. Some women writers were approached, but all declined for various reasons.