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Stained by fame

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THE WORLD AT HIS FEET: Philip Roth, winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2011

The sperm has its reasons that the heart will never understand. Philip Roth, who has won this year's Man Booker International Prize amidst rants from feminists, might have written that as an epitaph to The Human Stain. He is after all the master of sexual machismo, celebrating the power of the male organ in a manner that was both feral and funny in his 1969 novel Portnoy's Complaint.

At the same time, it's foolish to presume that Roth would write a sentence so tame, so lacking in the visceral ability to shock. Back in the sixties, when liberation of various kinds was being touted as the force that would free humankind from all manner of oppression and exploitation excess was part of Roth's success. The Human Stain is part of a trilogy that informs Roth's rage that it did not quite happen that way and that the Millers and the Mailers, the Bellows, the Beatles and the minor Updikes, the playwrights flaming the stages on Broadway taunting Virginia Woolf were all about to be swept aside by events that they could not have predicted. Whether it was the women's movement, the Vietnam War, or the AIDS epidemic, the cleansing of the moral majority that most of these writers and playwrights sought to achieve did not take place. It's Roth's cry that makes him magnificent. It is that of a wounded animal that finds itself being cornered and hunted down by convention, or as he himself indicates with a Sophoclean howl from Oedipus, that of a man who has over-reached himself and who has been betrayed by his flesh.

Let it be said at once that Carmen Callil, one of the judges on the Man Booker panel who resigned in disgust at his nomination, when she accused him of writing the same book again and again, has a point. To adapt one of his own phrases, Roth is a sex terrorist. The first few paragraphs and a highly libellous chapter later on in the book uses the unsavoury episode of the Clinton-Lewinsky encounter in the Oval Office as a hook, a cheap one at that, to locate the events that are about to unfold in the last few years of the 20th century. The year is 1998, the year that "Monica, the love terrorist" is working her way up the White House. He hits the Monica switch when he needs to turn the heat and link the narrative that takes place in a small, possibly insignificant university campus of Athena in the area known as Berkshires in New England, to the portentous ones that crucify the American presidency.

Typically for Roth, he puts the blame on Lewinsky. This too is a very sixties type of shtick, that of the archetypal Jewish son rejecting his controlling Jewish mother and finally breathing the free air of America only to discover that there are far more sinister forces that will turn into mother substitutes.

Quite apart from conforming to the image of a castrating female, Callil in her litany of rejection also added that she did not imagine that many people would be reading Roth twenty years from now. Some others of the feminist persuasion wondered why Anne Tyler, the American documenter of suburban angst, would not have been a better candidate for the prize. This is like comparing a warm cup of chocolate milk with marshmallows floating on the surface, to the blood, sweat and semen, the human stain that Roth milks for his reader.

What raises Roth over the competition is the Sophoclean dimension that he brings to his task. Just as there is a grand sweep to the narrative that lifts the life of Coleman Silks, a classical scholar who has been teaching at Athena and actually managing to educate his students (there is much here that is of interest to teachers and teaching methods, of illiterates and intellectuals that forms another layer to the text), to a tragic hero. He is 71 when he starts humping the college janitor, a 34-year-old woman, after the death of his wife and his resignation on the trumped up charge of being a racist. Fawnia Farley is an extraordinarily ordinary female protagonist, illiterate, ungainly, available. Yet Roth guilds her with so much grace, even in her degradation, that she is able to redeem not just Silks, who has his own dark secret stain, but even in her plain and unvarnished way the great betrayal of the 20th century, the myth of the American Dream.

Roth can still dream. Often he dreams in a prose that is as flagrantly sexual as it is delicate. That's what makes him important. He dares.

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