Our Annual Post In Which We Ask Who We Have To Sleep With To Get Philip Roth The Nobel Prize In Literature


We’ve complained in this space before that the Nobel committee isn’t the greatest fan of American literature. We’ve bemoaned the fact that Philip Roth probably isn’t going to win a dearly deserved Nobel Prize for Literature. In being denied this honor, one of Roth’s characters would probably observe that he would have had a better shot if he had grown up to be a doctor. Or a chemist. Or a physicist. Or an economist. Or whatever. Or just not Philip Roth.

Whatever. He didn’t win.


In the end, perhaps it is better that he doesn’t win. It’s not like he’s lacking for awards. The short list: Pulitzer, National Book Award (twice), Pen/Faulkner (three times), Pen/Saul Bellow Prize, the Man Booker International Prize. It’s not like his legacy needs validation from a bunch of cold Swedish fish. And it’s not hard to imagine a Roth-esque character: smart, accomplished, libidinous, persistent, lauded and yet still carrying the chip on his shoulder he’s been lugging around since the day he took his first step in the Weequahic section of Newark, New Jersey; who relishes the annual rejection from Stockholm; who needs to not win the Nobel prize every year;  who needs to have at least that one door still closed to him in order to retain that sense of remaining on the outside. Sven and Gunnar aren’t impressed with the forging of identity in post-war America? Well screw them. Horace Engdahl and company don’t think a literary output producing compelling works more than fifty years apart warrants the Nobel? They can suck his StiegLarsson.

Nathan Zuckerman, Neil Klugman, Alexander Portnoy — those guys would have been bemused that the Nobel committee wants nothing to do with them.  (And yet. With the same breath that they dismissed ever needing, ever wanting, ever coveting a Nobel; they admit to themselves that it wouldn’t be undeserved, wouldn’t be grandiose to expect, wouldn’t be beyond the scope of reasonable aspirations to think that one morning when, slumbering in the pre-dawn the phone pierces his slumber, and in the moment he catapults his half-dead arm — some sort of cramp from sleeping funny — he wonders as it arcs toward the handset, could this be the call from Stockholm, and if it is, will it be rude to ask them to wait while he runs to the bathroom to pee, because, frankly it is normally the highlight of his morning and while Nobels are fine, certain rituals ought to be respected and observed.) Those guys would rebound from Nobel rejection by sleeping with someone inappropriate — and likely not Jewish.

So, it’s another year with no Nobel for the seminal American-Jewish author of the last century and it turns-out a decent chunk of the current century as-well. That’s fine.

He’s doing just fine without it.

3rd Annual Presidents Day Salute to President Levine

Our third-annual Presidents Day posting from 2008, saluting the best example we could find in American speculative literature of what it might take for a Jew to be elected President in the United States. One year into the historic Obama Presidency I am still struck by the novel’s remarkable prescience at the challenges a President or serious Presidential candidate from a traditional “outsider group” would face.

Barack Obama may very well become the first African American President, or alternately Hillary Clinton may become the first woman elected President. It is even possible that John McCain may become the first, well, really really seriously old white guy to be elected President (72 on inauguration day). It is safe to say however, that the first Jewish president is yet to be on the ballot.The Wanting of Levine

So for the time being Jewish Presidents belong to the realm of fiction, which brought to mind Michael Halberstam’s 1978 bestselling novel The Wanting of Levine. It is long out of print, though it appears in the catalog of the Montgomery County Public Library system. When I went seeking a copy this weekend, the librarian I consulted noted the book had not circulated in five years and was probably long-gone from the shelves. Lucky for me, she was wrong.

Set ten years in the future from its publication date (and twenty years before our current quadrennial contest), the novel presents a United States that is well on its way to being a second-rate power. Energy rationing is in effect, standards of living are declining, racial violence is increasing, individual states are involved in border wars over trade and tariffs — there’s a general sense that things are going to hell very quickly. To top it off, the Democrat’s front-runner for the nomination has just stabbed his wife to death in a drunken rage. Enter the mercurial figure of A.L. Levine, until now a back-room DNC committeeman after a fortune made in sales and real estate development. When circumstances thrust him into the spotlight, Levine begins his own unlikely candidacy.

The novel is one-part political insider fiction, one part-late seventies sex romp, one part liberal Jewish wish-fulfillment and one-part a canny take on the rhythms of political enthusiasm and what Americans want from a President. Written as it was in a pre-AIDS, pre-Reagan, pre-Internet and pre-collapse of the Soviet Union (just to mention a few epoch shaping “pre’s”) era, the novel obviously has limits when applied to today’s political landscape. Certainly, Levine, with a libido Bill Clinton could only envy, would not be electable, never mind even runnable in today’s climate.

But certain aspects of Levine’s character — his “firstness” to coin a phrase, his lack of governing experience, his personal charisma do bring to mind the current campaign. In one stump speech he says:

This is the first time I have run for office. It’s an advantage not to be a politician because like all occupations, politics puts a mark on a man. Politics is a worthy, noble profession, but a lifetime in it requires so much compromise, so much dealing, that a person tends to forget what his real principles were in the first place. … Compromise is necessary, but a lifetime of it leaves a mark. It is fine for a career in the Senate, but not necessary or even desirable in a president. I am, I believe, experienced in politics, but not a politician.

Later, with his inauguration impending, Levine speculates to himself about what a great President might be in these times and perhaps anticipates the appeal to “purple states” and our first bi-racial President:

Something always had to give. In that he felt his strongest hope. If there is anything I can do, he thought, it’s to mediate, to intercede, to explain. What the country needs is a middleman, and as a middleman I’ve had two-thousand years practice. Without a middleman, without someone who genuinely felt for both sides, the country was going to tear itself apart, the young at the throat of the old, the freezing at the throat of the conservationists. The defenders of privacy clashed with the legions of the right-to-know. The right to bear arms collided with the right to avoid being shot to death at a stop light…Each American had his passion, and each clamored for attention, shouting, “I’m right! I’m right!” and demanding, insisting, that the government ensure his claim to the right–while denouncing the spread of government.

It is a novel thirty years on, that is as breath-taking for what it gets right as for what it gets wrong (Mexico figures large in the novel, but in geo-political terms it more resembles modern Venezuela). It captures the spirit of the contact sport that is American politics, while at the same time, is unafraid to cop-to the sublimated desires of the body politic.

Michael Halberstam was the brother of renowned author and journalist David Halberstam. Michael was an internist in Washington, DC when he wrote the novel and was tragically murdered a few years after the book’s publication in dramatic circumstances.

Philip Roth Will Not Be Here Saturday Night. Just His Work.

We’re sorry.

Although really it is the Washington Post’s fault. For some reason they thought that Philip Roth would be attending the Opening Night of the Hyman S. and Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival, which every year offers staged dramatic readings of work by some of the finest Jewish authors. One year we saluted Saul Bellow and Arthur Miller (both had recently passed away, they were not in-attendance either). One year we focused on stories about Jewish Urban Life. Last year we focused on Jewish Humor in Short Stories. This year we are honoring the 50th Anniversary of Roth’s groundbreaking novella Goodbye Columbus with dramatic adaptions from that and some of his other work, performed by four of Washington’s best actors.

So you should still come. Here’s why.

Philip won’t be there, but Neil Klugman will be. And Alexander Portnoy. And a version of the Philip Roth that appears in books like Patrimony and The Facts. The evening will be a way of looking at the work of an author widely acknowledged as one of the greatest writers of the last 50 years.

In the end it is the writing, and not the writer that matters most.

So we’re sorry if you are disappointed that Philip Roth won’t be there. In our defense, in none of our materials did we claim he would be — not even metaphorically — present. But we’ve got plenty of other writers who actually will be here, live and in the flesh, over the next two weeks. Great writers like Zoe Heller and Dara Horn and Binnie Kirshenbaum; important works of non-fiction about art in the Great Depression, the birth of Barbie, surviving infertility, a biography of Louis Brandeis and the amazing but true story of how the Israeli secret-service captured Adolf Eichmann.

The writer for the next 50 years is quite likely among our offerings. So, this is not how we wanted to get your attention. But since we now have it… you should come. Philip would want it that way.

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