Did Portnoy's Complaint deserve the "Booker Prize"?
When I was a teenager, I took Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint to school in my satchel, in the hope -- I think -- of having it discovered by some prudish teacher and provoking an argument about freedom of speech and sexual expression (and also to show how hip I was). My Mother, I remember, requested it from the local library, for similar -- if slightly more grown-up -- reasons.
Until a few weeks ago I couldn't remember much about it, apart from the description of masturbation with the piece of liver. Presumably that's what everyone remembers.
I have, however, recently re-read it. It wasn't a happy experience. What was the virtue or merit of a 200-and-something page monologue of repetitive, blokeish sexual fantasy, preoccupied with the pleasures and guilt of masturbation (or alternatively with exploitative sex with exploited women...or if not sex, then constipation and other aspects of the 'lower bodily stratum' as Bakhtin would have put it). I wasn't shocked. In fact the liver bit was quite coyly done and the use of a cored apple for the same purpose was a rather underwhelming image. It was the sheer self-indulgence of the book that was so irritating.
For a moment the horrible thought came to me that this really was what men thought about all the time -- that this was a true exposé of "what men were like". If so, I thought it was probably better not to know.
The reason for putting myself through this literary torture was that I had agreed to be a panellist/judge on the Cheltenham Literary Festival's Booker event -- going back to the novels published in 1969, to give a retrospective Booker prize. In reality, the novels published is 1969 were up for the (second) Booker in 1970. The winner was Bernice Rubens' The Elected Member. But we were choosing between Portnoy (supported by John Walsh), Graham Greene's Travels with my Aunt (supported by Kate Adie), Margaret Atwood's The Edible Woman (supported by Erica Wagner) and John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman (mine). None of these had been in the running for the original prize. Portnoy was ineligible as Roth is American. Greene had refused to be considered. The Atwood had in 1969 only been published in Canada, so hadn't really made it onto the rader her. And the Fowles didn't get anywhere (the word on the street is that is was totally scuppered by Rebecca West, who was one of the judges).
So who won our 40 years on prize?
First to be eliminated was The Edible Woman. Erica basically pushed her out of the balloon herself, by saying in her opening remarks that she thought it was a good book but not as good as Portnoy. It was Atwood's very first novel and pretty ragged at the edges (there is, for example, an extraordinary silly episode where the heroine gets stuck under a bed... this is before she goes off food, in response to the sense that she is being consumed by her fiancé).
This left two votes for Roth and one each for Fowles and Greene. Kate put up a good fight for Travels with my Aunt as life-affirming -- though on reding this one again, I found Greene's Catholicism seeping into bits I didn't want, the racism uncomfortable and the knowing references to (and parodies of) his other novels a bit too self consciously artful.
I had decided that the French Lieutenant's Woman was brilliant. I had been assigned it by the management rather than chosen it -- and had feared that it wouldn't be half as good as I remembered from first reading it as a moody adolescent (the other side of the coin from the one who tried to annoy with Portnoys Complaint... no problem packing this in the satchel). In fact it was better. Fowles seemed to me to have pulled off the nearly impossible feat of reflecting radically on the nature of our engagement with the Victorian past, and the nature of the novelist's task, while still telling a wonderful story.
However, as neither Kate nor I would give way, Portnoy limped home to victory.
It wasn't a popular choice with the audience, who I think ranked it (on a show of hands) on a par with the Atwood. In audience terms, the triumph was probably Kate's who had taken a good few votes from the French Lieutenant's Woman by the time of the final ranking (damn... how did I manage to lose votes....? Too bloody academic I guess).
I should say that the reason I was in Cheltenham was not just this nice game. I had come to do a lecture on Pompeii. About 300 people showed up for it (including an ex-student I hadnt seen for ages...Thanks Kiran). I'm realistic enough to know that they weren't coming for me, but for the subject. But it was nice all the same.