In Roth's 1998 novel, I Married a Communist, the narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, is in high school, learning what, and how, to read. There is nothing genteel about his initiation: "Talking about books as though something were at stake in a book. Not opening up a book to worship it or to be elevated by it or to lose yourself to the world around you. No, boxing with the book."
Revisiting Roth over the past few months, I have been struck by how full of ring craft his mature fiction is, how it circles and jabs, steps back, pushes at you relentlessly and follows with an uppercut. When you read Roth, you not only feel under attack, you want to fight back. I can recall few of his novels that don't provoke an occasional but overwhelming desire to shout "Will you shut up!" at a character or the author: to counter-attack ("counter" is one of Roth's favoured terms). How often, reading him, do we pause for breath, put the book down, pace about, sit down, chuck a pail of water over our heads?
Roth's first two novels, Letting Go (1962) and When She Was Good (1967), are measured, accurate and correct, largely the effect of reading too much Henry James as a graduate student. It was not until 1969, ten years after his first book - the marvellous collection of stories Goodbye, Columbus - that he produced a voice which felt comfortably his own. Portnoy's Complaint had a huge effect on my generation of readers and seemed, somehow, to legitimate the way we really were. The men, anyway. Rather embarrassing, but freeing, too. People began to think, talk and write differently after Portnoy. All of a sudden, the mainstream novel felt fresher, more outlandishly authentic.
Alexander Portnoy's couch-bound monologue of maternal fixation and erotic compulsion - he scans the shelves of the fridge for potential sexual partners - is sufficient, almost, to give kvetching a bad name. He is defined by appetite, omnivorously mouthy: eating, licking, talking. He's not much of a listener, though, being less engaged by what comes out of his girlfriend's mouth than by what he can put into it.
This is a joke in bad taste, prompted and sanctioned by the new Roth, who loves the knockabout humour of the street corner. Here, he combines what he calls "the aggressive, the crude and the obscene at one extreme and something a good deal more subtle and, in every sense, refined at the other". Both playful and serious, the Portnoy monologue strikes a new tone and captures perfectly the incessant buzzing and swarming of consciousness.
Portnoy's Complaint sold and sold, but if it set Roth up, it also set him back. He was uncomfortable with everything but the increased income and couldn't tolerate the ceaseless, almost prurient interest in his every movement. He had no wish, or perhaps no immediate capacity, to write about it.
During the next decade, among other works, he wrote two David Kepesh novels, The Breast and The Professor of Desire; Our Gang, a parody of the Nixon years; and The Great American Novel, which is, naturally, about baseball. The predominant note is Kafkaesque: a man turns into a gigantic female breast, the president drowns in a plastic bag, midgets play professional baseball. Here is a writer learning new tricks, his deeper concerns hibernating, in abeyance.
Enter Zuckerman, Roth's finest alter ego, first as the purported author of a comic quartet of books that finally deal with the post-Portnoy fallout, and later, and more profoundly, in The Counterlife (1986). It is the central Roth text, exhausting but enthralling and frantic with thinking, talking and arguing. We forgive all the fuss because the issues are of consequence, the prose is as balanced as the characters are askew and the controlling intelligence is lucid and compelling.
At his brother's funeral, Zuckerman can't deliver the expected, conventional eulogy, wishing instead to compose a counter-story about Henry's sexual life. He feels terrible about it. "This profession," he says, "even fucks up grief." That's fair. It fucks up everything and then makes a book out of it. There is something curiously satisfying about the process, in which every thought and feeling is shadowed by its opposite.
This is the natural habitat of the ironist. "Without contraries," William Blake tells us, "is no progression." The world of The Counterlife amplifies this: at times it is unclear who is dead and who is alive, who is writing and who is being written about. The reader never knows quite what to believe. What is written is erased and rewritten; love offers solace, but we feel constrained; freed, we yearn for connection; others crowd us, so we retreat into loneliness and find company there; clarity darkens and darkness illuminates.
“The treacherous imagination," Zuckerman informs us, "is everybody's maker - we are all the invention of each other, everybody's a conjuration conjuring up everyone else. We are all each other's authors." I think, therefore you are. We are all storytellers, all autobiographers, which is how we make ourselves and the world. Facts are arranged and become fictions; fictions are formations of fact.
All this reflecting and self-reflecting and reflecting about self-reflecting might easily be dismissed as wise-guy stuff. Yet The Counterlife is not a postmodern novel, obsessed by its own processes. It's rather old-fashioned, informed by profound respect for the simple values of a passing age. The novel is dedicated to "my father at 85", an exemplary man whose values have become as archaic as the type of life from which they issued. Dignity, selflessness, singleness of purpose, moral clarity: to a modern, secular and sceptical intelligence, these bedrock virtues are as questionable as they are admirable, but they continue to inform Roth's work.
The one eulogy that Zuckerman does manage to write in The Counterlife is his own. It contains a moment of self-definition which seems to express what Roth would say about himself, if he were to say such things directly: "Nathan as an artist, as the author paradoxically of the most reckless comedy, tried, in fact, to lead the ethical life, and he both reaped its rewards and paid its price."
This moral urgency is obvious when we consider Roth's recurring themes: the assimilation and integration of an immigrant community; parents, children and the strains of family life; education and its effects on the development of the self; the decline of American cities; urban and suburban life; the counterculture and the revolt against the military-industrial complex; sexuality and the drama of being a man; relations between the sexes, religions and races; the nature of the writer, his voices and guises.
Throughout, as the ground and reference point, is the question of Jewishness. Then there is the black hole of the Holocaust. In The Anatomy Lesson (1983), Zuckerman's mother, who is suffering from a brain tumour in Miami Beach, when "asked if she would write her name . . . took the pen from [the doctor's] hand and instead of 'Selma' wrote the word 'Holocaust', perfectly spelled . . . Zuckerman was pretty sure that before that morning she'd never even spoken the word aloud."
Roth, who was born in 1933, grew up thousands of miles from that horror, in a New Jersey immigrant Jewish community in which the European situation cast a shadow over daily life. Desperate appeals from "the old country" for asylum and support were harrowingly common; families scrabbled for information, lost touch with relatives and grieved. What was happening was unimaginable, yet demanded to be imagined.
It was possible, though, for an emerging generation of writers to begin to assemble the figure of the modern Jew who was not defined by victimhood, as if to release him from that history. The aim was to make a Jewish character who was gritty, secular, sexy, self-engrossed, irritable, smart, compassionate, selfish - fully flavoured, fully present.
Roth is sometimes associated with a group of novelists - J D Salinger, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow - who, presumably by virtue of their Jewishness, are held to have common concerns. Perhaps there is something a little obvious about this. I prefer to compare Roth with Samuel Beckett, whose pared-down world of compulsive, isolated consciousness prefigures The Counterlife. Vladimir and Estragon carp and kvetch and shrug their shoulders, longing for contact with the neglectful Godot. Waiting. "He never visits us! He never calls! He never writes!" Recognise the voices? One of them was named Levy in an early draft of the play
Alone, on a bare stage, thinking in the void. “I am a theatre," Zuckerman tells us, "and nothing more than a theatre." In the later sections of The Counterlife, we find surprisingly few of the tiny details that, as Colm Tóibín has observed, make up a novel: descriptions of objects, faces, clothing, food, landscapes, smells, colours, tastes. It is a world stripped of specificity. Why give all of this up, which is near as damn it to what a novelist does? The holiness of minute particulars: I can not only vividly recall John Updike's extended description of eating a macadamia nut, I can still taste it. ("He could write any kind of sentence imaginable," Roth has said, in wistful admiration.)
Roth is capable of making a densely tangible world, but here he chooses a barer stage, in order not to deflect attention. From what? From the voices. The absence of description is purposive; it would get in the way not so much of our eyes, as of our ears: it would affect the acoustics. The clamorous voices reverberate better and bounce around more in the absence of furnishing.
After The Counterlife (as after Waiting for Godot) there is not much more to be said on the subject. This complex meditation on telling a story seems to free both Zuckerman and his progenitor, Roth, into a remarkable creative period, in which one major work follows another - Operation Shylock: a Confession (1993), Sabbath's Theatre (1995), American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), The Human Stain (2000) and The Plot Against America (2004). There's still a great deal of shouting going on, but the meditations are less reflexive, the topics larger and more sharply focused.
“It's just astonishing," said Bellow, "that he brings these books out one after the other, so serious and so well developed in the construction. I wish I understood it. I'm very impressed."
Rick Gekoski was chair of the Man Booker International Prize 2011. This is an edited extract of a speech delivered in honour of the winner, Philip Roth.