I don't agree with her assessment of Roth's work, but I can see what she's getting at. "It's as though he's sitting on your face," she said of the experience of reading him. It's true: Roth is relentless. He grabs hold of the reader, or perhaps one should say he grabs hold of his subject matter, furiously subjecting it to an intense, bleakly comic anatomization. While I find his writing magnificent, I can see that for others it might induce claustrophobia. I did, I admit, have to abandon Operation Shylock.
Callil's view is of course a supportable one, as is her right on a three-person jury (with Rick Gekoski and Justin Cartwright) to block the giving of a prize to an author she doesn't care for. How could the Booker International have gone to Roth anyway?
A previous example of a three-person jury on which feelings ran high was the 1974 Booker, at which Ion Trewin, AS Byatt and Elizabeth Jane Howard compromised by giving the Prize jointly to Nadine Gordimer and Stanley Middleton. On Monday, the three members of the Ondaatje jury - Ali Smith, Sarah Waters, and Don Paterson - chose their winner unanimously. I asked Waters whether they could have given the Prize to someone to whom one of the jurors had objected. She replied that one or two such authors had come up at the shortlisting stage and had been rejected, on the grounds that they could not win.
Philip Roth is a worthy winner of the Man Booker International Prize. But he should not have won it this year.