on 12 October 2010
Many journalists have written off Roth's recent material. Those readers who follow such cues may already have missed the understated wit of 'Indignation'- hopefully they will be prepared to give 'Nemesis' a chance. They should. It's an absolute blinder.
In 'Nemesis', Roth transposes many of the ideas common to his work since 1995's 'Sabbath's Theatre'- creating a compendium of Rothian themes that functions as an outstanding novel in its own right. Playing with the death-fears behind his more recent works, Roth returns to the intersections of history and personal narrative that made his 90s 'American' trilogy so memorable. The results are dazzling.
We're back in the familiar territory of Weequahic, the Jewish suburb of Newark, New Jersey, introduced to a character whose simple belief in human progress and humanist perfection is tested by the strains of a polio epidemic. Bucky Cantor is a fascinating character, superficially bland yet all the more distinctive for it- Roth repeating his fascination with those rudely jolted awake from the American Dream (tm). The text's narrator, Arnold Mesnikoff, only reveals himself in the novel's concluding section- yet his life-narrative is set against Bucky's in a beautifully restrained fashion. The novel's final scene, without giving spoilers, is one of the most elegant and moving passages to be found in all Roth's fiction.
There's a lot in here- World War II, the loss of faith, the innocence of youth- but the prose style is clear, making even the most ambitious of topics merge seamlessly into the novel's structure. A step back from the vitriolic tragedy of 'The Humbling' and towards a more gently elegiac mode (first hinted at in 'Indignation'), 'Nemesis' is wholly unpretentious, deeply intelligent and unabashedly moving. It's Roth's best novel for a decade, and a great starting point for those late to his charms.
Again Philip Roth is concerned with illness. The 1944 polio outbreak in his native Newark NJ - and again specifically in the Jewish community - is the subject of this book. A recent novel of his, Everyman, (see my review) was about the afflictions of old age; this one is about an illness most of whose victims are children.
There is panic in the community: vaccines against polio came into use only in 1955; and it appears that in 1944 noone knew exactly what caused it or how it was transmitted - but it was known that it is at its most virulent in the hot season, and there are vivid descriptions in this novel of the sweltering heat that summer. There was also the (correct) suspicion was that dirt was involved.
The central figure in this novel is Bucky Cantor, the popular young sports teacher at the local school, a sturdy, upright, supportive and caring figure, who is deeply affected as pupil after pupil is stricken by the disease. There are many ways in which people react to such a crisis: not only panic, but rage against God's injustice, or looking for scapegoats. Even he is accused by one parent of letting the children become too hot during their games.
His girl friend, who works at a children's summer camp on the cooler and more salubrious coast, urges him to take a job which has just fallen vacant there because the man who had it before had been called up. He agrees, but feels a deserter: he already felt ashamed that his poor eye-sight had prevented him from being accepted by the army, in which his two closest friends were fighting. When he gets to the camp, its setting and its happy children, beautifully described, could not be more different from the fetid city and its anxious youngsters he had left behind. He veers between joy and guilt. And then hammer blow after hammer blow will fall upon him. Guilt and then a feeling of duty - both self-imposed and both objectively unnecessary, as one of his interlocutors will point out to him - make for a bleak ending.
In my review of "Everyman", I wrote that the only fault I could find in the book was with its title; and I feel the same with this book. Nemesis is the spirit of divine retribution against those who succumb to hubris. And it seems harsh to me to describe the high standards of duty that Bucky set himself as hubris.
In my first experience of a Roth novel, I was hooked from the first page by the flow of crystal-clear prose, so unlike the muddy rivers I have been wading through recently. Despite the unappealing theme of a polio epidemic in US Newark during World War 2, and the certainty that the tale would end in tragedy, I was compelled to read to the end.
The plot is perhaps too slight for the length of the book (280 pages) and you may feel that points are rammed home long after the reader has "got the point". There is also the somewhat awkward device of introducing one of the young polio victims in passing as "I", only for him to reappear in the last chapter, and listen to Bucky Cantor's story in enough detail to be able to relate the whole tale of the promising young athlete from "the wrong side of town" who becomes a PE teacher with an overdeveloped sense of duty and "honour". This has been stimulated by the strict upbringing received from his grandfather, and the need to expiate the failings of his father, an embezzler who abandoned his family. Bucky is haunted by the fact that his friends are dying in active service from which poor eyesight has debarred him and feels unduly responsible when the young boys in his charge begin to die with alarming speed from polio.
The strength of the story lies partly in the analysis of the factors which may form an individual personality, and the minute exploration of human emotions - the grief over the loss of a young life with great potential, the overwhelming desire to escape from a dreadful situation, with the accompanying guilt one may feel over so doing - also the corrosive effects of an inability to compromise when things go wrong. Then there are the interesting historical and cultural facets. Now that we take polio vaccine for granted, it is salutary to be reminded of what it must have been like, having to endure the fear of catching the disease every summer, not knowing where or how it would strike, or how it could be avoided. We are reminded of the gulf between the experiences of the comfortably off and the underprivileged, together with the rampant anti-Jewish prejudice in 1940s America. Also, there is the whole issue of religion: if you accept without question the existence of God, how can such a deity permit the random suffering of a polio epidemic, or the pointless slaughter of a world war?
This is a bleak novel, but in writing so unflinchingly about how chance affects our lives, for good or ill, and in reaching a conclusion which can be seen in some unexpected way as positive, I think it helps us to accept our own realities.
on 10 December 2010
What a great novel. It tells the story of a polio summer in Newark with economy and flair. I never really understood what a polio epidemic meant: now I do. It's horrifying and tragic, and Roth captures the despair and difficult decision-making so well that you are gripped from the first few pages. He also puts the epidemic in context of the Second World War, creating a clever parallel between those fighting for their country and those left behind with a different struggle. This is by far the best book I've read in 2010.
I thought that Nemesis was a really wonderful book and that Roth was at his very best. It is a very powerful and moving story about a fundamentally decent man who assumes responsibility when the situation demands. Roth is a genuine wordsmith and he writes with great confidence and authority. Without being in any way sentimental, Nemesis is packed with beautiful and poignant passages. It is truly great writing. Every sentence in the book seems to be necessary - one feels that, if one sentence were removed, the book would be weakened and the addition of others would be superfluous
on 10 February 2012
First Philip Roth I have read in decades, From the first lines you were drawn into the suffocating heat of the city and the suffering caused by the polio epidemic, causing unbearable tensions and guilt. There are a lot of what ifs throughout the story which asks the reader if Mr Cantor had stayed in his job would he have felt differently. There are many issues thrown up by this tragedy, to which there are probably no definite answers. Thoroughly recommend this book for book club
on 15 November 2011
Another classic to add to Roth's marvellous, continuing contribution to modern literature. Superb, measured pace; detail; and sense of time and place. Also full of really big issues about self and God. I knew very little about the 1944 polio epidemic, but Roth's story raised a question I can't answer. Does polio, or perhaps, more specifically, did this particular outbreak kill and maim significantly more boys than girls? I only ask because that's the clear impression Roth gives in this novel. It bothers me a bit. But that unresolved question does not stop me looking back at the glow of thoughtful pleasure I had reading this great story.
on 10 December 2011
Wonderfully written short novel that draws you in to the time (1944) and the people so rapidly and so effortlessly. And of course, being Roth, it is about so much more than 1944 and polio epidemics. Read the review by JM Coetzee in the New York Review of Books if you want to explore the deeper meanings of it all - although it does reveal the plot.
on 16 November 2011
This is the first Philip Roth book I have read, having seen the BBC2's 'Review Show' cover this in typical highbrow fashion.
The tale is set during WWII, within Newark, New Jersey. The central plot is an outbreak of Polio that affects the community, especially the children who are within the protagonists care (a Summer camp sports instructor).
The unknown (at the time) enemy, or indeed 'nemesis', is at first glance the Polio outbreak itself. Roth uses simple interactions between characters brilliantly, particularly between the many children that feature in the story. Nothing really complex arises in the book, but that is what makes it so good. I find it hard to explain without resorting to ethereal pseudo-intellectualisations; but, in straightforward language, Roth tells a richly evocative story - one which during many junctures, I could feel the balmy NJ Summer heat, sense the fear of the Newark residents, feel the wistful stolen nights of the protagonists Summer Camp escapades with his girlfriend, and feel genuine sadness during the latter part of the book. The Polio threat remains constant to all-comers and keeps the suspense dynamic throughout the story.
A dark story with intriguing characters, I would definitely recommend this book.
It is a sweltering summer in Newark, New Jersey, 1944, and Bucky Cantor is a young man working as a playground supervisor. Bucky is a kind, brave and upstanding young man who suffers a great deal of guilt throughout this novel. First, his guilt is based around the fact that his absent father was a thief and a petty criminal. Brought up by his loving grandparents, Bucky wants to make the memory of his adored grandfather proud and live up to the aspirations and success of his girlfriend and her family. Bucky also has a sense of shame about not being able to fight in the war as his friends are, he is a young man with excellent health, but poor eyesight. Still, the children at the playground adore and look up to him, and Bucky does his best to keep them safe and entertained during the hot, long, summer days.
Tragedy strikes in the form of a polio epidemic, for this is before the days of a vaccine or successful treatment, when polio could mean death, permanent disability, or the horror of an iron lung. What is more, the disease was indiscriminate, hitting emotively mostly at young children. Roth evokes that time and those emotions evocatively, in a small community where nobody knows who (or what) causes the deadly disease and how to avoid it spreading unchecked. Are the playgrounds safe and is Bucky in some way to blame? This novel is narrated by one of the young boys who spent that summer observing events, as the story takes us through a tragic time and it's outcome. Although this is a fairly short novel, there is not a word wasted and it is hard not to be affected by this story of a past time when suspicion and fear raged and a disease caused destruction amongst the children of a community.