Nemesis by Philip Roth

This review first appeared, in slightly different form, in The Irish Times on 16th October 2010.

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Like Max von Sydow in The Seventh Seal, Philip Roth has been squaring up to Death for a long time now, and neither contestant has shown any sign of blinking. It was, I suppose, inevitable that Roth – that great and agonised celebrant of the body’s raptures and ruptures – should refuse to greet the prospect of his own extinction with anything like equanimity. His five late novellas – The Dying Animal (2001), Everyman (2006), Indignation (2008), The Humbling (2009), and now Nemesis  – address with unwavering clarity a single theme, and they address it with Roth’s customary furious eloquence. Along with the final volume of the Zuckerman series, Exit Ghost (2007), these are books about death – specifically, they are about the endless ways in which death and its harbinger, illness, can pitilessly warp the trajectories of individual human lives.

The Dying Animal conjured an obsessive affair between an elderly professor, David Kepesh, and a young female student. Everyman, borrowing its title from the medieval morality play, relentlessly scrutinised an average man’s life through the vector of his various illnesses and eventual death. Indignation goes one step farther into the undiscovered country, and is actually narrated from beyond the grave by one Marcus Messner, a righteous-minded sophomore whose death is entrained by fate in the form of a kindly-meant blowjob administered by a troubled, promiscuous co-ed. The Humbling problematically rendered yet another late-in-life sexual obsession – alone among the late novellas, it seems genuinely derailed by its unyielding preoccupation with the transience of the flesh, and reviewers rightly chided Roth for the book’s ludicrous threesome scene, as well as for the rather spectral, disengaged timbre of its prose.

Exit Ghost, Roth’s farewell to his habitual surrogate Nathan Zuckerman, drags the aging writer out of his Berkshires retreat and down to post-9/11 Manhattan for an operation on his prostate. In the now-familiar pattern, he becomes sexually obsessed with a younger woman, which – in late Roth – is always also a way of coming to terms, badly or well, with the prospect of one’s own death.

These books also return to a key theme of Roth’s great trilogy, American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000), a theme that might be summed up in the question, “What is the right thing to do?” Like every Roth protagonist since the narrator of Goodbye, Columbus (1959), the heroes of the late novellas are transfixed by the impossibility of reconciling their stricken high-mindedness with the ignoble promptings of the body. In the disparity between idealistic rectitude and the humiliations of fear and desire, Roth locates his protagonists’ tragic flaw.

There is something Sophoclean in the grandeur of late Roth. In many ways, Roth’s remarkable intensity as an artist – his ability to concentrate with manic fixity on a single theme – has always threatened to destabilise his fictions, to render them too specific, too eccentrically personal. But in these late works, Roth has corralled his energies with astonishing skill. These books are wintry, skeletal, winnowed to a piercing point. They cast a cold eye. It should go without saying that they are all – with the forgivable exception of The Humbling – small masterpieces, the parting gifts of a man who has devoted his life to the scrupulous perfecting of his art.

Nemesis, Roth’s lean and haunting new work, completes the thematic pentangle formed by the five late novellas. Narrated by a minor character, Arnie Mesnikoff, it tells the story of a polio epidemic in Roth’s old stamping-ground of Newark, New Jersey. During the baking summer of 1944, in the suburb of Weequahic, the disease arrives, and children begin to die. Our protagonist is Eugene “Bucky” Cantor, a twenty-three-year old Phys Ed teacher and summer playground supervisor, a man of extraordinary physical strength and moral character: “His was the cast-iron, wear-resistant, strikingly bold face of a sturdy young man you could rely on.”

Like Indignation’s Marcus Messner, Bucky is humourlessly driven by the highest of ideals. But the polio epidemic, with its threat of realising “the body’s most dreadful fears,” will take Bucky’s life apart, piece by piece. As the children in his care begin to fall sick, Bucky begins to wonder where his obligations lie. And, sure enough, a classic Rothian dilemma soon presents itself: should Bucky stand by his dwindling gang of frightened children, who look to him for moral reassurance, or should he take off to a Poconos summer camp, fleeing the creeping contagion of polio and spending the summer with his fiancée Marcia?

The answer to this question is the novel’s dramatic crux. And it would be unfair to reveal much more than this in a review. Suffice it to say that the plot of Nemesis unfolds with the inevitability – with the bleak, discomfiting shapeliness – of classical tragedy.

Nemesis is a slender book, but its reach is formidable. It has a kind of ghost-theme, too, never directly alluded to but present in every line: Roth depends on the reader to remember that the summer of 1944, when Bucky Cantor’s life unravels, was also the blackest period of the Holocaust. While the Jews of Weequahic are dying of polio, the Jews of Europe are being marched to the gas chambers in greater and greater numbers. It is a mark of Roth’s subtlety that Nemesis never insists on reminding us of this. But the fate of the Jews, never far from the surface of Roth’s fiction, is here rendered in a mother’s wail of anguish: “Why is it attacking our beautiful Jewish children?”

Death, duty, the Jews: for fifty-one years and thirty-one books Philip Roth has told us everything he knows about these subjects. Long may he continue.

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Postscript – After this review appeared, a friend emailed me to ask, “Do you know something we don’t?” Apparently I did: two years later, Roth announced his retirement from writing. All I can say is that Nemesis gives off the glow of elegy – it felt, and feels, like Roth’s last word. Roth is still, of course, very much with us. Earlier this year, he popped up in The New Yorker, to say of Donald Trump: “what is most terrifying is that he makes any and everything possible, including, of course, the nuclear catastrophe.”

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