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Angry old man

Ecce Homo Erectus. Saul Bellow, John Updike … at 77, Philip Roth is the last of three giants still standing; and he actually does stand to write, at a lectern-like desk — scriptern? This verticality is crucial to his ideas of self and spirit, and is fully evident in his fiction, which is nothing if not erect.

9 October 2010

12:00 AM

9 October 2010

12:00 AM

Nemesis Philip Roth

Cape, pp.280, 16.99

Ecce Homo Erectus. Saul Bellow, John Updike … at 77, Philip Roth is the last of three giants still standing; and he actually does stand to write, at a lectern-like desk — scriptern? This verticality is crucial to his ideas of self and spirit, and is fully evident in his fiction, which is nothing if not erect.

Ecce Homo Erectus. Saul Bellow, John Updike … at 77, Philip Roth is the last of three giants still standing; and he actually does stand to write, at a lectern-like desk — scriptern? This verticality is crucial to his ideas of self and spirit, and is fully evident in his fiction, which is nothing if not erect.

By any standard, let alone his own, his 31st novel is exceptionally chaste, and its erections are not the sort one expects from the author of Portnoy’s Complaint and Sabbath’s Theatre. His subject in Nemesis is still more literal and elemental: the act, skill, habit and capability of standing, and such threats to it as war and disease.

The story is brief, and extremely sad. In July 1944 Bucky Cantor is ‘the new phys ed teacher’ at Chancellor Avenue School, in Weequahic, Newark, New Jersey. Athletic, decent and reliable, he is ‘articulate enough, but with barely a trace of wit’, and has ‘never in his life … spoken satirically or with irony’.


Unable to join his best friends fighting in Normandy, having been classified 4-F for his poor vision, Cantor finds himself fighting another battle, in the equatorial heat of Weequahic, against a polio epidemic. His baseball teams run out of players, and the hospital runs out of iron lungs:

His girlfriend Marcia Steinberg, who is working as a counsellor at Indian Hill, a summer camp for Jewish children in the mountains of Pennsylvania, persuades him to join her there, working in clean air with healthy children. I won’t spoil it by revealing the outcome, but it is devastating, and stands as a coda to an argument Roth has been conducting for the past half-century with his people and their God.

He made his name in 1959, with a short story in the New Yorker, ‘Defender of the Faith’, about a Jewish army recruit in the second world war who tries to wangle special treatment out of his Jewish sergeant. It brought him mainstream attention, but alienated him from his home base, the Jewish academic and literary establishments, who lambasted him for what they saw as a betrayal. Apparently chastened, he wrote some obediently non-contentious stories, but the rebuke evidently rankled. Biding his time, he seems to have said to himself, ‘Offence? You want offence?’ And the result was Portnoy’s Complaint:

Forty years on, Portnoy is still outrageous. The offence it provoked at the time was so fierce that it drove Roth out of New York and into the wilds of Connecticut, where he has lived ever since, an outcast prophet. And it duly inspired one of the great comic monsters, his Gargantuan alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, that much persecuted man of wrath.

Zuckerman’s travails are symphonic, while Cantor’s make more of a chamber piece. His argument with God derives ultimately from Job, and was given modern definition by Voltaire: how can a loving and omnipotent deity permit hellish suffering? Cantor thinks God is ‘a cold-blooded murderer of children’, and prefers pagan worship (a feature of life at Indian Hill, liberally borrowed from Ernest Thompson Seton’s books about Native American woodcraft) to Judaism:

Roth is best known for sex and jokes, and Nemesis features neither, but it is a masterly performance none the less: an angry kaddish, or furious act of mourning, as deft and subtle in its construction as it is wrenchingly violent emotionally. Unmistakably a late work, it recalls Beethoven’s Op. 127.


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