Lewis Jones

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.

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.

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