Philip Roth - Nemesis
I'm just reaching the end of Nemesis by Philip Roth, which I borrowed from the library. It is the final short novel of a quartet that began with Everyman, the tale of mortality from its ageing author. The third title was The Humbling, which I also enjoyed, although I've yet to read Indignation, but most who have read it say I'm not missing much. That is far from being the case with Nemesis though. It's so well written; the register perfectly evokes the era, the 1940s, which, whilst complicated in some ways, was much simpler in others - this is reflected in the simplicity of the interior life of Bucky and his relentless earnestness, ripe for pulverising with pestle of life. There seems to be no dark shadows to any of the characters, save for Bucky's long-absent father, a gambler who stole from his job at a department store and who was then kept at bay from his son by Bucky's much-loved maternal grandfather whose nose, we are told, bore the effects of a Jewish immigrant who had to fight in the streets upon his arrival as a youngster. There is no mother either, as Bucky's young mother died in childbirth, and that too seems to hang over the main protagonist, Mr. Cantor, or Bucky as his friends call him. His grandparents, who brought him up, call him Eugene. Despite being referred to as Mr. Cantor, Bucky is just 23 years old, and works as a playground director/sports teacher in Newark. Physical fitness and a manly appearance is important to Bucky, because he is dissatisfied with himself in other ways, his height, his short-sightedness, both of which kept him out of the war with Japan and the Nazis. Yet he is faced with a war at home as polio delivers blow after fatal blow to the young boys in his care. I should add, albeit needlessly as it is Roth we're talking about, that most of the characters are Jewish, in 'Jewish areas'. The main enemy from the outset are the Italians. Ten male Italian teens drive up to the playground where Bucky and his boys are playing sport and launch into a vile spitting fest, with the purpose of giving the Jews the polio that has hit their own area. The fact that Bucky stands his ground and eventually sees the boys off serves to lionise him in the minds of his young charges. Yet he cannot save them as they begin to fall from the disease that has the small-knit New Jersey community in panic. Throughout we see the questioning of god, which again, fitting into the era and the type of earnest young man Bucky is, remains naive and without depth. Nemesis serves as a nifty moral fable - presumably the Newark Jews, lamenting the polio epidemic, won't have long to learn the extent of the horrors inflicted upon their fellow Jews. But Bucky is offered an escape route away from the heat ravaged New Jersey for the country idyll where his fiance, Marcia, the daughter of a doctor no less, is working at an Indian camp for children. Nemesis is a far cry from Roth's richer, more psychologically complex works, such as The Human Stain and American Pastoral, but it is as well written and well-structured. It came as no surprise then, last week he was announced as the prize winner of the International Booker for his body of fiction. He deserves it, given the breadth and range of his fiction, from Portnoy's Complaint onwards. His books may not be classics this time next century, but they have spoken to millions in his own lifetime and that should surely be enough. So why, then, did one of the three Booker judges, Virago founder Carmen Callil, end up resigning from the jury in disgust? Because she obviously did not want him to win, claiming that he writes about the same old thing; that reading his work was like having him sit on one's face - suffocating. One thing Callil is not short on is great imagery. Or perhaps not so great. Vivid, then. Many were quick to claim that Callil's was a feminist reaction - that Roth has hardly portrayed women in the best light throughout his works, but no, Callil claims it was nothing of the sort. So. Roth may never get the Nobel, but the International Booker, with a prize of £60,000, can't be bad. He beat Marilynne Robinson and a few others. I would not have been happy for Robinson to win because, whilst acclaimed, she has written only a few books and the prize is supposed to be for a 'body' of work, not a bone.