Friday, 5 June 2015

The last novel of Philip Roth

Full title: Nemesis
Author: Philip Roth
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 304 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2010)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

When Philip Roth declared, in 2012, that he had given up writing, Nemesis had been the last novel published under his name (2010). So far, he has kept his promise, and by the looks of it he’s just as determined to shut his creativity shop as he was, in the past, determined to write like there was no tomorrow. So now, knowing that this is his last novel, Nemesis has the aura of a closure. But truth being said, there is nothing in it that suggests some end-of-the-road proclamation. So I believe we need to get back to where it all started, i.e. back to the novel itself, and read it as it should be: as a novel with only itself to stand by.
Nemesis is a book of hostilities. Set in 1944, when Europe and the Pacific were being blown to small pieces by WW2, it follows closely the brief career of Bucky Cantor, a teacher and playground director in a Newark Jewish community. What’s singular about Bucky Cantor is that he has the ill luck of being contemporary with an epidemic of polio. Roth follows at a painstakingly slow pace the evolution of the illness, which makes the account all the more appalling. Kids disfigured, reduced to having to breathe through machines, with their limbs twisted and paralyzed, the children under Bucky Cantor’s care enter the stage and leave it as if they had never existed, casualties in a war without weapons. We get a quick glimpse of them and then they’re no more.
Several characters in the novel make the obvious connection between the Jewish origins of this community and the historical destiny of the Jews at large, especially at the time of the then-unfolding WW2, when the concentration camps in Europe were still running. As Dr. Steinberg, one of the prominent figures in the community, declares, the destiny of those children killed by polio was equal to the greater destiny of the Jews in the world, and that in its turn was equal to the destiny of humanity in general:
”I’m against the frightening of Jewish kids. I’m against the frightening of Jews, period. That was Europe, that’s why Jews fled. This is America. The less fear the better. Fear unmans us. Fear degrades us.”
Bucky is conscious of the weight of this destiny and the power of this fear. He sees, around him, parents growing paranoid, impatient, and unfair. Some get as far as screaming out, with the power of a slogan: “Disinfect everything!” Others, confronted with this implacable destiny that seems to be unwilling to take any prisoners, find consolation in the pathetic illusion that salvation can come from signs:
“Where is the quarantine sign? People have been coming and going from upstairs, in and out, in and out, and why isn’t there a quarantine sign? I have small children. Why isn’t there a quarantine sign protecting my children?”
The panic grows continuously, and Bucky Cantor is a hopeless witness of the growing devastation. Caught in the centre of the epidemic, he finds it his duty to stay and fight the right fight to the end. But there’s a fiancé as well; she is in a holiday camp away from the polio catastrophe, and she insists that he join her. Bucky gives in and he leaves the city at a time when the epidemic had already reached biblical proportions. But once in the safe haven of the Pocono Mountains, where everything is bucolic and out of harm’s way, he starts having second thoughts. He is in a constant strife with himself: a man overcome by his own morality, a teacher with the constitution of a hero but the fortune of an apostate. He comes out of all this scarred for life, a victim with a story to tell.

Philip Roth. Source: The Reader's Room
Bucky’s tragedy is that everything for him works the other way round. He is not like the others. He is an orphan whose mother died giving birth to him. His father, a thief, disappeared from his life when he was too young to even notice him. He is athletic by nature, fully prepared to face the world, but because of his poor eyesight he is not accepted in the army, and so, fails to enlist in America’s wars against Germany and Japan. While others his age are fighting in a real war, he is caught up in this fake, humiliating, war against polio, which is far crueller, more unfair, and less glorious than any other war he can imagine. And while those who have fought the honourable fights come home, he finds himself on a hospital bed, ridden with polio, more wounded in his soul and more maimed in his body than those who had seen Normandy or Pearl Harbor.
Bucky’s tragedy is the tragedy of someone who’s never been given the chance to become a hero.
He is engaged in very many battles, but each of them seem to be the wrong one. He battles polio when everyone else is battling the Germans or the Japanese. He battles god when everyone else is battling destiny. He battles his own demons when everyone else has an external cause to fight for. Bucky is always misplaced, always at the mercy of an incoherent fate:
“Sometimes you’re lucky and sometimes you’re not. Any biography is chance, and, beginning at conception, chance – the tyranny of contingency – is everything. Chance is what I believed Mr. Cantor meant when he was decrying what he called God.”
Because God, indeed, is an uncomfortable notion for Bucky: the entity he blames for the entire disaster, for the polio as well as for for everything else. God, a fixation that hurts, an obsession that insists on meaning nothing reasonable:
“His conception of God was of an omnipotent being who was a union not of three persons in one Godhead, as in Christianity, but of two – a sick fuck and an evil genius.”
This gives the novel an air of revenge. If anything, Philip Roth's last novel is a book about the unfairness of the world, about heroism that just doesn't happen, and also about the failure of an ideology based on patriotism and duty. America at its most vulnerable: this is the working topic of Nemesis.