Archive for the ‘Roth, Philip (2)’ Category

Nemesis, by Philip Roth

December 1, 2010

Purchased from

Please grant me the privilege of backing into the review of this exceptional novel. I was born in 1948 and part of my earliest memories as a child are centred on polio, or rather, trying to avoid polio. Jonas Salk had not yet discovered his vaccine (that would come in 1955) so the threat of polio was very much part of my growing up — as I am sure it was for everyone of a similar age. I can remember as a child getting the first “jab” and how delighted my parents were — selfishly, I remember even better the first sugar cube with vaccine on it which was way better than a “jab” as far as I was concerned. And I will admit that, decades later, when Mrs. KfC and I lived only yards away from the Watson Institute in Sewickley, PA where Salk did his first tests, I was humbled by living so close to a location where something so important had been tested.

For those who weren’t there, polio wasn’t just having your mother say “don’t go to the swimming pool” or “be careful of anyone who coughs”; the experience was very much one of the world suddenly changing without warning. A best friend at Sunday School was, the next Sunday, no longer there — Luke had contracted “polio” and was in an “iron lung” and not at school and if he survived he would probably never walk again. When you are six years old, that is a bit of a shock. Welcome to the real world, Kevin. I don’t think there is any modern comparison (thankfully). This was a disease that stalked children (well, adults too, but we didn’t know that) and nobody knew how it happened or what could be done to stop it.

Philip Roth’s Nemesis is set a decade or so ahead of my experience, in Newark, New Jersey in 1944, but it vividly brought to my mind my own childhood. There is a war going on (actually two, considering both the European and Pacific fronts), but in Newark that summer the threat is neither the Nazis nor the Japanese, it is the epidemic that is striking the city’s children. While the global war is never absent from this short novel, the local war against whatever this polio is is what dominated concern.

Bucky Cantor is the 23-year-old playground director in the mainly Jewish area of Weequahic. His bad eyes have kept him out of the Armed Forces, despite his attempts to enlist. And as summer arrives, so does the “polio season”. You had to be there to appreciate this — summer was not just welcome warm weather, it was the paralyzing threat of polio, with all of the restrictions and threats that that involved. Weequahic has escaped things, so far. Mr. Cantor’s work (one of the attractive traits of this book is the way Roth uses different ways of naming his central character to indicate his status of the moment) has been disrupted by the arrival of two carloads of Italians from the East Side, where there have been a number of cases:

“What do you fellows want here?” Mr. Cantor said.

“We’re spreadin’ polio,” one of the Italians replied. He was the one who’d come swaggering out of the cars first. “Ain’t that right?” he said, turning to preen for the cohorts backing him up, who appeared right off to Mr. Cantor to be only too eager to begin a brawl.

“You look more like you’re spreading trouble,” Mr. Cantor told him. “Why don’t you head out of here?”

“No, no,” the Italian guy insisted, “not till we spread some polio. We got it and you don’t, so we thought we’d drive up and spread a little around.” All the while he talked, he rocked back and forth on his heels to indicate how tough he was. The brazen ease of his thumbs tucked into the front two loops of his trousers served no less than his gaze to register his contempt.

“I’m playground director here,” Mr. Cantor said, pointing back over his shoulder towards us kids. “I’m asking you to leave the vicinity of the playground. You’ve got no business here and I’m asking you politely to go. What do you say?”

“Since when is there a law against spreadin’ polio, Mr. Playground Director?”

“Look, polio is not a joke. And there’s a law against being a public nuisance. I don’t want to have to call the police. How about leaving on your own, before I get the cops to escort you out of here?”

My apologies for the length of that excerpt, but it speaks to the amazing eloquence of the entire novel. That exchange, read in 2010, seems ludicrous — let me assure you, in the times where the novel is set, it is a portrayal of high realism. And it is only one of dozens that I could pull from this amazing novel.

The first case of polio soon strikes in Weequahic. Was it the Italians who visited the playground? Is it the highly-polluted air of the neighborhood? Or perhaps the hot dog shop where a number of the victims had eaten? Or the lack of quarantine of effected houses? Maybe all the kids getting together — and sweating — at the playground? No one knows, but everyone has an opinion. Nothing is beyond suspicion.

Roth introduces all those possiblities in the first half of the novel and every single one of them brought back memories. Can you imagine, as a six or seven year old, what it is like to know that there is a life-threatening demon lurking out there and you have absolutely no idea what form it might take or how it might “get” you? Roth is a master of language and of controlling emotion and he builds this scenario with incredible skill — I felt like he had been there in my childhood, even though what he was describing was a decade earlier and a thousand miles away.

As Playground Director, Bucky is both concerned and guilted when a number of his charges are struck by the disease, a couple fatally. Surely there was something he could, or should, have done? He attends their funerals and the guilt that is laid on him there only makes things worse — is he part of the problem? The number of his charges is steadily shrinking as parents keep their children at home — but he still wonders just what his responsibility was, or is.

Which is where Roth takes this novel in a different direction at the halfway point and turns it into a more traditional work (and does that very well, I must say). Bucky has a girl friend, Marcia, a fellow teacher in his school-year job at the grade school. She is the daughter of a doctor and comes from a family much better connected than Bucky’s grandparents who have raised him. Marcia has a job at a summer camp — Indian Hill — in the Poconos in nearby Pennsylvania. The waterfront director has just been drafted and there is an opening which is perfectly suited for Bucky. The job has a lot of attractions, not the least being the idea that isolated, fresh air locations like the Poconos are supposedly polio-free. Oh, and there is also an island where he and Marcia would have some privacy.

It is at this point that Nemesis became, for me, more a novel than a reminder of childhood — and Roth made the transition perfectly. Bucky does go to Indian Hill and the novel enters a whole new dimension. He has a wonderful time, but is plagued by guilt throughout. And yes (SPOILER) he does contract polio while he is there, setting up the kind of conclusion that readers expect from a writer as talented as Philip Roth.

A number of readers whom I respect regard Roth as the best of living American authors — I can’t disagree, but I am less entranced than they are with his major works. On the other hand, I would say that Nemeses, the collected title he has designated for his latest four works (of which this novel is the last), represents an exceptional author at his very best. For me, the short novel (all of these four can be easily read in one sitting) draws out the best of Roth — and leaves him no room for what he is not good at. The four novels — Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling and Nemesis — are all exceptional, a writer at the very top of his game.

There is no doubt that my personal experience has colored my opinion of this book and I do not apologize for that. Indeed, for those of you who are not yet in your 60s, you need to read this to understand what those of us who are went through as children. I do feel indebted to an author who has brought back memories of my childhood so forcefully and effectively. And, for those who have disputed my previous concerns about Roth, I must admit I will be going back to his previous work for a reread with a whole new attitude. I think I might have missed something the first time around.


Blog Tribute #3, The Mookse and the Gripes: The Humbling, by Philip Roth

December 4, 2009

Purchased at

It will come as no surprise to regular visitors here that The Mookse and the Gripes was one of the blogs that inspired me — Trevor Berrett joined this year’s Shadow Giller Jury as our international judge (and has signed up for next as well) and excerpts from his reviews of the Giller shortlist have been featured here in recent weeks. Trevor lives in New Jersey and works in New York and has served as my primary blog source on American literature for the last while. He is also very interested in works in translation — if that fits your style, be sure to check out his blog as he has lined up a number of publishers and regularly features posts on new works which rarely get reviewed in conventional sources.

I owe Trevor a debt of gratitude for re-introducing me to Philip Roth, whom he recently characterized as “one of my favorite writers — he might even be my favorite.” I’ll go out on a limb and say he is the favorite — Trevor has produced reviews on 12 Roth books (including this one, you can find them all here) in 18 months, which would seem to indicate a high level of dedication to the author. I’ve read a fair bit of Roth but in a very undisciplined fashion and some recent bad experiences had soured me on the writer who seems to be on virtually every shortlist of “best living American author”. Trevor’s enthusiastic support convinced me to give Roth another chance and I read two recent titles — Everyman and Indignation — both of which I found more than worthwhile. So I was looking forward to this fall’s release of The Humbling. I was not disappointed; indeed it is an outstanding piece of work.

Roth tends to write novels in bunches (the nine Zuckerman novels, the three Kepesh books, for example) and The Humbling joins Everyman and Indignation in a loosely-connected four book project (Nemesis is due out next fall). The unifying element here is not a character but rather — so far at least — the idea of looking at mortality from different points of view. The books are short, almost novellas (this one is 140 pages of well-spaced, largish type), but for this reader at least that becomes a major strength — Roth doesn’t waste a single word and the need to keep his action focused serves him well.

The Humbling features 65-year-old stage actor Simon Axler, who is coming off disastrous performances as Macbeth and Prospero at the Kennedy Center — performances so bad that even those who didn’t see them are mocking him. “He’d lost his magic”, the book begins:

Of course, if you’ve had it, you always have something unlike anyone else’s. I’ll always be unlike anyone else, Axler told himself, because I am who I am. I carry that with me — that people will always remember. But the aura he’d had, all his mannerisms and eccentricities and personal peculiarities, what had worked for Falstaff and Peer Gynt and Vanya — what had gained Simon Axler his reputation as the last of the best of the classical American stage actors — none of it worked for any role now. All that had worked to make him himself now worked to make him look like a lunatic. He was conscious of every moment he was on stage in the worst possible way. In the past when he was acting he wasn’t thinking about anything. What he did well he did out of instinct. Now he was thinking about everything and everything spontaneous and vital was killed — he tried to control it with thinking and instead he destroyed it.

I’ve hung around the theatre world a bit and that paragraph pretty much summarizes how a stage acting career comes to an end (a very good friend, Eugene Stickland, actually wrote a play (“Queen Lear”) about it that I described in a post here). Roth has never written a play, but he obviously knows the stage world well — this novel, in fact, is structured in three “acts” that make it a virtual play.

Dealing with Axler’s realization that his acting end has arrived is Act One. His career has extended for more than four decades, despite no formal training. He was truly born to be an actor and he knows it:

It had started with people speaking to him. He couldn’t have been more than three or four when he was already mesmerized by speaking and being spoken to. He had felt he was in a play from the outset. He could use intensity of listening, concentration, as lesser actors used fireworks. He had that power offstage, too, particularly, when younger, with women who did not realize they had a story until he revealed to them that they had a story, a voice, and a style belonging to no other. They became actresses with Axler, they became the heroines of their own lives.

If you get the chance to see an outstanding stage actor (not screen), watch for that “intensity of listening”. It is what distinguishes the great from the merely adequate. Alas, there is a flip-side to this natural power: if playing a role is an extension of life behavior, living a life risks becoming the playing of a role. As he contemplates his dilemma, Axler ponders suicide (Roth lists 17 plays that Axler has appeared in that involve suicides and that is only a start). He is still quick-witted enough to check himself into a psychiatric institution and in his 26-day stay there rediscovers his ability to listen. But that too has potential tragic consequences, because he takes to sitting with the group of failed suicides who discuss their “experience” each evening and eventually joins the discussion:

One evening Axler spoke up — to perform, he realized, before his largest audience since he had given up acting. “Suicide is the role you write for yourself,” he told them. “You inhabit it and you enact it. All carefully staged — where they will find you and how they will find you.” Then he added, “But for one performance only.”

In true dramatic tradition, Act Two (“The Transformation”) starts by heading off in what seems to be a completely different direction. Axler returns from his institutional stay to his farm in upstate New York and is visited by Peegan Mike, the 40-year-old daughter of old acting friends. Axler and her parents were in a production of “Playboy of the Western World” when her mother was pregnant — if you don’t know the play, her odd name comes from the female lead in Synge’s play.

Peegan has been a lesbian for 17 years, but the two connect with suspicious immediacy and she makes love with a man for the first time since college on her visit. The two quickly grow closer, she abandons her lesbian lover and they enter a serious relationship despite the risk that the 25 year gap in ages entails. Axler’s re-found ability to listen and only then react is central to making the relationship grow.

It has its challenges. Peegan’s ex-lover is also her boss, the dean at a nearby college, who wants no part of their relationship ending. The dean loses it and eventually phones Peegan’s parents (now working at a theatre in the mid-West) who don’t like the idea of the new relationship at all. While they have at least come to terms with idea of a lesbian daughter, the prospect of one starting up a relationship with a 65-year-old male, recently institutionalized (“crazy”), is beyond them. Axler, for his part, can’t understand the notion of a 40-year-old who is still in thrall to her parents, but he applies his listening skills to Peegan’s concerns. Even worse, it begins to dawn on him that not only is he playing a role, it is merely a supporting one.

I’ve already revealed that The Humbling is a tragedy, so this review will skip details of Part Three. Let’s just say that Roth has sewn a wealth of seeds in the first two “acts” of his book and they all come to maturity in the final act. A quote from Axler’s role as Prospero (which appears on Page 7) is detail enough:

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors, / As I foretold you, were all spirits and / Are melted into air, into thin air.”

The Humbling is an exceptional book — like a good play, it only takes two hours from start to finish, but engages the reader in every minute of those two hours. And, as playgoers know, when you leave a good production of a good play the experience has only started — when you close the cover on this book, the power of Roth’s own accomplishment has only begun.

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