Nemesis by Philip Roth

by |October 3, 2010

A new book by Philip Roth is worth noting. Reviewers certainly take note. Watch as they rush in to offer their opinion of a novel many literate people will read regardless of the reviews it attracts. When a reviewer says of a new novel by Philip Roth, it’s not his best or, he has written better novels, we know what they mean – if this was offered to us as the work of a debut novelist we would be jumping up and down with excitement, proclaiming the emergence of a new giant of literature.

This is the problem of greatness. You are your own standard.

There are people out there who have never heard of Philip Roth. A review of his latest book may be the first time his name has been brought to their attention. A review which suggests that his latest is not as good as past work may give the wrong impression. Such reviews should really contain a obligatory message – The very worst of Philip Roth’s novels are better than the best of many of the worlds most renowned writers.

On lighter note: Those who recently read Roth for the first time when the ABCs First Tuesday Book Club choose to read Portnoy’s Complaint may be interested to find that not all of Roth’s novels describe the life of a chronic masturbator! (Some, however, I have just realised, may well be disappointed on learning this.)

Here are some the recent reviews of Nemesis.

Reviewed in The Independent by Matt Thorne:

Nemesis has a distinctly unpromising set-up. The bulk of the novel takes place in the summer of 1944, and concerns a sporty man, Bucky Cantor, who has become a playground director in Newark, New Jersey.

When a polio epidemic breaks out among the children, Cantor is determined, against the wishes of his girlfriend and family, to stay and protect his charges. The first two-thirds are in the most direct prose Roth has ever written.

The book reads like non-fiction, with Roth seeming to only lightly tweak history, shaping events into the vaguest of narratives, deliberately underplaying scenes and eschewing any strong sense of plot. The only incident that provides any real dramatic purpose concerns a possible reason for the outbreak, when a group of Italians show up at the playground and threaten that they are going to spread polio by More…

Reviewed in The Guardian by Christopher Tayler:

Philip Roth’s recent novels have often gestured playfully towards the idea of a serene late style. Simon Axler in The Humbling (2009) broods on Prospero’s “Our revels now are ended” speech from The Tempest; Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s most famous mask, sets a scene in Exit Ghost (2007) to Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs – music chosen “for the profundity that is achieved not by complexity but by clarity and simplicity . . . The composer drops all masks and, at the age of 82, stands before you naked. And you dissolve.” Do these references mean that Roth, who is now 77, is abjuring furious artifice for a sage-like calm? Of course not. Late Roth has more in common with the late Ibsen described in an essay by Edward Said: “An angry and disturbed artist who uses drama as an occasion to stir up more anxiety, tamper irrevocably with the possibility of closure, leave the audience more perplexed and unsettled than before.” Said called this kind of style, which he found deeply interesting, a “deliberately unproductive productiveness, a going against”. More…

Reviewed in The Telegraph by Tim Martin:

Roth is now 77, and his late flowering of work has been one of the best surprises in modern American literature: at least four of the 12 books he published after turning 60 in 1993 are commonly hailed as among his finest, and for the past five years he has published a book each autumn, a rate of productivity that puts writers half his age to shame. More…

Here’s what the publisher has to say about Nemesis

An absolutely brilliant new novel by one of the world’s great writers…

In ‘the stifling heat of equatorial Newark’, a terrifying epidemic is raging, threatening the children of the New Jersey city with maiming, paralysis, life-long disability, even death. This is the startling and surprising theme of Roth’s wrenching new book: a wartime polio epidemic in the summer of 1944 and the effect it has on a closely-knit, family-oriented Newark community and its children.

At the centre of Nemesis is a vigorous, dutiful, twenty-three-year old playground director, Bucky Cantor, a javelin thrower and a weightlifter, who is devoted to his charges and disappointed with himself because his weak eyes have excluded him from serving in the war alongside his contemporaries. Focusing on Cantor’s dilemmas as polio begins to ravage his playground – and on the everyday realities he faces – Roth leads us through every inch of emotion such a pestilence can breed: the fear, the panic, the anger, the bewilderment, the suffering, and the pain.

Moving between the smouldering, malodorous streets of besieged Newark and Indian Hill, a pristine children’s summer camp high in the Poconos – whose ‘mountain air was purified of all contaminants’ – Roth depicts a decent, energetic man with the best intentions struggling in his own private war against the epidemic. Roth is tenderly exact at every point about Cantor’s passage into personal disaster and no less exact about the condition of childhood.

Through this story runs the dark question that haunts all four of Roth’s late short novels, Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling, and now, Nemesis: what choices fatally shape a life? How powerless is each of us up against the force of circumstances?

In 1997, PHILIP ROTH won the Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral. In 1998 he received the National Medal of Arts at the White House and in 2002 the highest award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Gold Medal in Fiction. He has twice won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has won the PEN/Faulkner Award three times. In 2005 The Plot Against America received the Society of American Historians’ Prize for ‘the outstanding historical novel on an American theme for 2003–2004’. Recently Roth received PEN’s two most prestigious prizes: in 2006 the PEN/Nabokov Award and in 2007 the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for achievement in American fiction. Roth is the only living American writer to have his work published in a comprehensive, definitive edition by the Library of America.

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About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.

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