9.10.10

J. M. Coetzee on Philip Roth's Nemesis

Coetzee explores the theme of mortality in Philip Roth's latest novel
Philip Roth in New York City with an old map of Newark, 2007
J. M. Coetzee reviews Nemesis, the latest novel by American writer Philip Roth, in the New York Review of Books:
In a 2008 interview, Philip Roth mentioned that he had been rereading The Plague. Now he has published Nemesis, set in Newark in the polio summer of 1944 (19,000 cases nationwide), thereby placing himself in a line of writers who have used the plague condition to explore the resolve of human beings and the durability of their institutions under attack by an invisible, inscrutable, and deadly force. In this respect—as Defoe, Camus, and Roth are aware—the plague condition is simply a heightened state of the condition of being mortal.

Eugene “Bucky” Cantor is a physical education instructor at a public school. Because of poor eyesight he has been exempted from the draft. He is ashamed of his good fortune and tries to pay for it by giving the children in his charge every care and attention. In return the children adore him, particularly the boys.

Bucky is twenty-three years old, levelheaded, dutiful, and scrupulously honest. Though not an intellectual, he thinks about things. He is a Jew, but an indifferent practitioner of his religion.

Polio breaks out in Newark and is soon sweeping through the Jewish section. Amid the general panic Bucky stays calm. Convinced that what children need in time of crisis is stability, he organizes a sports program for the boys and continues to run it against the doubts of the community, even when some of the boys begin to sicken and die. To set an example of human solidarity in the face of the plague, he openly shakes hands with the local simpleton, who is shunned by the boys as a carrier. (“Smell him!… He has shit all over him!… He’s the one who’s carrying the polio!”) In private Bucky rails against the “lunatic cruelty” of a God who kills innocent children.

Bucky has a girlfriend, Marcia, also a teacher, who is away helping run a summer camp in the mountains of Pennsylvania. Marcia puts pressure on Bucky to flee the infected city and join her in her haven. He resists. On the home front as much as in Normandy or the Pacific, he feels, these are extraordinary times calling for extraordinary sacrifice. Nonetheless, one day his principles inexplicably collapse. Yes, he says, he will come to her; he will abandon his boys and save himself. “How could he have done what he’d just done?” he asks himself the moment he hangs up. He has no answer. [Read more (Spoiler Warning: Reveals plot twists)]

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