Philip Roth in New York

A vigorous pleasure: four very strong and mutually contradictory readings of Philip Roth’s recent Nemesis at the Yivo Institute, followed by a few minutes with the author (link here).

Roth’s coda to the events at Yivo was a time-stopping reading of the last four pages of Nemesis, in which the hero, a sports instructor named Bucky Cantor, throws a javelin for a clutch of city boys. The reading itself arced over the preceding gladiatorial show with effortless grace.  Bucky’s “lightly held javelin” recalled nothing so much as the voice of his creator, holding his classical tupos in the light grip of a Newark late-afternoon.

We were startled that none of the commentators, who addressed themselves with capacious cultural range to the strictly bound moral universe of Nemesis, dwelled on its tonal departure from the Roth we have known, for whom, over the years, to varying degrees, human destiny is as often subject to anarchic forces of desire and rebellion as moral calculation. To this reader, Nemesis was less a moral argument than the unspooling of a hypothesis: were a character able to act according to his own best nature, what would transpire? How would he sound and feel to his creator?  How would a story collect around him? Mr. Cantor knows few moments of abandon.  The novel’s one erotic consummation is quite deliberate and, for Roth, coy. And yet it would be hard to say whether fate or his own nature disposes of him more mercilessly.  To me Nemesis is not the greatest Roth, in which centrifugal forces are whipped up by story and language and character like a primal wind.  Mr. Cantor is not large enough to hold all that Roth can make. (As Mr. Cantor lifts the javelin Roth describes every item of his musculature, but stops at his neck.)  Yet it is a remarkable feat of self-witholding, a very delicate construction of elements forcibly minimized, reduced to a kind of hieroglyphic human situation, presented for a moment of pure reflection.  Yivo’s old-fashioned disputandem, in which all the parts are vigorously scrutinized, only to be trumped by the ineffable harmonies of the whole, was the best sort of gloss one could hope for in real-time literary experience.

Read Nemesis for yourself!

Here’s Coetzee, another writer in whom the coolness of analysis contends with chaos, on the subject.

And for that other Roth: the great Sabbath’s Theater.


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