Roth’s Last Word, or That of His ‘Nemesis’
Philip Roth was the guest of honor at the YIVO Institute of Jewish Research the night it was announced he won the prestigious Man Booker International Prize for Fiction. Remarks by scholars at that event are excerpted below.
Scars Without End
STEVEN J. ZIPPERSTEIN, Daniel E. Koshland Professor in Jewish culture and history at Stanford University, made the case for Roth’s Jewish preoccupation with community.
In “Nemesis,” much like elsewhere in that astonishing canvas that is Philip Roth’s work, community is something that no credible human being can live with and whose absence tears, scars without end. It seems not insignificant that the greatest of all living novelists to explore the inescapability of aloneness is born of a people that has so resolutely defined itself — for so long — as the quintessence of togetherness. The interplay between the warmth, the nourishment of community and its suffocating, still worse, its vengeful breath is a neighborhood known no less intimately by Roth than the intersections of Newark, N.J.
Community’s embrace stifles, its absence diminishes. There is no closure here, nothing like the close of the Book of Job, the grimmest of all in the biblical canon, where, as Roth seems to feel, God, Job and all else are left to exit far too gingerly, too gaily. There, in the Bible, Job is permitted to die “being old and full of days,” his stock of sheep replenished, his brood of children and grandchildren within reach. In stark contrast, Roth’s Bucky Cantor spends his Sundays alone, eating meals in diners, taking in the occasional movie. No sheep for him, no sheep for the rest of us, either. Roth doesn’t even allow Cantor a healthy dose of wisdom, or repose, or holiness, or anything redemptive, for all the unholy misery he has undergone. Instead, he is left a shell, someone you cross the street to avoid.
It’s here, it seems to me, in Roth’s musings, time and again, on community, the inability to live with it or live without it — it is here that his Jewish preoccupations are most acute, and fertile. Already, long ago, in “Portnoy’s Complaint,” he offered that invaluable insight that nowhere, not even the bathroom, permits privacy, if only because family can stand there, right outside it, just behind that one tenuous barrier separating oneself from its embraces and intrusions offering a stream of advice on defecation, the wiliness of french fries, and the like. I’ve long felt that a link exists between this famous, brilliant scene and Isaac Babel’s in his childhood tale, “The Awakening” (Roth meditates on Babel in “The Ghost Writer”) — with the child in Babel’s story, too, escaping family to the only refuge of albeit imperfect aloneness in his house, the toilet, and where his family, in Odessa, gathers just outside to harangue, to insinuate itself into every pore of the boy’s still unformed being. And then, at the story’s end, he is scooped up, guided through the city’s nighttime streets by his aunt, who holds his hand tight: She does so, the narrator says, “so that I wouldn’t run away. She was right. I was thinking of running away.”
He never does, of course. It is just this moment, this impulse, its allure, more important, its inconceivability to which Babel and Roth return again and again.
Indeed, if one is to look for Roth’s Jewish preoccupations — and one need not look very far — there is nowhere better to see them than in his sense of Jewry’s overheated embraces and exclusions, both born of much the same impulses, which have provided him a splendid prism through which to probe community, its warm bosom, its awful underbelly. Is there another people that praises its achievers, that polices its boundaries, that punishes its miscreants with the fervor, the torrent of righteous indignation meted out, at one or another time, to Roth, or Hannah Arendt, or, for that matter, Richard Goldstone? Is it mere happenstance that Jewry’s entry into modernity is punctuated by the afterglow of Spinoza’s own excommunication from community, the appearance of that solitary person shorn of obligatory fellowship, coolly isolated and whose identity is so indelibly marked by his being, now and always, communally adrift?
“Portnoy’s Complaint”: “They might as well have had plates in their lips and rings through their noses and painted themselves blue for all the human sense they made! Oh and the milchiks and flaishiks besides, all those meshuggeneh rules and regulations on top of their own private craziness! It’s a family joke that when I was a tiny child I turned from the window out of which I was watching a snowstorm, and hopefully asked, ‘Momma, do we believe in winter?’ Do you know what I’m saying? I was raised by Hottentots and Zulus!”
One escapes to the toilet, or to the Berkshires, but the solitary pleasures on offer feel, always, like escape. There is a poignancy, an absence in them and it’s right there in that sense of having lost something that you’d never, ever want to envelope you again, where one finds at least one of the wounds that Roth’s genius has wound itself around, time and again, for half a century now. Biz hundert un tsvantsik, until the age of Moses.
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Polio Prompts Moral Choices
BERNARD AVISHAI, journalist, Hebrew University business professor and author of a forthcoming book about “Portnoy’s Complaint” brings in Arthur Koestler and Albert Camus to help answer some complicated questions: “What is the right thing to do — what is the good? And does doing it, if indeed we can know it, bring happiness?”
These questions are not exactly new. They are also not exactly bad. “Nemesis” raises them rather more starkly, and elegantly, than other books Philip Roth has written. “Nemesis” also adds little twists that Aristotle never quite got to.
Many have understandably compared “Nemesis” to Camus’s “The Plague.” But the book that, I think, better anticipates Roth’s parable of a novel is the little ignored parable of a novel by Arthur Koestler, published in 1943. He called it “Arrival and Departure.”
The story features a young protagonist, Slavek, a student leader from Eastern Europe (we assume Hungary) who escapes the local fascists after they had tortured him brutally, while the Nazis are rolling over Europe. He comes eventually to “Neutralia” (we assume Portugal, the way-station Koestler himself had escaped to). He falls in love with the fetching Odette, who gives him a bliss he had never known. Miraculously, the couple is offered safe passage to America. But Slavek is also given the opportunity to join the British army. What to do?
Slavek finds himself so torn between, on the one hand, assuming his share of the responsibility for fighting the Nazis and, on the other, escaping into some private American contentment, that he suffers hysterical paralysis of his leg.
Compare this to “Nemesis” where it is 1944 in Newark, and there is a polio epidemic. Bucky Cantor, 23, 4-F, precocious, sees his buddies going off to do what Slavek had determined to do. At first he stays on the job, devoted, coaching febrile, vulnerable boys in the city. And here is the greatest parallel with “The Plague.” Mr. Cantor is sticking to his post, just like Dr. Rieux, and, also like Rieux, his wards start dying. Bucky’s girlfriend, Marcia, is at a distant summer camp and urges him to join her — a prelude to engagement and the embrace of her loving family. He refuses.
But something happens. In what seems a spur of the moment decision, an effort to be happy as Americans are happy, a reluctant concession that all are victims of an epidemic no one controls or is responsible for — Bucky does join her. Dr. Rieux tells us that we don’t need heroism to fight the plague, only common decency. (Bucky’s disappointed boss seems to feel the same way.) But the wrong thing in Rieux’s case, actually and metaphorically, was pretty obvious: fighting a plague or Nazi occupation. It is not so clear what good Bucky does. And Rieux’s notion of common decency takes for granted uncommon valor. Should this be expected of Bucky?
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The Classification Of Roth’s Novels
IGOR WEBB, professor of English at Adelphi University, structured his talk around four questions. The first of these was: “How does Nemesis fit into the body of Philip Roth’s work?”
Roth has gone a long way toward answering this question. On the page preceding the title page of “Nemesis,” he lays out a neat Linnaean classification of his many novels. At the top are listed the Zuckerman books, beginning with his great novella “The Ghost Writer” and ending with “The Human Stain” and “Exit Ghost.” Toward the bottom is a new grouping, now titled Nemeses, including “Everyman,” “The Humbling,” and, of course, “Nemesis.” There’s a kind of reversal of thematic focus in Roth’s classification system as you go from the top to the bottom: at the top are the books about the frequently extremely funny quarrel between the second and the first generations, books about choice and radical autonomy in the everything-goes US of A; but starting with “American Pastoral,” increasingly you come across books about living out what you don’t and can’t choose. Roth emphasizes this shift by giving “The Human Stain,” for example, an epigraph from “Oedipus the King,” and now classifying his recent works under the name of the most vengeful Greek goddess, a merciless and implacable enemy of human choice.
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Engaging With Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde
JONATHAN BRENT, executive director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, offered a muscular defense of “Nemesis,” Philip Roth’s most recent volume, as “a deeply Proustian narrative of remembrance and loss in which the invisible power of the past takes its vengeance upon a 5-foot-4, short-sighted, earnest and physically powerful young man of limited imagination but innocent and good intentions.”
Arnie invents Mr. Cantor as his anti-self, his Mr. Hyde to Arnie’s Dr. Jekyll. Mr. Cantor is the hidden, though he is all hide, all body — a powerful, compact physical presence. He is the paradox of the invisible, the rage Arnie has forgotten, the absolute force of the past that destroys tenderness, the uncompromising voice of centuries of suffering and truth-seeking that is not interested in forgetting “the hand you’ve been dealt” or in keeping “to our estimates and [holding] prices down.” He is that within which passeth show and breaks the normal world to pieces. Arnie must invent him because he cannot be him.
The moral choice in “Nemesis” is not between Arnie’s compromising normality and happiness and Mr. Cantor’s hidden rage and withered self. The novel does not present the reader with a choice at all. Rather, it is an awakening in the reader that one reality is inextricably bound up with the other as Ahab was with the White Whale, as Dr. Jekyll was with Mr. Hyde.
Mr. Cantor leaves Arnie with the thought: “Let’s hope their merciful God will have blessed them… before He sticks His shiv in their back.”
There is no escape in Roth’s vision of Nemesis from the “stab from behind” or the “shiv in the back.” Arnie knows this but cannot speak it. Why? Because of his wife’s tenderness, his children’s love, his desire to hold down prices — all the outward, normal, decent things one should want and have. Mr. Cantor himself knows this when he quiets the frustrated and panicked parents by telling them, “The important thing is to keep everything in [the boys’] lives as normal as possible and… to stay reasonable and calm.”
Mr. Cantor is the unspeakable self Arnie can only imagine. The terms of his moral struggle are not that his uncompromising conscience condemns him for doing something he shouldn’t do despite ignorance or desire. Nor is he the Marquis de Sade of the id. Mr. Cantor believes in decency and the moral life; he wants them above all things. Nor does Mr. Cantor resemble Oedipus (with whom he has been compared in some reviews). He does not, in fact, murder his father or sleep with his mother or bring down the plague on his city. He only imagines that he does. His conscience condemns him not for doing something he shouldn’t do, but for doing something he should. Arnie says that Mr. Cantor no longer has a conscience he can live with — and this is true not because it is a bad conscience, but because it is an invented one, one with which he has been infected by time and circumstance, by history and by the imagination of who he is. It is his imagination of himself that traps him and will never let him go. He cannot free himself from his own creation. The power of imagination is what gives his “Nemesis” its avenging cruelty and this is why Mr. Cantor is, and will always remain, in the novel’s last word, “invincible.”
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