About Me

This weekly blog is a record of my own reading and my reflections on the books that I have read. The opinions expressed will be necessarily partial and reflect only my own enthusiasms or dislikes. The reviews will cover an eclectic mix of world literature, chiefly English and American although there will also be works in translation from the main European and South American writers. Many of the works will be recently published but I also read widely from the last one hundred and fifty years. There will be no coherent pattern to what appears but it will be predominantly fiction, although not exclusively. I hope to be able to share my own thoughts and ideas about works that you may or may not have read and would welcome opinions on my comments as well as recommendations for further reading.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

‘The Visible World’ Mark Slouka


Woven around the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi governor of Czechoslovakia, in the summer of 1942 ‘The Visible World’ is an unusual novel about exile, heroism and, most poignantly, a son’s attempt to understand his parents’ sadly dysfunctional marriage. Slouka’s narrator is the child of Czech émigrés growing up in Queens in the 1950’s but the novel is constructed with unconventional formal properties. It is firstly a memoir of exile and childhood then a journey of investigation as the narrator travels to Prague after the suicide of his mother and the death of his father and finally it turns out to be a novel within a novel as the narrator harnesses his own imaginative powers to create a fictional account of how his parents came to be married and why there was such a hollowness at the heart of the marriage.

Growing up in Queens the child’s life was full of stories from the old country, tales of the Czech forests inhabited by magical creatures, as well as curiously incomplete stories of his parents’ Czech friends and how they survived the war. In spite of his father’s great efforts to integrate into American life the narrator is left with with a strong sense of belonging elsewhere “it was not that what they had lost had been better or more beautiful than what they had found here, just that it had been theirs and it had been lost.” His mother it appears seemed to suffer from an even greater sense of loss, but a loss that is never fully explained to the ever questioning child. Eventually his mother, after years of emotional withdrawal, walks in front of a bus. “She left no phone message, no note; no taped cassette on the dining room table. Just a casserole dish half-filled with ashes and a few feathery bits of letter paper. I poked around in the ashes with the eraser end of a pencil. Along the edge of a blackened peace of blue Luftpost paper I made out the words ‘I still’ and that was all.”

The narrator knows that his mother was in some way connected to the assassination of Heydrich and possibly his father too. “I asked my father if he had ever been a hero. He said ‘no, not even close to one’, and because he was my father I believed him.” Nor had the mother been heroic but the narrator invents a narrative in which his mother, despite being loved by his father, has a passionate affair with one of the heroes of the assassination which ends with his death but casts a long shadow over her subsequent marriage to his father. It is the emotional complexity of this marriage as presented by the son which contains the real dramatic force of ‘The Visible World’ rather than the bucolic romanticism of the imagined love affair between Tomas Bem and his mother .

The father knew of Bem and knew of the mother’s passion “my father did not wish him ill, no; to kill the beast he needed it alive. Alive and well and living in boredom…just let him live and die on the field of days as other men do.” Unfortunately Bem kills himself when he is confronted with the horror of the Nazi reprisals and the betrayal of his fellow assassins. This meant that the mother could return to the father, which she did, but it was never a complete return. “He’d taken it well. As he took everything. She’d expected it and admired and slightly despised him for it. A good man she could think of nothing to dislike about him. And yet, if just once she had sensed some anger beneath his decency, his irony…none of this matters, because for all the things he was, there was one thing my father wasn’t; he wasn’t the other one.” In the narrator’s novel there is no happy ending. The parents escape Prague to a new life in America  but something had been lost and the marriage was not as it seemed “my mother respected my father’s strength, his endurance, was grateful to him for taking the role he had for her with such tact but hated him for it too. And because she recognised the injustice of this –she loved or tried. And because she knew he recognised it too, she failed.”

The pleasure of ‘The Visible World’ is  that it is about more than just a son’s attempt to understand  his  this parent’s tragic marriage. Slouka addresses the heroism of the young resistance fighters, their frailty and their fears as they hide in a crypt from the Nazis “unable to keep themselves from turning inward they began by slow degrees to grow human. To become afraid.”  He also develops the fragmented memories of the exile from the old country, visits Prague under the grip of communism, tells the beautiful tale of  his mother’s young, innocent love in the forests escaping from the horrors of the war but principally it is the poignant tale of a decent man, a good man, a quietly heroic man who loved a woman whose heart had been broken before it could ever  ever  have been given to him “ ‘It is not that  I don’t understand’ said my father ‘I do. It’s just that it does no good’.”

Rating 3 out of 5

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

‘The Light of Day’ Graham Swift


“You’re the one, after all, who gives them the bad news, the messenger who ought to get shot, and sometimes it’s at the very moment that they learn the worst that they most become your friend.” These are the thoughts of George Webb, an ex-policeman now private detective, whose main occupation is tailing and gathering evidence on unfaithful partners. ‘The Light of Day’ is a lengthy interior monologue  as George reflects on his life while visiting the grave of a murdered husband. Although we are soon told of the murder, and who committed it, the actual circumstances of how he came to be murdered are only slowly and painstakingly revealed as George takes the reader on long journey through memories of his own childhood and the wreck of his own marriage.

George’s narrative is laconic and low key, almost cliché-ridden, as one would expect from an ex-copper turned private detective. Swift introduces many of the stock characters from the ‘hard-boiled school’ of American detective literature; there is George himself, the private eye and Rita his long suffering but loyal secretary who loves George but understands that he is complicated. There is also Sarah Nash, the beautiful wife and client whose husband, Bob, George needs to keep under observation. Swift is both imitating  the genre and also gently stretching it to accommodate wider narrative possibilities. Early on George tells us he fell for Sarah even before she gave him his brief.  Later, George still loves Sarah even though he now knows that she murdered Bob and is serving time. The mystery that keeps the reader intrigued is why, when she has succeeded in seeing off his mistress, did she then murder Bob. George, even two years later, can not understand it and standing at Bob’s grave remonstrates with him “Look what you’ve done! Look what you’ve done to her. Look what you did – letting her go and do that to you.”

‘The Light of Day’ is George’s recreation of the past as he spends the second anniversary of the murder taking flowers to Bob’s grave on Sarah’s behalf and then visiting Sarah in gaol. “He’s not going to let me go in a hurry” George says to himself “not going to make it easy for me: this stranger he never knew, who turns up like some phoney friend, some fake well wisher. This stranger who followed him, shadowed him, though he never knew, when he was alive. Spied on him, in his pain, in his misery. And now comes to spy on him even in death.” But, although constantly mindful of Sarah, George moves back in time to reflect on his parents’ marriage and how his father’s adultery remained hidden until the very day of his death when he inadvertently said the wrong name as he lay dying; to his own marriage to Rachel who abandons him when he is dismissed from the force under a cloud “she stood there like some parting official visitor, like someone who had only ever visited my life.”  George now sees all of this as a necessary preliminary to his love for Sarah and the novel emerges as a meditation on love and loyalty, on man’s need for love and the sacrifices people are willing to make for love.

Sarah’s purpose in hiring George had been to ensure that Bob puts his mistress Kristina on a plane back to Croatia so that he can return to the marital home. Bob, spied on by George, feels so abandoned as he bids Kristina farewell at Heathrow, for he had been truly infatuated by her, that he returns to the matrimonial home as a pale shadow of his former self. Sarah, who has been preparing his favourite dinner in anticipation of his return, is so shocked by the empty husk that was her husband that she stabs him with the carving knife. She wanted her husband back, not this dead man walking.

All of George’s memories are concerned with the vulnerability of those who love and now he, too, has rendered himself vulnerable  by falling for his beautiful client who has been sentenced to ten years and will certainly not emerge as the same woman. George reflects on love and its presence in his life. He has been buffeted by those he has loved but now, with Sarah,  he has achieved a sense of calm. In many ways the end of the novel is only the beginning for George; he now has a long time to come to terms with his choice, saying fatalistically “You take a step, you cross a line.”

In beautiful, sparse prose Swift recounts this tragic tale creating  and developing an atmosphere that is determinedly English with the action taking place against the background of the suburban streets of Chislehurst and Wimbledon. ‘The Light of Day’ lacks the many voiced charm of the multiple narrators of ‘Last Orders’ but through the laconic, solitary voice of George Webb Swift tells an intense and poignant story.

Rating 4 out of 5

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

‘The Sufferings of Young Werther’ Johann von Goethe


Not since 1719, when “The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe” created a literary sensation which swept across  Europe, had a novel made such a wide and immediate impact as “The Sufferings of Young Werther”. Published in 1774 its influence was immediate and far reaching with pirated editions in many languages spreading its notoriety swiftly across the continent. Just as Defoe’s novel had created huge enthusiasm for the ‘Robinsonade’, or overseas adventure, so too did “Young Werther” find its imitators and devotees. Many young men took to wearing blue frock coats with buff yellow britches in imitation of their hero and a few even went so far is to commit copycat suicides when unable to face up to their unrequited passions.

Stanley Corngold’s recent excellent translation will hopefully introduce  “Young Werther” to a new audience, for this sentimental tale of a solipsistic, angst ridden young man seems as fresh and vibrant in this new edition as it would appear to have been when first published in 1774. Writing, for the most part, in the epistolary style that was so popular in the eighteenth century Werther, with his over-emotional sensibilities, allows himself to become completely carried away in describing to his friend, Wilhelm, the young lady with whom he has fallen in love. Unfortunately Charlotte is already betrothed and, fond as she becomes of Werther, she does not share or reciprocate his feelings.  Tormented beyond endurance by his impossible passion Werther  eventually commits suicide.  Despite making him famous, Goethe later distanced himself from this melodramatic youthful work which was so central to the Sturm und Drang movement in German literature.

Werther expresses himself with unbounded enthusiasm to Wilhelm about his beloved Charlotte but he also devotes many pages to his observations of nature and man’s position in the world. His letter of 18 August 1771 captures almost all of young  Werther’s many strong feelings. “Does it have to be this way that whatever makes a man happy in turn becomes the source of his misery?” he asks Wilhelm before continuing “How I felt like a God among the overflowing abundance, and the glorious shapes of the infinite world entered and quickened my soul”. In these passages Goethe seems to anticipate the rhapsodies of “The Prelude”. Man is dwarfed by nature “and then men shelter in their little houses and build their nests and think they govern the whole wide world”; whereas Werther himself soars “oh how often did I long…to fly to the shores of the uncharted oceans to drink that surging joy of life from the foaming beaker of infinity and to feel for a moment…a drop of the bliss of that Being that brings forth everything and through itself”. This is similar to the enthusiasm for the divinely created world that so absorbed Wordsworth but Goethe also sees a darker side to nature as an eternally devouring, eternally regurgitating monster, “I am not moved”  writes Werther “by the great rare disasters of this world, those floods that wash away your villages, those earthquakes that swallow your cities; my heart is undermined by the destructive force that is concealed in the totality of nature; which has never created a thing that has not destroyed its neighbour or itself.”

The enduring attraction of “The Sufferings of Young Werther” is the poignant story of  a young man who is doomed by the tragic futility of his love to take his own life. In all of us there is an echo of Werther’s suffering and passion which continues to resonate and which we find reflected in other literary characters such as  Augustin Meaulnes or Holden Caulfield. Werther, in his youthful anxiety, can not fully comprehend the world in which he lives nor the situation in which he finds himself. “How her image pursues me, waking and dreaming it fills my entire soul” he writes in one of his last letters as life is beginning to overwhelm him “What is Man? that celebrated demigod. Does he not lack  strength precisely where he needs it most. And if he soars upward in joy or sinks down in sorrow, will he not be arrested in both, just there, just then, brought back to dull cold consciousness when he was longing to loose himself in the fullness of the infinite”. It was the quotidian, the prosaic and the ordinary that Werther could not support. He did not love Lotte in any real sense but he loved the idea of Lotte as an escape from the mundane and the ordinary so that when it became clear to him that this means of escape was not open to him he resolved instead to take his own life. Melodramatic, however,  to the last he can still write “Here Lotte, I do not shudder to take the cold terrible chalice from which I shall drink the ecstasy of death. You handed it to me and I did not waiver”. Lotte, of course, did no such thing  but Werther had never seen clearly the nature of his relationship with her.

Goethe came to regret “The Sufferings of Young Werther” when he moved away from Sturm und Drang to a more balanced and more mature writing style but even if the author regretted it as a work of juvenilia its value still remains. However exaggerated and over sentimental it might be “ Young Werther”  is still  a classic tale of the misunderstood, self regarding, angst ridden youth for which, as each generation leaves adolescence for manhood, there will always be an audience. This new translation by Corngold, whilst retaining the eighteenth century tone of the novel, brings it wonderfully to life for the twenty-first century.

Rating 4 out of 5

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

‘Rex’ Jose Manuel Prieto


The narrator J. has been employed as a tutor to Petya, the son of two manufacturers of ersatz diamonds who are on the run from some Russian hoodlums to whom they have sold fakes.Vasily and Nelly hole up in sumptuous splendour in Marbella when J. arrives to teach Petya with only one book in his armoury, ‘A la Recherche de Temps Perdu’. Surprised at this, the parents inquire further of J. who answers “And what was his subject? Everything, all things, all men, the greatest book ever written, a summation of all experience…human experience.” Proust, the ‘Writer’, is the touchstone by which all that J. teaches will be evaluated. This is the story of ‘Rex’, a wonderful novel, the third in a trilogy, (following ‘Enciclopedia de una vida en Rusia’ and ‘Livadia’ )which is part thriller, part romantic comedy but mostly, however, a literary homage, seemingly to Proust but as the narrative progresses it becomes clear that ‘the Writer’ refers not only to Proust but is extended by Prieto to stand for the composite author of most of the literature of the western canon;  a close reading of the the text and a brief glance at the “author’s note” at the end makes this clear.

With a felicity derived from Nabokov or Borges, Prieto delights in playing with words and making discreet allusions both to other works of literature and events that have already taken place or are yet to happen in his complicated presentation of the narrative. J. is not a reliable witness, nor does he care to be for he is more concerned to build memories for Petya. The novel is presented as twelve commentaries by J. written to Petya after the events have taken place. J. is keen to inform Petya but also to educate him and develop in him a spirit of curiosity about western literature and in particular Proust. “And all of these opium eaters, all of these minor writers and commentators have claimed to travel in time or have pretended to travel in time and bring back smooth, round memories, rubies and sapphires without difficulty. Only the Writer discerned, amid the blue green mass of the past, between the sinuous oscillating lines of lost memory, time itself. And saw that the past is made up not of hard, tangible memories that can be recovered at will, but of vague blue and violet memories –not red, not hard nuggets.”

Eventually Vasily’s pursuers chase him down but not before J. has been seduced by the beautiful Nelly and between them they have come up with an absurd plan to pass Vasily off as a direct Romanov descendant of Tsar Nicholas II by which ruse they hope to distract the hoodlums from their revenge. Throughout the narrative Prieto entertains the reader with an imaginative text that is full of traps and homages, a game of smoke and mirrors in which we are invited to dance with Nabokov or play games with Kafka. The energy and drive is magnificent and carries the reader through the strange quirks of J’s narrative as he conflates elements from different sources in his descriptive passages “his silhouette reflected on the glass as in that extraordinarily sweet  passage by the Writer when Odette de Crecy (the fragility of her arching eyebrows, her lovely dark eyes) breakfasts at Tiffany’s, feasting on the sparkle of the jewels…the bracelets and pendants.”

Eventually in his later commentary J. feels he has to justify himself to Petya, not just for the eccentricity of his education but also for falling in love with his mother. “And furthermore this: Margarita and the master fly; Habundia ,queen of the fairies, flies; the archangel Gabriel rises through the air. A certain dubious taste there, but the Writer never let himself be stopped by a minor and trivial object like taste. What is taste? Is it in good taste for a Frenchman to spend twenty seven years in prison and then emerge from that pouch of time to fall, immensely rich, among his enemies in order to kill and take revenge? Is it in good taste for a German, in the flower of his youth, to make a bargain with the devil, sell his soul to the evil one, and then flee and repent and rue the day? Is it in good taste to imagine a country in South America where it rains for four years without stopping and the dampness is so terrible that fish swim through the air in the rooms of houses and careen, gasping, among cobwebs on the ceiling. I repeat: the Writer certainly never let himself be held back by a minor obstacle such as taste. Am I to be held back? To open my mouth and introduce so petty and commentaristic a reservation at the very moment I feel my feet lifting from the ground, my eyes glued to your mother’s, breathing through her mouth?”

And finally J. signs off to Petya  “But now I can tell you this too – for according to an old saying in the country where I am now time is money – it is all about time. In search of lost money? (No that would be vulgar and loathsome. better to seek time) You’re right, Petya. Time”

Rating 3 out of 5

Friday, 17 February 2012

‘Mao II’ Don DeLillo


DeLillo is an ambitious writer and ‘Mao II’ is an ambitious novel, overflowing with ideas and with multiple narrative strands which all seem to cohere around the figure of Bill Gray, a successful and reclusive writer. Unlike much of DeLillo’s work ‘Mao II’ is not a long novel; in many ways it ought to have been much longer for there is a sense in which the author is trying to say too much and in which he is trying to accommodate so many concepts and address so many issues that the work is paradoxically both bursting at the seams and strangely hollow. DeLillo seems content to remain curiously laconic and not follow through fully where his ideas might lead.

In a manner reminiscent of J.D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon, the reclusive Bill Gray, living alone with his amanuensis Scott and their shared lover Karen, is after twenty years still writing his third novel which he is endlessly revising and which he never intends to publish. Into this household is invited Brita, a photographer of writers, for Bill feels that it is time to change “I’ve paid a terrible price for this wretched hiding and I’m sick of it finally.”  Brita’s visit allows Bill to expound on his ideas about writing and the position of the author in the modern world, whose position he feels is waning in the face of terrorism. “Beckett is the last writer to shape the way we think and see. After him the major work involves mid-air explosions and crumbling buildings. This is the new tragic narrative.” This is one reason why Bill will not publish, for he feels he has become irrelevant and this transference of influence from the novelist to the terrorist is one of the main themes of ‘Mao II’. “What terrorists gain novelists lose” says Bill “The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought.” DeLillo, writing in 1991, has Bill make these assertions long before the harrowing images of 9/11 yet does not furnish him with any coherent arguments to support them.

Mass consciousness is another of the many ideas addressed in ‘Mao II’. DeLillo opens with a majestic description of a huge multiple Moonie wedding in Yankee Stadium at which the fragile Karen, who now hangs a poster of Mao by Warhol in her room, was married to Kim Jo Pak. Throughout the novel DeLillo  recounts stories of crowd hysteria from the Hillsborough  football stadium disaster to the seething masses gathered for the funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini. The isolated individualism of Bill is contrasted with the  united power of the crowd in which DeLillo identifies the attraction of religious belief but about which he remains ambivalent saying in the words of Brita “I want others to believe, you see. Many believers everywhere. I feel the enormous importance of this. When I was in Catania and saw hundreds of running men pulling a saint on a float through the streets, absolutely running. When I saw people crawl for miles in Mexico City on the Day of the Virgin, leaving blood on the basilica steps and then joining the crowd inside, the crush, so many people that there was no air. Always blood. The Day of Blood in Teheran. I need these people to believe for me. I cling to believers. Many, everywhere. Without them the planet goes cold.”

Bill decides to seek redemption from his isolation, for as Scott says “It was writing that caused his life to disappear”, and becomes involved in a murky and complex plot to save a Swiss poet who has been kidnapped by a fundamentalist Islamic group in Beirut. Bill’s need for action raises as many questions as it answers; he becomes so bogged down in the contradictions of blackmail and ransom that he eventually dies before achieving the poet’s release. At this stage the novel deteriorates, fast paced action displaces measured thought and DeLillo tries to achieve too much too quickly.

In the end ‘Mao II’ lacks cohesion.  DeLillo wants to talk about the power of crowds, the nature of terrorism in the modern world,  the relevance of the writer, the status of the individual, the morality of paying ransom; the list is so long that the attempt to address so many  important issues within a relatively short narrative becomes a major structural weakness as does the tendency to favour aphorism without fully developing ideas. That a writer can only do so much in the face of the world’s troubles is a sad irony drawn by Bill himself as he says to his fundamentalist go-between “I am not a great visionary, George. I am a sentence maker, like a doughnut maker only slower. Don’t talk to me about history.”  Perhaps DeLillo should have heeded the words of Bill Gray.

Rating 2 out of 5

Monday, 6 February 2012

‘Mazurka for Two Dead Men’ Camilo Jose Cela


“Hereabouts he who kills will surely die, it may take some time but die he will,  mark my words”. So speaks one of the many narrators of ‘Mazurka for Two Dead Men’, an extraordinarily beautiful, haunting novel about revenge set in Galicia during the years of the Spanish Civil War. Lionheart Gamuzo has been abducted and murdered but coming as he does from a family of nine brothers there is no shortage of  men whose duty it is to avenge him and living as they do in a tight-knit mountainous community there is no doubt as to the identity of the killer. “The dead man who killed Lionheart… is not dead yet but he has one foot in the grave already… and now he reeks of death, folks hurry out of his way when they see him coming”. On the anniversary of both deaths a strange mazurka is played in the local brothel by Gaudencio the blind accordion player; despite many requests he will only play that particular tune to commemorate the occasion of  the two deaths.

‘Mazurka for Two Dead Men’ is set in a backward rural community in Galicia where Madrid is regarded with suspicion and where “it was a mistake to leave the settling of accounts to the judiciary”. The Civil War that is raging is considered a quieter place “The front is more civilised, it does not do to say so, but at least they are not murdering one another there”. What matters in Galicia is family and community and the sense of belonging to the mountains where the people are closely bound to the natural world, to the animals and to the rocky landscape. The division between human and animal is blurred to an extent that would shock sophisticated urban society. “All of us women have at some time got up to mischief with a dog, that’s only normal, when you’re young anything goes; men go for a suckling nanny goat and hold her firmly by the horns for a more satisfying screw; it’s all perfectly natural." The proximity of man to nature and his immersion within nature is a strong underlying theme in ‘Mazurka for Two Dead Men’, “it drizzles down steadfastly as the world continues on its daily round; a man gets involved in racketeering, a woman rubs her privates with a dead rabbit, a child dies of stomach cramps from eating greengage plums”. Such is quotidian life in the remote mountains of north west Spain as described by Cela in language that is stark and uncompromising but also highly poetic. He mixes the banal with the shocking to great effect as in “the strangled vermin in the sacristan’s vineyard grew more shrivelled and putrid by the day;the half-wit from Martinez bares her breasts to the dead fox as she munches hazel nuts”, or “and he wipes his arse with the tenderest leaves from the heart of a freshly cut lettuce”.

There are many narrative voices in ‘Mazurka for Two Dead Men’ and Cela moves seamlessly from one to the other so that it it is not always easy to follow the development of the story. The author also shifts backwards and forwards in both time and place as he builds his effect in an almost musical manner, repeating and echoing themes as the same stories get retold by different characters. This technique gradually builds the tension to the inevitable conclusion of the death of Lionheart’s murderer when he is ripped to pieces by Tanis Gazumo’s hunting dogs. But the narrative is not about the coming revenge for we know from the start that “a death is settled only by another death”, it is about the community and their communal memory of past events and present events that will in their turn become past and between the two there is no great difference. People live and die but the stories remain immortal and evocative; they will carry on being recounted from one generation to the next.

‘Mazurka for Two dead Men’ is a beautiful novel, harsh and uncompromising but nevertheless beautiful. The story is overflowing with a host of different characters who are all strikingly presented. One such is the Gazumo uncle who vomits when he is bored “when uncle Cleto feels bored to tears he spends the day vomiting in his chamber pot or behind the bureau…uncle Cleto’s dog is called Hornet and she eats whatever her master heaves up… some days uncle Cleto’s vomit is too strong for her” or there is Crazy Goat who sleeps with wolves for “all animals obey Crazy Goat because she was conceived on the back of a horse during San Lourencino’s storm”. The pagan mixes with the Christian in Cela’s Galicia which seems a very ancient place.

Through his multiple narrators and oft repeated stories Cela blurs the distinction between what actually happened and what is reported to have happened. All that the reader can know for certain is that Lionheart will be avenged, the rest is obscure or seen in through the half-light of unreliable memory. “Upon Miss Romona’s house there descended a mist which gradually blotted out, one by one, the words that were spoken and which still wafted upon the air. Memory is no match for the mist”. Cela quotes from ‘Ulalome’ by Edgar Alan Poe in his frontispiece and refers to him again in the course off the novel “Yes indeed, Poe was right our thoughts are palsied and sere, our memories treacherous and sere, and rusted as old knives. Apparently that is how it is, how it must be, it is in the nature of things.” Gaudencio plays his mazurka, Lionheart is avenged, “a woman rubs her privates with a dead rabbit” and the mist continues to fall.

Rating 4 out of 5

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

‘Nemesis’ Philip Roth


The “stifling heat of equatorial Newark” is the setting for ‘Nemesis’ in which Philip Roth addresses the issue of a polio epidemic and the effect it has on the lives of both those who contract the disease and those who have to deal with the consequences of it. We are back in familiar Roth territory in the city of Newark in the summer of 1944 and young boys are dying in the Jewish area of Weequahic even as they spend all day playing ball in the playground. Inevitably parallels are drawn to Albert Camus’ great novel ‘The Plague’  which is also set in the summer of 1944 and to which Roth pays homage by placing ‘Nemesis’ in the same year. Both authors have used the presence of plague to explore the resolve of human beings when their lives and institutions are threatened by an invisible force over which they have no control. The plague condition is, in reality, an extreme state of the human condition only seen under greater pressure and magnified by events.

‘Nemesis, is a well constructed tightly written novel with a strong narrative thrust in which the protagonist, Bucky Cantor, has to contend with the effects of the epidemic on a class of small boys who he is supervising on the municipal playing fields through the swelteringly hot summer vacation. In the face of some fatal cases of polio Bucky feels responsible for his boys and to the community in Weequahic and resolves not to be tempted by his girlfriend Marcia to the safe mountain air of the Indian Hills summer camp where she is working. But Bucky, despite his resolve, desirous of Marcia and fearful for his safety suddenly decides to escape to the mountains. It is this decision and its tragic consequences that form the fulcrum of the novel. Bucky not only carries the virus to Indian Hills where more children die but also succumbs to the disease himself; he does not die but survives to live an entirely futile life chastising himself for his lack of resolve and ostracising himself off from Marcia.

The story is narrated through the voice of a third person who only reveals himself as Arnie Meskinoff, one of Bucky’s boys and another crippled survivor of the epidemic, much later in the novel. This device allows Roth a certain detachment in his descriptions of the pestilence and how the people of Newark respond to it. A device that Camus  used to great effect  in ‘The Plague’  disguising his narrator, Rieux, until late in the novel. This works  reasonably well for the descriptions of Newark but less well for Indian Hills where the narrator is dependent on Bucky for such details as the description of Marcia’s body when they make love “without her clothes on she was small and slim…with tiny breasts, affixed on her chest and nipples that were soft, pale and unprotuberant”  Did Bucky really tell Arnie that Marcia’s breasts were “affixed’”to her chest or  that her nipples were “unprotuberant”?

As Camus in ‘The Plague’ so too Roth in ‘Nemesis’  addresses the sheer, indiscriminate anarchy of how the pestilence strikes. The people of Newark, just as the people of Oran, rage against the incomprehensibly random manner in which some are condemned to die and others not. Bucky and Marcia can not come to terms with it. “You’re always holding yourself  accountable” says Marcia “Either it’s terrible God who is accountable or it’s terrible Bucky Cantor who is accountable, when in fact accountability belongs to neither. You’re attitude to God is juvenile, it is just plain silly”. “Look your God is not to my liking…He’s too mean for me, He spends too much time killing children” responds Bucky. Panteloux, the Jesuit priest in Oran has also to come to terms with God’s will, especially after he witnesses the slow painful death of a small boy. He does not rage, he becomes resigned; he sees the plague as a test of faith, in Biblical terms as a scourge sent by God, although even he admits that the death of an innocent child in a world ruled by a loving God cannot be rationally explained. It should, however, be accepted.

Nemesis is a generally well crafted, readable short novel, almost a novella, but it lacks the gravity and emotional range of some of Roth’s earlier work. There is an absence of intensity to the solipsistic whining of Bucky Cantor which cannot be said of the responses of Rieux and Rambert in ‘La Peste’. Roth has devoted his attention to the individual whereas Camus has avoided such subjectivity and tried to give more weight to the universal and the objective. Rambert, it must be remembered, did not flee Oran to seek his lover when he had the chance but remained to assume his responsibilities. Ironically Marcia sees Bucky as a coward not because he abandoned  Newark for her but in abandoning her for the life of a lonely cripple. Camus’ novel is also beautifully constructed in its simplicity and though even shorter than ‘Nemesis’ does not feel like a novella; on the contrary it has a strange dark weight.

Roth has brought all his habitual skill and craft to ‘Nemesis’ but it still remains curiously thin or merely illustrative, recounting a tale that may or may not hold the reader’s attention but to which the reader is unlikely to  return because it lacks a sense of density, a sense of the weight of other words that lie beyond the text which one finds in Camus. ‘The Plague’ is concrete and profound whilst ‘Nemesis’ is merely the story of Bucky; one reads it and moves on.

Rating 3 out of 5