Happy Birthday Philip Roth!

Another Philip said that Sidney Bechet’s voice falls on him ‘Like an enormous yes.’ The same is true for me when I read Philip Roth. Six years after the retirement of Nathan Zuckerman, his alter ego narrator, in ‘Exit Ghost’, Roth turns 80. He has also retired from writing but if you want a good place to start reading him, you could always begin with his final elegiac novel, the brief and wonderful ‘Nemesis’.

Set in Newark in the hot summer in 1944, it follows Bucky Cantor, a PE instructor and a good man who can do nothing to stop the polio outbreak ravaging the neighbourhood. A fine physical specimen apart from his poor eyesight which guiltily keeps him out of the war, Bucky tries to come to terms with his role and the situation he finds himself in.

The novel, like many others by Roth, is about fear and loss and works on a local level with the fear of a community, to racial fear and to the wider fear of the war overseas. It is also about the gift of life itself, the tension between the human capacity for beauty and goodness and the inability to hold on to those things for more than a fleeting moment.

Tenderly and beautifully written, this study of a good man in terrible circumstances is also about our own losses, summarised in an incredibly moving ending. Read it.

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