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Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Nemesis

I have just completed Philip Roth's 2010 novel, Nemesis, which seems to me to be a classic of simple diction and classical story-telling, like Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea - and Roth too deserves the Nobel for this book, which is about as humane, moving, suspenseful, and powerful as literature can get - concerned as it is with mind, body, and soul - ultimately how these inter-act with history, love, and duty - over which hangs death and disease.  Biblical, yet homely and local (Newark), timeless and yet set in a time fraught for Jews and all Americans (1944), focused on a few young Jewish people of decency, and yet widening to embrace all those struck by "bad luck", and those blessed with good fortune, Nemesis amazed me with its efficacy.

It is the first novel of this century, in English, that truly made me want to write my own novel.  However, what is doubly impressive is that Roth has pulled off a neat trick - while seemingly straightforward, this is a fiction, and a text, that is, in some ways, highly modernist in its tricks.  For one, the narrator, while not exactly "unreliable", as in The Good Soldier, looks on with uncertainty at some stages; the three sections are notably various in tone; and the gosh-shucks Americana of the diction, dialogue and style is gently ironic, but also true to the time.  More notably, the novel is suffused with an unbearable level of dramatic irony, building to a proper tragedy, which wrong-foots the reader who might have though the authorial ethos was simply anti-God or even existential.  Indeed, the pathos of the ending is heightened by there being a sense of the avoidable about this nonetheless character-foretold destiny. I don't want to say too much more to destroy the experience for readers.

I hope the Coen Brothers make this a film.  They are utterly suited to capturing the tension and black comedy of every moment.  I'd have said Kubrick, but he is dead - indeed, the intertwining of sincerity and irony we see in Kubrick's films is very present here.  And, as befits a novel about a young phys ed teacher, the classical end is sublimely beautiful.  Or perhaps Spielberg could do this, if he returned to his Schindler's List mode.
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