Philip Roth’s latest novel is unadventurous but forceful, exacting and word-perfect — the work of a

Philip Roth has written 31 books, in a heady variety of forms, and he wants to tame them. The page headed "Also By Philip Roth" identifies, for instance, "Zuckerman Books" (ten in all) and "Roth Books" (five). It is a mark of the author's curatorial obsessiveness that a novel may shift categories, as has happened with Everyman, Indignation and The Humbling, which were formerly classified as "Other Books", but now comprise "Nemeses: Short Novels" along with this new one.

The groupings may be a source of comfort to first-time readers, or those struggling to distinguish between so many forgotten paperbacks; but they can prompt irritation among devoted followers. Nemesis may be grim and short, but it deserves more like-minded - and attractive - bedfellows than Everyman or The Humbling.

In the way it combines personal memory with imagination, the new work has more in common with a series of speculative autobiographical novels that might be called "What If? Books". The Plot Against America locates the seven-year-old Roth in a country ruled not by Franklin D Roosevelt, but by the isolationist Nazi sympathiser Charles Lindbergh. The protagonist of Indignation, Marcus Messner, is landed in a situation that Roth imagined in his autobiography, The Facts: "if my father were to challenge the ordering of my private life, now that I was a college student, I would feel suf­focated by his strictures". Marcus, tired of that suffocating feeling, leaves Robert Treat College in Newark for Winesburg College in Ohio, as Philip left Newark College of Rutgers for Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania; but where Philip kept his mouth shut when being "admonished" by his college dean, Marcus talks back and is soon expelled. He ends up fighting, and dying, in Korea.

What young, frightened Roth, defiant, stubborn Marcus and Arnie Mesnikoff, the narrator of Nemesis, have in common is a vulnerability to fate's capricious cruelty. Arnie talks of "the force of circumstance" and "the tyranny of contingency". He was one of many 12-year-olds who contracted polio in the epidemic of 1944 that could have afflicted the 12-year-old Roth. But we don't find this out immediately. In the book's opening sentence, his existence is implied but not explained: "The first case of polio that summer came early in June, right after Memorial Day, in a poor Italian neighbourhood crosstown from where we lived." This is reminiscent of the "we" that appears, before disappearing altogether, in the first chapter of Madame Bovary. For most of its length, the novel, though narrated by Arnie, is concerned with Bucky Cantor, a graduate of Panzer College of Physical Education and Hygiene who works as a gym teacher during the school term and as a playground attendant during the summer, and to whose thoughts and impressions Arnie is mysteriously privy.

In my Venn diagram of Roth's oeuvre, Nemesis would also enjoy the esteemed company of the "23-Year-Old Protagonist Books": Goodbye, Columbus, Letting Go and The Ghost Writer.

It is also one of the "Weequahic Books", and therefore the latest answer to the author's anxious youthful inquiry: "How could Art be rooted in a parochial Jewish Newark neighbourhood having nothing to do with the enigma of time and space or good and evil or appearance and reality?" As things turned out: by finding a connection in that apparent opposition, the press of local detail assisting, rather than resisting, the development of grand themes.

If Roth found, in Letting Go, one of those ideal Bildungsroman titles, he has now found, in Nemesis, a one-word summary of his later characters' habits of self-destruction, their failure to hold on to sanity and self-respect. Bucky's nemesis is his conscience, producer first of shame that he didn't go with his buddies to fight in the Second World War (he was declared 4-F because of bad eyesight), next of guilt for fleeing to visit his girlfriend at a summer camp in the Pocono Mountains, having abandoned the children of Weequahic for fear of contracting the virus. He even suffers a certain indignation, most of it aimed at God, "a cold-blooded murderer of children". And this brings out his cowardice: "He thought to ask: Doesn't God have a conscience? Where's His responsibility? Or does He know no limits? But instead he asked, 'Should the playground be shut down?'"

Ever since Goodbye, Columbus - the long story published in this country as a stand-alone work - Roth has projected, and instilled, a sense of absolute confidence; a half-century on, his gift looks disturbingly like a knack. Nemesis is a forceful, exacting, even word-perfect novel, but it is also unadventurous, familiar, a little otiose - a work beyond the powers of most novelists but well within his. Bucky is yet another victim of Roth's Law, whereby things conspire quite ingeniously against a character's bright hopes and good intentions, and the only semblance of order is a run of improbably bad luck. Having fled the playground out of a feeling of impotence, he is then maddened by its closure: "If he'd remained in Newark a few days longer, he would never have had to quit."

The long view also yields irritations: Arnie mentions the development of the polio vaccine only a decade later, making all those 12-year-old deaths not just unnecessary, but so nearly avoidable. Bucky may yield to superstition and pessimism, but this is just about the only pos­sible response to the dovetailing miseries of Roth's kick-yourself universe.

Bucky is also treated in much the same way as an earlier sportsman, "Swede" Levov in American Pastoral, his early glories merely a greater height from which to fall. Bucky's best sport is javelin, an activity the local youngsters hold in awe, though one that connects him to the heroes of Attic drama, the original tragic figures. The novel ends with Arnie's recollection of the "invincible" Bucky, a passage of somewhat lumbering irony, given that, at the time of remembrance, Bucky is a ruined man. There persists in Roth - depressive, painkiller addict, survivor of quintuple bypass surgery - a sense of deference to sporting heroes. But it is a deference characterised by detachment and even resentment; in Nemesis, the story of a fallen athlete is told by a stoic polio victim.

It is a task he performs with great fluency; despite the book's deterministic structure, its prose never falters or fails to compel. Roth has developed, in his recent work, a full-throated and large-lunged style that manages to convey a great deal of insight and information with minimal fuss.
Sentences are arranged around parentheses and subordinate clauses in a way that serves to clarify rather than clutter. There is little messingaround or hanging about. A thought occurs to him, and he's off; eventually, he makes his way back to the original thought - no shortness of breath, not a hint of brow-sweat. Then a new thought occurs to him, and he's off again. Roth, puny and bookish, an indoors type, may only be able to imagine how Bucky feels hurling that javelin, but he imagines it both as a sympathetic describer and as a kindred spirit, a fellow pro. He stands, aged 77, as the Rafael Nadal of American fiction - but Nadal with traces (fading ambition, failing nerves) of Roger Federer.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer

Philip Roth
Jonathan Cape, 304pp, £16.99

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Melvyn Bragg guest edit

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis