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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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide