Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Philip Roth, Albert Camus, and plagues

Philip Roth’s latest novel is receiving widespread critical attention, including a front-page rave in The New York Times Book Review. Literary critic Elaine Showalter (who edited the LOA volume of Louisa May Alcott) writes to us about a literary precedent that many of the reviewers seem to have overlooked:
I’ve been surprised that very few reviewers of Philip Roth’s Nemesis have pointed out that it is a brilliant and compassionate American re-imagining of Albert Camus’s fable, The Plague (1947). Camus’s narrator, later revealed as the enlightened Algerian doctor Bernard Rieux, begins: “the unusual events described in this chronicle occurred in 194- in Oran.” Similarly, Roth sets the unusual events of the polio epidemic in the summer of 1944, in another sweltering port city, “equatorial Newark.” Like Camus, Roth juxtaposes the war and the epidemic to highlight the parallels between the tragic and absurd fate of the young men fighting in France and the Pacific, “because this was real war too, a war of slaughter, ruin, waste, and damnation, war with the ravages of war—war upon the children of Newark.”

But re-reading The Plague last year, Roth decided to make some significant structural changes for his book. “I could have had a doctor tell it, the way Camus does,” he told The (London) Times. Instead, he made his narrator a polio victim who survives, and his protagonist a young athlete and playground director, Bucky Cantor, who epitomizes the simple values of manliness, sportsmanship, and honor. Bucky’s values are not trivial in the face of panic, fear, persecution, and arbitrary death. Camus, who had been a champion football goalie until he was sidelined by tuberculosis, said in the 1950s “what I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to sport.” Ultimately, Roth argues, in the spirit of Camus, we are at the mercy of the “malicious absurdity of nature” and live in an indifferent, Godless universe. We create meaning and dignity for ourselves by joining with others in resistance to our fate. With its solid historical context and familiar setting in Jewish Newark, Nemesis is unmistakably a Roth novel, but also a humane and profound fable about the human condition which deserves to be read alongside The Plague.
In a recent post reviewing Nemesis, blogger Mike Ettner also notes the similarities and points out that Roth had mined this material over fifty years ago in a never-published story that he showed to Saul Bellow:
[A] draft short story Roth had shared with Bellow back in 1957 reminded the elder writer, in one respect, of The Plague by Albert Camus, a book Bellow disliked. He warned Roth against writing stories too beholden to a controlling idea: “I have a thing about Ideas in stories. Camus’ The Plague was an IDEA. Good or bad? Not so hot, in my opinion.” . . . And yet there is no mistaking the correspondences between the fictional devastations visited upon the populaces in Camus’ The Plague and Roth’s Nemesis and contemporary or near-contemporary events in Europe.
Nemesis will appear in a future volume of The Library of America’s definitive collection of Philip Roth’s fiction; so far the series has published all the novels and stories through 1995.

Related LOA volumes: Philip Roth: Collected Works 1959–1995

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