Literature in quarantine: Nemesis


By Daniel Brazil*

Commentary on the last novel by Philip Roth (1933-2018).

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, we have been bombarded in virtual conversations with various references and quotes from classics of universal literature. Of course The plague (Record), by Albert Camus, is the champion, although I suspect that many people indicate without having read it. Blindness essay (Companhia das Letras), by José Saramago, is another well remembered. But no one, as far as I know, has quoted Nemesis, by Philip Roth. A small and final novel that I reread today takes on lights of astonishing anticipation.

Philip Roth (1933-2018) is one of the most prominent writers of the turn of the XNUMXth to the XNUMXst century. He wrote a great deal, and was duly rewarded and congratulated for it. novels like portnoy complex ou American Pastoral are indispensable for anyone who wants to get to know contemporary American literature. Although he wrote short stories and essays, it is as a novelist that he earned his place in eternity. Nemesis, a minor work, takes up in an anguished way the challenge present in his last works: the action of chance on our lives, the catastrophe of impulsive choices, the impotence of the individual in the face of the collective drama.

Nemesis ends up being notable for being Roth's last piece of fiction. As happens with several writers, it does not have the intense brilliance of the most famous works (see Machado de Assis and his Memorial of Ayres), but he carries in his writing all the wisdom and clarity of someone who knows where he wants to go.

The beginning has the objectivity of a news report: “The first case of polio that summer was reported in early June, just after Memorial Day, the holiday that marks the beginning of the season, in a poor Italian neighborhood on the other side of town.” The year is 1944, in the city of Newark, New Jersey. The protagonist is an athletic young Jewish man, a sports teacher, who suffers from being dismissed from the War due to his high degree of myopia. Behind his thick glasses, Bucky Cantor is adored by students, has an ideal bride, misses his friends fighting in the Pacific. A good guy, then.

But the disease begins to enter his life. First, robbing your students. Then, causing him to leave the city, tormented by a crisis of conscience: should he stay and fight to minimize the evil effects of the epidemic, or take cover to save his own life? It is worth remembering that Nemesis, in Greek mythology, is the goddess of divine revenge, of retaliation.

In less than 200 pages, we follow the drama of Bucky Cantor, his fiancée, his students, with the Reaper doing predictable damage (American President Franklin D. Roosevelt was an illustrious victim of polio, also known as infantile paralysis). It would be a competent but commonplace account if it weren't for the last chapter, a true literary masterstroke.

Some years later, a former student meets the protagonist again, and they start a conversation about the infernal period. It is then that all the insecurities, grudges, suspicions, disbelief in medicine and faith emerge, which give a mythical dimension to the story. The impotence of man in the face of circumstances is crudely exposed, at the same time that it is demonstrated that we often make the most unwise choice in the face of tragedy.

Roth reaffirms his talent with words and ends his brilliant career in a dignified manner, with the old blade, still sharp, cutting deep into our convictions.

* Daniel Brazil is a writer, author of the novel suit of kings (Penalux), screenwriter and TV director, music and literary critic.


Nemesis Paperback – September 2011 – Philip Roth (

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