Book Review: Philip Roth's 'Nemesis'

Nemesis, our good dictionaries tell us, is the goddess of retribution or vengeance, who reverses excessive good fortune, checks presumption, and punishes wrongdoing. In Philip Roth's new novel, Nemesis takes the form of the polio epidemic of the 1940s as it advances through the Jewish section of his native Newark, N.J. Alan Cheuse has this review.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Somewhere in my house, in a box of childhood memorabilia, is a small button that I received in the second grade. It says Polio Pioneer.

In 1954, my elementary school was part of the huge test of the Salk vaccine. We lined up and got our shots, not knowing if it was the vaccine or a placebo.

When I've mentioned this recently to younger colleagues, some have wondered why parents would volunteer their children to be used en masse as guinea pigs. And I've explained not just that we were a more trusting and less litigious country then, but also that the fear of polio hung over us. It was a shadow that darkened every summer, and it made the pursuit of the vaccine a cause of liberation and survival.

That fear of polio is the context of Philip Roth's new novel, "Nemesis," and Philip Roth, welcome to the program.

Mr. PHILIP ROTH (Author, "Nemesis"): Thank you.

SIEGEL: And you describe what I gather is a fictionalized but plausible polio outbreak in Newark, New Jersey, in the summer of 1944.

Mr. ROTH: Both. It is fictionalized, and I would hope it's plausible. You know, I chose Newark as the battleground here for the polio epidemic because I know it so well. And in a way, I was imagining a menace we never encountered in all its force. But I wanted to imagine what it would've been like in our neighborhood had the menace struck.

SIEGEL: And some of these kids in the playground, they are, in effect, children you remember from...

Mr. ROTH: Not really. No, not really. They're just sort of generic kids.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROTH: The differentiation wasn't great in those years. There was the bully. There was the athlete. There was the kid who played right field, and so on.

SIEGEL: But the fear of polio, even if there wasn't an epidemic of this scope in Newark -

Mr. ROTH: That was there.

SIEGEL: That was there.

Mr. ROTH: That was there, all right. It was terrible for many reasons, but for kids it was terrible because you'd get out of school feeling buoyant and ebullient, and looking forward to the great summer. And no sooner were you out of school in June, when you were reminded that you mustn't do this and mustn't do that because you might die. So that was a very heavy burden to carry when you were playing center field, you know.

SIEGEL: Yes, I should say so. And it persisted right up until the Salk vaccine being...

Mr. ROTH: Until you got it, yeah.

SIEGEL: Until I got it. Until we Polio Pioneers took care of it.

Mr. ROTH: The year that you got it, I graduated college but - so I had it all through my childhood. It's a strange disease. You know, it came out of nowhere. I did some reading about it. It started in the late 19th century, and there were very few cases.

But as the 20th century came along, and as the decades went by, it got worse and worse and worse, which was very strange because as the sanitation improved, the incidences of polio increased. And that was because people acquired a kind of immunity to the disease but because they would get it in a mild form when sanitation was awful - they would pick it up as little kids, and that would be it. They would be sick for two weeks.

That's why people were puzzled when neighborhoods - say, like my own, which were clean and sanitary and well-kept - that kids got polio there. Why should that happen?

SIEGEL: So it must be the dirty kids from another neighborhood coming in.

Mr. ROTH: Bring it in.

SIEGEL: They must bring it in.

Mr. ROTH: That is exactly true. That's what people thought. It was, of course, totally false.

SIEGEL: Yeah, yeah. You do something interesting in "Nemesis" with the narrator who's talking to us throughout this story. We don't know for most of the book who this is. And at the very end, we find out. Was this a new touch for you? Have I read this in other books that I'm forgetting - right now?

Mr. ROTH: It just dawned on me as I was writing along, you know. The book is what makes the suggestions to you as to how to proceed. And most you have hardly any of it in your mind beforehand. And the book educates you about the book.

And about a third of the way through, this dawned on me. And it's a little trick that I always loved when I read it - if - when I re-read "Madame Bovary," it's - Flaubert uses in the beginning of "Madame Bovary." In the first scene of "Madame Bovary," you're introduced to Charles Bovary, her husband-to-be, as a schoolboy. And somebody telling the story talks about what we felt about him when we were kids - and then disappears. Well, I don't have the guts for that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROTH: That's what made Flaubert Flaubert, you know. But I so I pick it up, eventually, and tell who the talking voice is. But indeed, it is from the charm of that opening of "Madame Bovary" that I took my lead.

SIEGEL: Well, you say that - sort of that question of who's the narrator, that occurs to you when you're a third of the way through writing the book. I mean, you're saying you don't start out with that idea?

Mr. ROTH: No, I didn't. As I said, I don't start out with very much. I start out with an idea. I start, often, with a predicament. In this case, I started out with just one word, polio.

SIEGEL: Well, Philip Roth, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. ROTH: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: Philip Roth's novel is called "Nemesis."

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