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.

Book Review: Philip Roth's 'Nemesis'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


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

M: 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.

M: 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...

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


M: 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 -

M: That was there.

SIEGEL: That was there.

M: 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...

M: Until you got it, yeah.

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

M: 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.

M: Bring it in.

SIEGEL: They must bring it in.

M: 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?

M: 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.


M: 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?

M: 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.

M: You're welcome.

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

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.