Renowned for his exploration of Jewish and American identities, Philip Roth — author of Goodbye Columbus, Portnoy's Complaint and American Pastoral — returns to familiar ground in his latest work, Nemesis. The novel is set in his hometown of Newark, N.J., in 1944. The nemesis of the title is a polio outbreak which Roth characterizes as "fictionalized but plausible."
"In a way I was imagining a menace we never encountered in all its force," Roth tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "I wanted to imagine what it would have been like, in our neighborhood, had the menace [of polio] struck."
Fictional Outbreak, A Real Sense Of Fear
Roth stresses that the novel's events are only loosely based in truth. While the U.S. suffered regular polio outbreaks for decades, the disease did not reach the catastrophic proportions that Roth describes. And while Roth chose to set the novel in his New Jersey hometown, the kids in the book are just "generic kids" he says — not inspired by his own childhood friends.
The fear of polio, however, was palpable throughout Roth's childhood.
"No sooner were you out of school in June when you were reminded that 'you mustn't do this' and 'you mustn't do that,' because you might die," Roth remembers. "That was a very heavy burden to carry when you're playing center field, you know?"
The mystery surrounding the disease was part of what made polio so scary — "it came out of nowhere," Roth says. Polio was not really identified until the late 19th century — and even then, there were relatively few serious cases of the disease. Before improvements in sanitation, people contracted the disease in a milder form and acquired immunity to it. Once sanitation and living conditions got better, deadly incidents of polio dramatically increased.
The danger of polio continued to increase until the Salk vaccine was introduced in 1956 — the year Roth graduated from college.
'It Just Dawned On Me'
Nemesis is Roth's 31st work, and at age 77, he still continues to take risks with his narrative style. In Nemesis, he doesn't reveal the identity of the narrator until well into the novel.
"It just dawned on me as I was writing along," Roth explains. "The book educates you about the book."
Though Roth developed the novel's narrative structure unexpectedly, he was motivated to do so by a novel that continues to inspire him: Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary. In the novel's first scene, the reader is introduced to Charles Bovary, Madame Bovary's husband-to-be, as a schoolboy. The scene is narrated by the collective voice of his mocking classmates — a voice that then disappears.
"Well, I don't have the guts for that," Roth says, laughing. "That's what made Flaubert Flaubert, you know. But indeed, it is from the charm of that opening of Madame Bovary that I took my lead."