So I've cracked it.
I have finally read a book by Philip Roth.
Quite what has been scaring me off all these years remains a mystery, unless it's because Philip Roth is often mentioned in the same sentence as Saul Bellow and I had a very traumatising experience with him a few years ago which I think I've mentioned before on here.
Herzog by Saul Bellow chosen as the first read for a book group that was gathering at the GP surgery I was working in at the time. Largely populated by some rather seemingly erudite GPs one of whom had made the choice, so feeling I really couldn't let the nursing side down I ploughed on through Herzog largely in a haze of unknowing and had to work very hard to muster up a few intelligent thoughts on it all which I felt sure would be drowned out. I arrived at the meeting feeling very nervous indeed only to find they were halfway through the wine and had all given up because the book was 'too hard.' Please don't let that dent your confidence in your GP, they will read what they need to on your behalf I'm sure.
So striking while the Roth iron was hot I very nervously picked up Nemesis, prescribed for me by Linda Grant (her new book We Had it So Good, brilliant and published this week, more soon) when we met a while back as a good route into the novels of Philip Roth, and do you know something...she's right.
I have no Roth benchmark to go on so I'm looking forward to building up some form on him but what a cracking good read this one proved to be, and one that had the nurse in me hastening to the epidemiology shelf for a quick revision of poliomyelitis, because Nemesis (published by Jonathan Cape) is set in Newark, New Jersey during an epidemic of the disease in 1944.
Eugene Cantor (Bucky to his friends)on first acquaintance is the likeable, conscientious and dedicated twenty-three year old playground director who is supervising the young lads of the Jewish Weequahic section through the searing heat of the summer vacation. Raised by his grandparents following the death of his mother in childbirth, Bucky has been imbued with a heightened sense of moral duty, via both his religion and his hard-working grandparents, but also perhaps in a sort of inverse proportion to his own father's lack of moral compass which has resulted in his father's imprisonment and subsequent estrangement. Turned down for war service due to his eyesight and mortified not to be fighting, Bucky nevertheless excels at sports with the perfectly compact build required to execute the precise dive or the far-reaching throw, all making him a popular role-model with his charges.
As the confirmed cases of polio rise alarmingly and several of his charges die, Bucky is fraught with a conscience that in striving too hard to do the right thing by everyone, including his God, ends up in a complete mess, eventually making a spur of the moment decision that he will live to regret and punish himself for mercilessly. Suffice to say that yellow cover has multiple interpretations.
Bucky is an interesting character and the first of the Roth males I have encountered, so I'm gathering my information portfolio slowly. For all his displays of adult maturity Bucky exhibits many childlike qualities, not least an assumption, if not a lifelong certainty, that he is the centre of his own world, one wherein everything that happens is down to him. A childhood trait that Bucky seems unable or unwilling (there's a difference I think) to shift, and what I saw as the egocentric consequences masking as guilt will be profound. In the end my sympathies were severely stretched and I'm afraid I ended up wanting to shake some sense into him before walking away muttering 'oh well, have it your own way.'
Aren't viruses lovely things to look at, but nowadays it's hard to imagine the fear that polio engendered back then especially given today's climate of informed choice about immunisations, when parents often decline or don't bother. But once you know the facts it's also hard to imagine anyone not wanting to be first in the queue for protection from the scourge of Infantile Paralysis, once the vaccines had arrived. A virus that readily replicates in its victims for weeks after initial infection, and with 8000 notifiable cases a year in the UK in the 1950s, I'm pretty sure my mum had me in there and jabbed the minute she could. It is this fear that Philip Roth exploits within his characters and plot, skewering with precision every wild emotion that comes with it. Expect to be tripping over guilt, panic, anger, ignorance, discrimination, anguish and confusion at the turn of every page.
This being me I was bound to be interested in the poliomyelitis so I hastened to the medical shelves and The Immortal Life of Henriette Lacks for its account of the use of HeLa cells in the trials of the Polio vaccine, and another book, A Summer Plague - Polio and its Survivors by Tony Gould (apparently bought by me for £1 thinking it might come in useful one day, which it now has) for a more detailed account of the history of the disease.
And that history is fascinating, polio apparently one of those diseases that thrived as hygiene standards improved, and thus natural immunity acquired from regular exposure to the virus dwindled. The first properly recorded epidemic didn't arrive until 1916 with the disease then settling in Philip Roth's fictional 1940's Newark like the unbidden, unknown and much dreaded guest it was. Thus a war to be fought on the domestic front while greater battles were being fought overseas. I did know something of the other embittered battle being fought elsewhere too; the one between Sabin and Salk for the race to find an acceptable vaccine and was interested to read Tony Gould's description with reference to post-vaccine problems...
'As surely as night follows day, Nemesis lurks in the shadow of hubris. Scarcely had the church bells ceased to ring, when worrying rumours of cases of polio unrelated to any natural outbreak began to circulate...'
It all brought my mind back round to Philip Roth's novel and the brilliant choice of title with its many interpretations around themes of retribution, many of which somehow link back wonderfully to notions of Greek mythology and Nemesis the goddess of vengeance. Now Ancient Greece is not my strong suit, but when Bucky Cantor is described in detail as an accomplished javelin thrower and mention is made of Hercules, the first lobber of the pointy stick, even I could make some loose connections, others may well make much tighter ones.... and then I somehow ended up thinking of Bucky and his unassuaged guilt as Atlas carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.... and then my mind strayed to thoughts of the polio virus itself as a revenge on the inexorable march of civilisation... at which point my knowledge of Greek myth ran dry and I stopped.
But there you have it, me and Philip Roth are now almost best friends, and if like me you may have crossed to the other side of the literary road when you saw him strolling along then I can certainly recommend Nemesis as a way of making Philip Roth's acquaintance.