I think I must have known about classical Nemesis from being a child and reading about Greek and Roman mythology, but the idea of it came more to the fore when I was a student, and it was used in a similar way to karma, the idea of retribution, of good fortune and bad fortune coming in turn as a result of actions or events… that is how we used it anyway. Nemesis, of course, was the Greek goddess of retribution and revenge, personified in Rome as Fortuna among other names.
I was a great fan of Agatha Christie and so I read her book ‘Nemesis’,the last novel about Miss Marple published in 1971; many other authors used the name as titles to their works, including Alfred Nobel, Isaac Asimov, Jo Nesbø, Arthur C. Clark, H.P. Lovecraft and Philip Roth, and it is Roth’s book which we have been reading for our book club this month.
I have only read one other novel by Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint, which he wrote in 1969; I’m not sure how old I was when I read it, but maybe I was too young. I didn’t understand it, get it, like it or want to read more of Roth. He was born in 1933 and grew up where Nemesis is mostly set, in the Weequahic neighbourhood of Newark in New Jersey; his first published book of short stories won great acclaim and the National Book Award in 1960, when he was only twenty-seven. He has published much other work mostly novels and short stories.
The story of nemesis by Roth is fairly simple; it is set in Weequahic, a mainly Jewish area of Newark in 1944 when over in Europe and in Japan, the war was raging with the USA now involved. Although the characters in the novel are Jewish, and there are references to the war, there is little mention of Hitler, or the Nazis, and none at all of the holocaust which was happening… maybe at that time the truth wasn’t known, or maybe Roth did not want it as a theme to his book, or maybe there are events in the book which we can understand as parallels to the horror.
The main character is a young sports teacher who has such poor eye-sight that despite his physical strength and fitness he is not able to join the war effort and so devotes himself to the young people he is working with over the summer holidays as a playground coach. At that time, polio was untreatable, and every summer it would ravage the communities. Nemesis chronicles the events in the teacher’s life over that summer, and I won’t give any more away about what happens to him, his charges, and the people he loves.
It is a wonderful book, a hard and painful book in many ways because of what befalls the characters, and the dilemmas they are placed in, but I do really recommend it. I was swept along by it, and even when not reading it I found myself thinking about it. If I say it is written in a plain way, I mean it as a compliment, that there are no unnecessary frills or overblown descriptions. There are some beautiful descriptions, but written so economically and skilfully that they blaze from the page.
I shall be very interested to hear what my fellow book-clubbers think; I will read more Roth, but not for a while. It was not a hard read but it is the sort of book that I need to think about for some time, before moving on to another by him.