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Philip Roth: On Writing And Retiring

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Philip Roth: On Writing And Retiring

When I relocated to Colorado three months ago, I brought with me from Ohio the notion that I would spend more days and more of my time writing. It hasn’t quite turned out that way. One reason is that the weather is generally so pleasant here that it is difficult to sit tethered to a computer. Another reason is that writing, at least for me, is hard and time-consuming work. Does that put me into the same category as someone like Philip Roth, a writer who has distinguished himself over the course of an exceptional career?

Clearly, no.

Still, I empathize with Mr. Roth. As he approaches the age of 80, he’s decided he has had enough and is retiring from writing fiction.

For those who appreciate the commitment required to produce excellent writing and who recognize how difficult it is to face and then try to fill a blank page, here’s an interesting and informative profile in the NYT, “Goodbye, Frustration: Pen Put Aside, Roth Talks“:

On the computer in Philip Roth’s Upper West Side apartment these days is a Post-it note that reads, “The struggle with writing is over.” It’s a reminder to himself that Mr. Roth, who will be 80 in March and who has enjoyed one of the longest and most celebrated careers in American letters, has retired from writing fiction — 31 books since he started in 1959. “I look at that note every morning,” he said the other day, “and it gives me such strength.”

To his friends the notion of Mr. Roth not writing is like Mr. Roth not breathing. It sometimes seemed as if writing were all he did. He worked alone for weeks at a time at his house in Connecticut, reporting every morning to a nearby studio where he wrote standing up, and often going back there in the evening. At an age when most novelists slow down, he got a second wind and wrote some of his best books: “Sabbath’s Theater,”“American Pastoral,”“The Human Stain” and “The Plot Against America.” Well into his 70s, the books, though shorter, came uninterruptedly, practically one a year.

But over the course of a three-hour interview — his last, he said — Mr. Roth seemed cheerful, relaxed and at peace with himself and his decision, which was first announced last month in the French magazine Les InRocks. He joked and reminisced, talked about writers and writing, and looked back at his career with apparent satisfaction and few regrets. Last spring he appointed Blake Bailey as his biographer and has been working closely with him ever since.

Mr. Roth said he actually made the decision to stop writing in 2010, a few months after finishing his novel “Nemesis,” about a 1944 polio epidemic in his hometown, Newark.

“I didn’t say anything about it because I wanted to be sure it was true,” he said. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute, don’t announce your retirement and then come out of it.’ I’m not Frank Sinatra. So I didn’t say anything to anyone, just to see if it was so.”

On a table in his living room was a stack of photographs he had just been sent by a cousin: his mother in her bridal gown, the veil trailing down a flight of stairs; a very young Mr. Roth with his parents and his older brother, Sandy, outside their home in Newark; a handsome teenage Roth sitting on a sofa with his first serious girlfriend; Private P. Roth in his Army uniform and helmet.

Nearby was an iPhone he had bought recently. “Why?” he said. “Because I’m free. Every morning I study a chapter in ‘iPhone for Dummies,’ and now I’m proficient. I haven’t read a word for two months. I pull this thing out and play with it.”

Then he corrected himself: “I haven’t read during the day. At night I read. I read for two hours. I just finished a marvelous book by Louise Erdrich, ‘The Round House.’ But mostly I read 20th-century history and biography. I lived then. I was either a child or at school or at work. It’s time I caught up.”

As far as he knows, Mr. Roth said, the only other writer to retire when he still had something on his fastball, so to speak, was E. M. Forster, who stopped writing in his 40s. But Forster stopped largely because he felt that he couldn’t publish books on the theme that most interested him: homosexual love. Mr. Roth stopped because he feels he has said what he has to say.

“I sat around for a month or two trying to think of something else and I thought, ‘Maybe it’s over, maybe it’s over,’ ” he said. “I gave myself a dose of fictional juice by rereading writers I hadn’t read in 50 years and who had meant quite a lot when I read them. I read Dostoevsky, I read Conrad — two or three books by each. I read Turgenev, two of the greatest short stories ever written, ‘First Love’ and ‘The Torrents of Spring.’ ” He also reread Faulkner and Hemingway.

“And then I decided to reread my own books,” Mr. Roth went on, “and I began from the last book forward, casting a cold eye. And I thought, ‘You did all right.’ But when I got to ‘Portnoy’ ” — “Portnoy’s Complaint,” published in 1969 — “I had lost interest, and I didn’t read the first four books.”

“So I read all that great stuff,” he added, “and then I read my own and I knew I wasn’t going to get another good idea, or if I did, I’d have to slave over it.”

Mr. Roth is now in excellent health, after back surgery in April, and exercises regularly. But he said: “I know I’m not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration — it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time.” He went on: “I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore.”

I hope Mr. Roth enjoys his retirement.

Like most writers, he’s earned it.

 

  1. Doc Pingree says:

    I’m finding that I understand completely Mr. Roth’s thinking about writing. I, like you, was in the PR department of a rubber company in Akron. Wrote constantly there, and on the side, took on screenplay writing. Now, I’m in Colorado (maybe that’s the problem; something in the water!) and I’m somewhat retired from it all…and I find I don’t WANT to undertake another project of any size or depth. Fire’s gone. I had the chance to make my statement, didn’t, so I’m hanging it up. For me, there’s a huge sense of relief in it. Glad I did it; glad it’s over! Hope you’re doing well.

    • Rob Jewell says:

      Doc, hi. And thanks for the comments. I certainly agree with you. And maybe it is something in the water in Colorado. I know I’m enjoying myself and taking advantage of the near-perfect weather and the opportunity to get outside and do pretty much what I want most days. I’m not a huge fan of Mr. Roth, having read a handful of his books only in the past few years. But as I was reading the NYT article, I was struck by the frustration he expressed about writing, as well as a certain sadness that even someone with his genius and talent could run out of ideas or question his ability to continue his life’s work. I’d like to believe that I have at least one book in me. We’ll see. Hope everything is going well for you.

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