Goodbye, Frustration

Pen Put Aside, Roth Talks

HORIZONS

CHARLES MCGRATH

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.”
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.”
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.”
There was one thing Mr. Roth wanted to clear up: He is always being misquoted as saying that the novel is dying. “I do not believe the novel is dying,” he insisted. “I said the readership is dying out. That’s a fact, and I’ve been saying it for 15 years. I said the screen will kill the reader, and it has. The movie screen in the beginning, the television screen and now the coup de grâce, the computer screen.”
But even as readership declines, great novels continue to be written. “Ed Doctorow,” he said, starting to list some writers he admired. “Don DeLillo. And now this guy Denis Johnson — dynamite. Franzen — dynamite. Erdrich — a powerhouse. And there are another 20 young writers who are very, very good. This is something.”
He added: “Why should we have any more readers? The numbers don’t mean anything. The books mean something.”
By now it was becoming dark. He got up, walked across the room in his stocking feet and switched on a couple of lights.

(The New York Times)

Lastupdate on : Wed, 9 Jan 2013 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Wed, 9 Jan 2013 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Thu, 10 Jan 2013 00:00:00 IST




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