Philip Roth: Bring Out Yer Dead ("He's not dead yet...")

on Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Only last week I was having a chat with someone in a bookstore about authors due a new novel. Coetzee sprang to mind. Haven't heard from him for a while (though, I have since found out there is once called The Childhood of Jesus in the offing). Then there's Cormac McCarthy's who has the unenviable task of following up the single greatest literary work of the late 20th century. I'm also ready for newies from Delillo and Doctorow, as well as lesser names who thus far have only produced a single, great book: Salvadore Plascencia, Ferenc Karinthy, Rivka Galchen and Tirdad Zolghadr.

Naturally, the conversation drifted to the great master Philip Roth who, prior to 2011, had been churning out a book a year and lately has seemed to have fallen silent. We mused over the prospect of another fine late-career work. If his most recent book, Nemesis, was anything to go by, there was still a lot to look forward to.

Alas, Roth's silence has now been broken, but not in the way I had hoped. As I'm sure you've heard, he announced his retirement in an interview with a French magazine (as translated by Google Translate). In the pithy style of his last few books, he summed it up in two words. "I'm done."

Roth hasn't exactly made any secret of his struggles with his own mortality. Books like Exit Ghost, Everyman and The Humbling were all cloaked in the shroud of death, be it literal or metaphorical. Ironically, much like Don Delillo, when faced with the cataclysm he had for so long foreseen, Roth wasn't up to the task. Death bogged down those novels, and it was only when he broke free from it that he produced masterpieces such as Indignation, Nemesis and The Plot Against America.

It is weird to think of writing as a career like any other. Authors don't just 'retire' in the usual sense. Some stop writing out of necessity - Gabriel Garcia Marquez's dementia put an end to his output, even the prolific Bryce Courtenay called it quits after being diagnosed with terminal cancer - but for the most part, great writers keep working until death. I guess Roth doesn't agree. He hasn't been well of late, but I doubt he has reached a stage that he is no longer able to write. For him it was clearly a choice. Having read over his own work from end to beginning, he is now happy to rest on his laurels, knowing that he did not waste his life (if I might be so bold as to paraphrase him). Talk about an understatement!


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