Hero: Philip Roth
Few novelists have managed to provide their own writing lives with a full stop. Too often, it ceases to be their story to tell. There always seems to be something knocking around after their death, an unfinished novel or a half-cut manuscript to be scribbled into completion at another’s hand, the author’s authority undermined in posterity.
But Philip Roth, a contemporary writer who, for once, actually deserves the veneration which has long come his way, has managed to do just that. He has put an end to his own literary career; he has silenced his calling. ‘I have dedicated my life to the novel’, he told the French magazine Les Inrocks recently. ‘I studied, I taught, I wrote and I read. With the exclusion of almost everything else. Enough is enough! I no longer feel this fanaticism to write that I have experienced in my life.’ And so that is that. Nemesis, published in 2010, is the author’s very own end.
Is Roth a great novelist? Yeah, I would say so. From his debut collection, Goodbye, Columbus, published in 1959, to Sabbath’s Theatre, which won the National Book Award in 1995, Roth’s fiction was playful, ironising and gloriously self-conscious. And the prose itself, elegantly distended in typically long, rich sentences, was something to be devoured. But in many ways, it is that great American trilogy of novels written in the late 1990s - American Pastoral, I Married A Communist and The Human Stain - which sets the seal on Roth’s literary achievement. For in these epic elegies, these rages against the dying light of Roth’s idea of America - its liberalism, its self-making, its hope - he captures something of the truth of our collective historical moment, while simultaneously denouncing its retrograde tendencies.
And now, this most devoted of writers, whose all-encompassing commitment to his literary craft was literally writ large in American Pastoral‘s infamously intricate, pages-long description of the craft of glove-making, has written himself off. The weight of the decision shouldn’t be underestimated. Roth’s life was monkish in its writerly seclusion, his dedication all-consuming. And now he has chosen to go beyond it. Yet this existential moment of Roth’s career shouldn’t perhaps surprise us. After all, this is the creator of The Human Stain‘s central protagonist, Coleman Silk, the light-skinned black man who decided to become a Jew, who chose ‘to become a new being’. And so, in a heroic, self-determining coda to his own literary life, Roth has decided at the last to become a new being, too: Roth the Retired.