Philip Roth’s surprise decision to lay down his pen after 31 books has left the acclaimed US novelist more relaxed, he says — and even with time to tackle the newfangled complexities of the iPhone.
Roth, who is 79 and one of the surviving giants of a golden age in American literature, is not retiring because of ill health or age, he claims, but mostly because after decades he has nothing left he wants 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 told The New York Times.
In an attempt to revive his creative juices he began rereading the greats — Fyodor Dostoevsky, Joseph Conrad, Ivan Turgenev, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway. Then he began going back over his own oeuvre, which runs from the sexually explicit “Portnoy’s Complaint” to the Pulitzer Prize-winning “American Pastoral.”
The juices didn’t flow.
“I read all that great stuff,” he told the Times in the interview published Saturday, “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.”
The decision to quit was originally announced last month in low-key fashion during an interview with Les InRocks, a cultural magazine that although prominent in France is little known outside.
The gently broken news took weeks to filter back into the US media, where it was met with surprise. Born in 1933 and a contemporary of Don De Lillo, Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer, the Jewish American writer is the doyen of a whole literary era and had shown no sign of significantly slowing down.
Still, Roth had no doubts.
On the computer in his Manhattan apartment, the Times said in what it was told would be his final interview, sat a Post-it note reading: “The struggle with writing is over.”
“I look at that note every morning,” Roth was quoted as saying. “It gives me such strength.”
Roth is spending his time working with his biographer, Blake Bailey, and catching up on reading about 20th century history.
But for the first time in as long as he can remember, there is also time to have as many friends as he likes over to his Connecticut house outside New York, without the pressure to shut himself away and work alone.
“My house this summer was full of people,” he said. “I had guests practically every weekend, and sometimes they stayed through the week.”
He added: “I have a cook now who cooks for me. In the old days I couldn’t have people in the house all the time. When they came for the weekend, I couldn’t get out to write.”
There’s even time now for the initially baffling iPhone.
“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,” he said.
The new-found love for the electronic gadget is ironic given that Roth also used this valedictory interview to repeat his death knell for the popularity of novels in the face of competition from electronic media.
“The readership is dying out. That’s a fact, and I’ve been saying it for 15 years,” he told the Times. “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 grace, the computer screen.”
[Flickr image via Madison Guy.]