I remember reading once that one of Alfred Tennyson's toughest critics scathingly quipped, in response to Arthur Hallam's death, that Tennyson would have been better off had he saddled up and sauntered off into the far distance on a horse -- the iambic "clip-clop" of the horse's hooves being not only more pleasant to listen to than Tennyson's In Memoriam (so says the critic), but also -- eventually -- they would have to stop as well.
For some reason, I had the same thought with regard to the news spreading of Philip Roth's retirement. "Did you see how I did that?" he asked me in early December. "How I retired quietly in a French magazine?"
Of course, with anything Mr. Roth says or writes, one never is quite sure how to gauge the sarcasm. A part of me believes that Philip Roth actually thought he could retire quietly in a French magazine. As news spread, however, it became clear that news of Roth's retirement would not be taken lightly. We readers, scholars and admirers of his work would certainly not allow that to happen. And it is not as though Roth himself has had any trouble with his so-called retirement. He reported to Charles McGrath a few weeks following the appearance of that fateful Les Inrocks interview that he has a post it note to remind him, happily, every day, that he is done: "The struggle is over," he told the New York Times.
But it is not over for us -- neither the struggle nor the grief. The elegies to Roth's work have been perpetual ever since the news broke. Everyone, including myself it seems, has something to say about it -- through personal reflection, through acknowledgement of what Roth means as a writer and scholar and through the dozens of conversations with others who seem unwilling also to confront this reality. It makes sense of course that we readers and writers would use the written word to express our grief. My favorites thus far include Ken Gordon's decision to "give the guy a break" and reread his old Roth; and the article in the Spanish paper El Pais announcing the retirement of Imre Kertész with the header connecting Kertész's retirement (albeit temporally) to the retirement of Philip Roth, as though one was the cause for the other.
Surely, the grief surrounding Roth's retirement, in the spoken and unspoken connections linking Roth's decision with just about everything else, marks a cultural movement in some sense. Adam Gopnik, in fact, even wrote for the New Yorker an excellent piece connecting Roth's retirement with the "burlesque of the Petraeus affair" at the end of November.
If anything, all of this writing emphasizes just how long Roth has been with us -- literally, psychically, culturally (over five decades), what an impact he has had on his nation and beyond, and what this impact means to scholarly writers, novelists and ordinary readers alike. I guess what I am trying to say is that it seems like this could go on for a while, and, to some extent, rightly so. But at some point, might we be better off riding into the distance on a horse saving the lambs for the animals' hooves rather than our own elegiac response?
I feel a little as though we all should have seen this coming -- that we ought to have been more prepared. When Nathan Zuckerman, from within the pages of Exit Ghost, declared that it would be his last appearance, many of us began to brace ourselves even then. Along with Miriam Jaffe Foger, I co-edited an issue of Philip Roth Studies entitled, "Mourning Zuckerman." Within it, Miriam, I, and several international authors lamented the loss of Roth's famous alter ego, claiming that it was Zuckerman's mournful knowledge of the U.S., of history, of the status of the writer that we would perhaps miss the most.
Yet that is not true. What we will miss the most -- what we fear we will mourn into perpetuity -- is the voice of Roth himself. He has said he has given up the novel. But maybe he has not given up writing. One of my friends quipped that a writer can never actually "retire." Writing has had as profound an impact on the daily life of Mr. Roth as he has had on the occupation itself. Philip Roth will always be a writer, in one form or another. Whatever the form it takes, I wish him all the best in his retirement. I think we should all stop mourning and, as Roth has done himself, and as Ken Gordon has said he will do, we should go back to the novels that do exist once more for old times' sake. And if that doesn't help us, then we should just get on a horse and ride.
This blog is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post on Philip Roth, the esteemed American author, who recently announced his retirement from writing. To read other pieces in the series, click here. What are your thoughts on this landmark announcement? We invite you to submit pieces of 500-850 words for possible publication in The Huffington Post firstname.lastname@example.org.