When Philip Roth told the French Magazine Les Inrocks that Nemesis would be his final novel, I privately hoped that the announcement was yet another literary game played at his reader's expense. Having studied and written about Roth for much of my adult life, I was used to being outsmarted by the writer. Could retirement be Roth's greatest imaginative feat yet? In allegedly living his life "sans language, shape, structure, meaning," as Nathan Zuckerman (Roth's longtime alter ego) would put it, I wondered whether the novelist had finally succeeded in unbinding himself from his own fictions.
Most likely, however, Roth is just tired of being "Philip Roth." Who wouldn't be? He has written The Great American Novel (in 1973), won almost every literary award imaginable (except for the obstinate Nobel) and has a body of work that is preserved in its entirety by The Library of America. Everything that Roth writes -- including an angry letter to Wikipedia -- is expected to be ironic and masterful. What more is there to do? What more can he do? In retiring, Roth unburdened himself of the weight of his own literary genius. Like Zuckerman in Anatomy Lesson, the author now covets "the right to be stupid. The right to be lazy. The right to be no one and nothing. Instead of solitude, company; instead of silence, voices; instead of projects, escapades..." To be as accomplished as Roth is comes at a cost. He is discipline personified. In his old age, the author would swim for two hours every day so that he had the energy to tackle writing. He would read in the evenings so that he could write in the morning. Roth even gave up having a family so that he could devote himself to his literary calling.
It is Roth's ascetic devotion to his craft that first drew me to his writing. By transforming his life into art, he seemingly was able to free himself from the demands of others. After the publication of Goodbye, Columbus, the author was virtually expelled from the Jewish community for proliferating "bad" Jewish stereotypes. Although he ranted about the foolishness of such readers, he also clearly relished in playing the part of the "bad boy." Through his writing, he flouted familial expectations and forged a life that would be vastly different from those of his forebears.
In many ways, it was this freedom that I sought as an academic. Being a first generation Chinese Canadian, I felt that there were only so many professional paths that I could take without being a disappointment to my family. But I didn't want to be an accountant, a lawyer, or a computer geek. Like Roth, I wanted a different life -- one that would set me apart from cultural stereotypes. And so, I decided to study literature. It was my way of rebelling without actually having to do anything bad. Indeed, by devoting my career to writers like Roth, I was able to defer my own life. Unlike many of my friends who have taken more conventional paths, I do not have a house in the suburbs, stocks, or children. What I do have is a dissertation -- a chapter of which is devoted to Roth's memoirs -- that I've written and revised, loved and hated for almost half a decade. So when I first read about Roth's retirement, I almost felt bereaved. The boundlessness of his wisdom is now finite. His announcement made me wonder whether it is time for me to move on as well -- to experience my personal life unmediated by words. Not sure I can do it. That's why Roth is Roth, I guess. Not only does he write better than anyone I know, but he even overachieves when it comes to retirement.
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 to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow Tony Fong on Twitter: www.twitter.com/iamtonyfong