"He'd lost his magic. The impulse was spent. [...] His talent was dead." The opening of The Humbling (2009) tolled the bell for an aging actor, but behind Simon Axler's desperation and pain one could easily imagine Roth's. Roth, however, continued his struggle for the right word. In 2010, Nemesis was published, and, accustomed to his regular output, we were expecting another Roth book.
In October 2012, however, in an interview with the French magazine Les Inrocks, Roth calmly announced his retirement from fiction and the news reverberated all over the world. We were surprised. We didn't know what to think. We should have seen this coming, but we didn't want to. We still believed that our favorite novelist would never stop writing novels. How can a writer stop writing? Writing is his natural occupation. What else can he do?
Roth has repeatedly underlined the fact that writing is "a trying spiritual exercise." In his 1983 interview with Hermione Lee, for example, he said: "Writing for me isn't a natural thing that I just keep doing, the way fish swim and birds fly. It's something that's done under a certain kind of provocation, a particular urgency." The urgency Roth points to means that a writer cannot but obey the pressing call of his imagination. His novels impose themselves on him. As fellow writer Paul Auster put it in The Red Notebook, "There's something calling out to you, some human call, that makes you want to listen to the work" (112-113). If the work has to be written, "it will create its own form" (Auster 104).
Writing involves a state of mental tension and physical struggle. It requires discipline, determination, and total dedication to the exclusion of anything else. Turning his back on his life as a man, the writer lives his life as an author, but this is a life of solitude and silence. It is not without a tinge of bitterness then that the novelist Nathan Zuckerman sums up his life in Exit Ghost: "I had ceased to inhabit not just the great world but the present moment" (1). Like Zuckerman, all too often Roth has felt the desire to return to the turbulence of life. Now that he has finally retired as a novelist, he can make contact with the world again.
Exit Ghost (2007) was Zuckerman's last novel as Roth's favorite fictional voice. Roth continued to write fiction, however, albeit rather brief. In his late quartet, the "novelist's passion for amplification" turned into a passion for reduction (Exit 23). Yet, Roth was still feeling the inner necessity, the emergency to write. In 2009, after the release of The Humbling, he was interviewed by Jeffrey Trachtenberg for the Wall Street Journal. To the question "Are you working on a new book?" he answered: "I just finished one [...]. I take as little time as possible between works. I can't stand not working."
Roth had just finished Nemesis, which is the fourth of the "Nemeses" quartet comprising Everyman (2006), Indignation (2008) and The Humbling. After the publication of his last novel, he was not merely hampered by a writing block. He simply doesn't feel the urge to write. The tension, the emergency, the pain have disappeared. His instinct tells him to stop. For better or worse, a writer feels he has no choice.
The goddess Nemesis is the punisher of hubris, the insolence of mortal men, but Roth's humble attitude spares him her wrath. His decision to retire shows his wisdom, maturity, and courage. Unlike his hero Simon Axler, he doesn't cherish illusions of rejuventation. His attitude is an example of realism. He has lived to see his works published by the Library of America. He is a man at peace with himself and his career.
Like Bucky Cantor in Nemesis, the final image we retain of Roth is that of "striving excellence." His widely advertised retirement is an example and a lesson for his fellow-writers. Very few of them have had the insight and courage to carry out such a decision. Indeed, with Nemesis, Roth's career ends on a high note. Like the young javelin-thrower from the final pages, Roth seems to us invincible.
Is he finished with writing in general? Apparently, Roth feels another pressing call at present. In Exit Ghost, Zuckerman was so preoccupied with his biography that one could not fail to establish the connection with Roth and his own collaboration with Ross Miller. The collaboration turned short; Roth appointed Blake Bailey. If he has retired from fiction, he hasn't said his last word on non-fiction, and here we see a gleam of hope: according to Blake Bailey, Roth's notes for his biographer fill entire boxes.
More often than not, writers don't even realize a book is taking shape. In an earlier interview for Les Inrocks, Roth declared that his memoir Patrimony: A True Story (1991) came into being undeliberately: "I was writing it as my father's illness progressed. I saw him every day and I was so upset at the end of the day that I neither wanted to see friends, nor baseball, nor anything. All I could do was write but I didn't know that I was actually writing a book..." Away from fiction and back to (auto)biography: this is a combination we have already enjoyed as Roth readers. Of course, there will be more to come even if Roth himself ignores it.
Auster, Paul. The Red Notebook and Other Writings: True Stories, Prefaces and Interviews. London: Faber and Faber, 1995. Print.
Exit Ghost. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. Print.
The Humbling. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2009. Print.
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 email@example.com.