Philip Roth is giving up fiction – writing but also reading. This he announced in October in an interview conducted with the French journal Les InRockuptibles. There he says that following the publication of Nemesis in 2010, he decided to re-read the classics to then re-read his own books in reverse order. Two years later, having finished his reading marathon, he has concluded that he has made the best of his ability, and, therefore, can now retire.
No problem there, especially considering Roth’s age – seventy eight – and his long and successful publication record: twenty-seven novels, winner of the Pulitzer prize for literature, twice awarded the National Book Award, twice the National Book Critics Circle award, three times the PEN/Faulkner award, finalist for some or other award every few years since the mid-nineteen-seventies, including for the Nobel prize—except that the latter has evaded him, and this, rumors have it, is a stain on his pride.
Roth speaks of fiction as one would of a disappointing lover or an oppressive marriage. Writing never came easy, he says, and still he devoted himself to it, at the expense of everything else. Now, finally, he’s had enough. Writing, he goes on, is about being always on the wrong, perpetually frustrated, eternally confronted with one’s failures. Moreover, he has no new ideas.
Therefore, his plan is to now devote himself to sorting out his own private archive of notes and diaries so that his biographer, Blake Bailey, has something to work with. It is not his intention, he adds, to influence what Bailey writes. He is bound to get things wrong, but “twenty per cent wrong is better than twenty-two per cent wrong.”
It is a little bit sad but mostly funny to listen to Philip Roth thus talk about his writing career and his self-understanding as a novelist. Despite his many successes, he sounds infinitely mortified—he’s had enough, he says, but what he really means is that he is not good enough—and still he is not responsible since everything that happens to us is “a question of luck or bad luck.”
In Greek mythology, Nemesis was the goddess of revenge and retribution, the one who befalls especially the very gifted, those who are never satisfied, and always want more. For some people – and Philip Roth seems to belong to that category – their luck and good fortune is what troubles them most.