Philip Roth Finally Gets a Life


Retirement will allow the work-obsessed novelist to focus on something besides writing.

Eric Thayer/Reuters

When Philip Roth decided to retire, I felt a personal sense of loss.

Roth wasn't the first author to hang up the typewriter prematurely. Roth himself cites E.M. Foster's decision, at 40, to stop writing fiction. Kurt Vonnegut tried to retire with Timequake, though he couldn't stick with the plan. Romance writer LaVyrle Spencer retired in 1997. "I want to be free!" she said in a phone call to Publishers Weekly, adding that she wanted to spend time with her grandchildren and travel with her husband.

But this was different. This was Philip Roth! The author whose long-term, absolute devotion to his work was perfectly expressed by his young alter ego Nathan Zuckerman in The Ghost Writer: "Purity. Serenity. Simplicity. Seclusion. All one's flamboyance and originality reserved for the grueling, exalted, transcendent calling...This is how I will live."

Like so many people, I've been reading and rereading his work over the years, and it seemed that a writer as strong and obsessive as Roth, only death could halt his production. I depended on him to keep focused entirely on his vocation, decade after decade, no matter how stupid or vulgar American culture grew. Roth couldn't be dumbed down or replaced. You expect ordinary, hard-working mortals to retire from their dull and unfulfilling jobs to Floridian condos and Hawaiian shirts. But not Roth. Retirement was for the rest of us.

So I walked around, went to work, and spent time with the family, all the while vaguely thinking: What will I do without any new Roth books?

Then the answer came to me: I'll go and live my life. The only real changes: 1. I'll now just reread his books; and 2. Roth will finally get to live his life. Retirement, I saw, is perhaps Roth's last chance to balance the life-work equation.

David Remnick, who has profiled Roth for The New Yorker, tells this story: Someone once asked Roth to watch his kitten. "For a day or two, I played with the cat, but, in the end, it demanded too much attention," says Roth. "It consumed me, you see. So I had to ask my friend to take it back."

If he couldn't juggle novel-writing and a tiny little kitty, what would the author have done with, say, children or grandchildren? Not much, I would imagine—which is perhaps why he chose not to start a family.

So I've decided to give the guy a break. He's done plenty for me already. He finally has a chance to live his life as an ordinary person (OK, an ordinary person who is aiding Blake Bailey in the writing of his biography). He's been liberated from the responsibility of producing masterpieces of American literature.

So I welcome him to life lived completely off the page. In devoting himself completely to the Madness of Art, Roth might have missed out on a few things. The great man may have to learn to kill time the way non-famous, non-novelists do. Remnick reports that four years ago Roth took a short vacation from the "fanatical habit" of writing. Roth said: "I went to the Met and saw a big show they had. It was wonderful. Astonishing paintings. I went back the next day. I saw it again. Great. But what was I supposed to do next, go a third time? So I started writing again."

This time there will be no return. Roth now has a life. I wonder what his imagination will make of it.

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Ken Gordon is a freelance writer and the social media manager at the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education.

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