Nov 10, 2012

The last book by Philip Roth

"Roth, who is seventy-eight, recently told the French magazine Les inRocks, “To tell you the truth, I’m done.” Nemesis,  which was published in 2010, will be his last book. Roth told Les inRocks that when he turned seventy-four he reread his favorite authors—Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Turgenev, Hemingway. Then, he said, “When I finished, I decided to reread all of my books beginning with the last, Nemesis. “I wanted to see if I had wasted my time writing. And I thought it was more or less a success. At the end of his life, the boxer Joe Louis said, ‘I did the best I could with what I had.’ It’s exactly what I would say of my work: I did the best I could with what I had.” “After that, I decided that I was finished with fiction,” Roth went on. “I don’t want to read it, I don’t want to write it, and I don’t even want to talk about it anymore. I dedicated my life to the novel. I studied them, I taught them, I wrote them, and I read them. At the exclusion of nearly everything else. It’s enough!” — The New Yorker
When I interview Roth in 2010, I had a suspicion Nemesis might be his last book.  It brought to a close a quartet of what felt like late works, in which Roth loosed catastrophes, like Prospero. In Indignation, the catastrophe was the Korean war. In The Humbling the catastrophe was a woman. In Everyman the catastrophe was death itself. And in Nemesis it was polio, sweeping through the children of wartime Newark, during a baking hot summer from Roth’s youth.  Late Roth, like late Shakespeare, late Turner and late Beethoven, was turning out to involve choppy weather. 

"I hadn’t thought it but I think its true," he told me in his soft, low voice, a mixture of sand and claret, in which his career as a lover of women seems all too apparent. "These last four books are all cataclysmic books. And so was Exit Ghost, which came before. And so was The Plot Against America, which came before that. Maybe I only write cataclysmic books, early, late or middle." He laughs. "But I think it's true to call these cataclysmic books. Why? The darkness is unavoidable. You don't die, but everyone else does. So you make your way though a cemetery of your friends and loved ones. That focuses you. Going through all these papers and things, I see half the people are dead. I look at photographs: everybody's dead. Styron, Updike...That they are all gone and silenced, it's hard to take. It's hard to take. And so you imagine cataclysms." 

The "papers" he referred to were the personal effects he was sorting through. Ordinarily, the period between novels would be a fraught one for him, racked with anxiety about stepping back into the ring, but he told me he had been able to step free with ease this time. He had spent the past summer going back through the many boxes of correspondence, photographs and effects that have accumulated in the 31 years he's been in the house. Originally, he was looking for ideas, but when none came, it turned into "an exercise in recollection", as he put it, sounding like a character in a Beckett play.

 "It's like a Beckett play in that it often feels pointless," he said, laughing. "I don't think any writing is going to come of it. Ordinarily, I would be very unhappy about that, but for some reason I am not this time. I've written about almost everything I know. It may be that there's something I've not considered that will occur to me, but for the moment... I don't feel pursued."

"Pursued by what?" 

"The writing furies."

Before I left him, he offered to walk me around his garden, a large, rolling lawn ringed by trees, their leaves rustling. "That maple is over 200 years old," he said, pointing proudly to one of them. I asked him if he was worried about dying halfway through a book.

"A lot of writers feel that. I've always thought that you couldn't die midway through a book. It supplies you with life energy."

"And what if Nemesis turns out to be your last book?"

"I suppose there is always that possibility," he said calmly. "I've lived with that possibility with every book I've written in the past 30 years."

"And if it were?" 

"I might want to put a gun to my head. I would hope not. If this were really the end, which will have to come eventually, I would hope that I could learn to take it easy. The furies pursued me, and I pursued them. It would be nice to get the hell out of the way!"

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