Not Magic, No Picnic Either

The following was just published in the Daily Beast's 'Books'  

Philip Roth can—and, in case you haven’t noticed, does—speak for himself, but most of his friends will, I suspect, find the mournful tone circulating along with reports of his retirement a little premature. When a baseball player retires, we assume that he believes he can no longer perform at a standard he admires, and so is done with the field, but not with the game, and certainly not with the rest. When a writer retires, we assume he is, well, finished.

The thing is, a book is terrific work. You have to screw yourself into hours of intense concentration, hour after hour, month after month. You have to juggle and risk hypothetical lines of development; then submit to the discipline of a lonely relay, creating a word-baton at night to pass to yourself the next morning. You have to remember (and remember, and remember!) where you were and what you meant, if anything. You have to steel yourself for people telling you what you meant. There comes a time when the activity becomes too physically taxing and the striving no longer worth the compensations.

We all know management consultants who give up the PowerPoint and airports in their 50s, professors who give up the grading and meetings in their 60s. A writer too can retire without giving up on literature or the experiences that are turned into one’s fictions. As if mortals—as Roth would be the first to say—ever give up on their fictions.

Roth told an interviewer with the French publication Les inRocks, what he’s told many friends for the past couple of years, that he was through with the novel: “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. To the exclusion of nearly everything else. It’s enough!” Once, he told me, there was the next book, or the next woman—eventually, there is the next nap.

But enough is not exactly enough. He admitted to the same interviewer that he’s been rereading some of the favorite novels of his youth; he’s also reviewing his own work, first to last, making notes, some quite extensive, clarifying his motives in undertaking various works, both for his biographer and himself. What could be more satisfying for a novelist who’s trained as a literary critic—and more fascinating for his admirers?

Anyway, the losses to be mourned are ours, not his. Nelson Aldrich told me when I was writing Promiscuous that he credits Roth with writing a new book anticipating “every new phase of life, just before I was about to experience it.” Ambition, eros, family love and dissolution, fame, depression, resignation, satisfaction. With Everyman we even got a phase called dying. What made Roth so beloved was this directness, a particular life threatening us with the universal, the not-knowing-what-hit-him just before it was about to hit us. What will we do without his mapping?

As for writers he’s inspired, the most precious part of his example may be the respect he’s shown the craft, including a knowledge of when to hang 'em up. The last public reading I saw Roth give, in New York in May 2011, was preceded by a panel exploring his last book, Nemesis. We finished our little papers. Roth took over the stage and stood there by himself, reading the concluding section, about his hero, an athletics teacher named Bucky Cantor, instructing his young charges in the throwing of the javelin:

When he was ready to begin, he told us what to watch for, starting with his approach run and the bounding stride and ending with the throw. Without the javelin in his hand he walked through the entire delivery for us in slow motion, describing it as he did so. “It’s not magic, boys, and it’s no picnic either. However if you practice hard,” he said, “and you work hard and you exercise diligently—if you’re regular with your balance drills, one, your mobility drills, two, at your flexibility drills, three—if your faithful to your weight-training program, and if throwing the javelin really matters to you, I guarantee you, something will come of it.

You could see each of his muscles bulging when he released it into the air. He let out a strangulated yowl of effort (one we all went around imitating for days afterward), a noise expressing the essence of him—the naked battle cry of striving excellence … None of us had ever before seen an athletic act so beautifully executed right in front of our eyes … Through him, we boys had left the little story of the neighborhood and entered the historical saga of our ancient gender.

“It’s not magic, boys, and it’s no picnic either.” When Roth finished reading, we were quiet, suspecting he was elegizing his own powers; that he was a little in awe of his past discipline, perhaps preparing his exit. “You seemed like Prospero up there,” I told him. “Whatever you think,” he smiled.