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No dying of the light

Philip Roth's immortality is assured even if he doesn't write another word. Soumya Bhattacharya wrires.

books Updated: Nov 19, 2012 16:43 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya

Paying homage to John Updike, the English novelist Julian Barnes - a huge admirer of Updike's - wrote: "Hearing of John Updike's death, I had two immediate, ordinary reactions. The first was a protest - But I thought we had him for another ten years; the second, a feeling of disappointment that Stockholm had never given him the nod. The latter was a wish for him, and for American literature; the former a wish for me, for us, for Updikeans around the world."

Philip Roth is much alive. But hearing the news that he will write no more, Rothians around the world would have reacted in much the same way. Roth, 79, was quoted as saying in the French magazine Les inRocks: "To tell you the truth, I am done… I don't want to read [fiction], I don't want to write it, and I don't even want to talk about it anymore." In his blog post (from which all Roth quotes in this article are taken), the New Yorker editor, David Remnick, said that "this is a definitive version of what [Roth] has been telling friends privately for a couple of years."

Remnick reports that Roth made up his mind to reread his favourite authors - Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Turgenev, Hemingway - when he turned 74. "When I finished, I decided to reread all of my books beginning with the last, Nemesis." What his verdict on himself? "… 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."

That endeavour is reflected in an astonishingly rich and various body of work in a career spanning half a century (assuming that Nemesis, published in 2010, is his last; Goodbye, Columbus (1950) was his debut): 27 novels; two volumes of memoirs; and two books on writers and writing.

In a sense, great writers never die: neither when they stop writing, nor when they actually pass away. Their books ensure that they endure, live on through generations that succeed them. It is the best kind of immortality.

Roth will remain immortal. One of the reasons why he has endured is because he has - while remaining true to his themes - continued to change direction over the years, has always appeared to be fresh, always good for a surprise.

And what a journey it has been. From the outrageous comic brio of Portnoy's Complaint (1969) - the novel that propelled him into bestsellerdom, celebrity and infamy - to the mid-career masterpiece of post modern high jinks, The Counterlife (1986), to the magnificent late efflorescence starting with Sabbath's Theatre (1995) and continuing through American Pastoral (1997), The Human Stain (2000), The Dying Animal (2001) the immensely ambitious, counter factual The Plot Against America (2004), Everyman (2006) and Nemesis.

Among his peers (JM Coetzee, VS Naipaul, Milan Kundera), Roth is unrivalled in having produced a late phase of work that stands up to be counted as his best. Starting with Sabbath's Theatre, the seven novels mentioned above are more than enough to guarantee a writer a place in the canon. Writing books is a solitary and arduous enterprise, and most readers have no idea - as Naipaul has often pointed out - how hard it is physically, how draining and demanding, how much stamina it requires. The richness and vigorousness of Roth's recent work is therefore all the more remarkable.

Over the past two decades or so, Roth has been preoccupied with death and decay. Mickey Sabbath in Sabbath's Theatre let out a defiant, anguished howl against death. David Kepesh in The Dying Animal thought of "sex as a revenge on death". By the time Everyman appears, Roth is offering a chilling exploration of a gradual, inevitable dwindling: "Old age isn't a battle; old age is a massacre."

Everyman, relentlessly bleak and austere, shows us a final change in direction in Roth's literary voyage. Gone are the manic frenzy, hysteria and sexual energy that we so associated with Roth. Instead, there is forgiveness, a new sense of compassion, a sense of stoic resignation.

Roth's talent, though, has shown no sign of dwindling; in his writing, there has been no dying of the light. Although Roth has told Les inRocks that should he write a new book, it would probably be a failure, his admirers will point out that the evidence is to the contrary.

Nemesis, the novel Roth now says is his last, happens to be one of his best.

It is a real pity about the Nobel Prize. However baffling the error of omission is, there is still time for Stockholm to take note. The evidence - as seen in the body of work - is incontrovertible. Roth says he will not add to that body. If he goes back on that promise, his fans won't be complaining.