Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Philip Roth Is Not Frank Sinatra

So much to say, so little time. My man has been busy. First, Philip Roth did NOT appear at the National Book Festival in September as previously announced (still not sure why). Then he wrote an open letter to Wikipedia in The New Yorker in a Kafkaesque attempt to prove that he actually knows what his own books are about. Then, to top off a wacky fall, he announced his retirement! (Not to mention the amusing little episode of a fake twitter account that fooled a bunch of people.) 

Why does a novelist feel a need to announce retirement? CAN a novelist retire? Can one stop doing--or being-- that which has defined one's existence? It seems more common for successful novelists to keep writing as long as they are able, before infirmity or death makes the decision for them. Herman Wouk just came out with a new book at age 97. Even now, Roth has a post-it on his computer to remind himself that he has retired. It says, "The struggle with writing is over," which could be purely celebratory, but it's on the computer, as if he might accidentally start writing something if it weren't there. Does this mean that Roth has not been enjoying himself all these years? He does say that writing is frustration, so for many years he had the willpower to force himself to spend almost all his time doing something very frustrating. What is that drive, that burning to write? Why did he have it? Where did it come from? He told a younger writer to give up writing, that it's a horrible business--what if someone had told him that when he was young and he had listened? 

Why not just take a break or vacation, and eventually people will notice that you're not publishing anything. Why not just say, hey, I feel like chilling out for a while, helping my biographer with some stuff (which he is doing, by writing, of course), and then if you really don't feel like writing another novel, fine. He hasn't published since Nemesis in 2010, which is also when he sat for an unusual, extensive interview that has not yet been viewed on these shores. Is the act of announcing his retirement a simple bid for attention, or a more complex mind game to get us to realize what a horrible place the world would be if there were no more Philip Roth novels forthcoming? Maybe, or maybe he just really wants to retire. 

Of course, my reaction to his announcement, all this arguing against the whole idea of him never writing another novel, is due to my fear that stopping equals death. It is extremely presumptuous of me or anyone to give an opinion on the matter of Roth's retirement. It's just my irrational fear that his identity is so tied to writing, that if he doesn't write, he may just die. Apparently, he decided a couple years ago to quit writing, but didn't tell anyone until he was really sure. It only seems sudden to us. But doesn't it sound like a potential Roth plot? Celebrated author decides to quit writing while he is still able to enjoy life, but then finds out it's hard to leave when you can't find the door? His alter ego Nathan Zuckerman tried to stop writing and go to medical school--how did that turn out?

I started reading Zuckerman Unbound shortly after Roth’s retirement announcement, feeling that there was no better time to fill in my missing stretches in the Roth oeuvre. I found that the Zuckerman Bound trilogy speaks very much to the point of his retirement, even startlingly so. The Anatomy Lesson, especially, deals with the difficulty of writing, and of Zuckerman’s desire to be done with it. As has been pointed out a million times before, Zuckerman is not Roth, but not surprisingly, Roth’s creation broods over the same issues that Roth talked about after announcing his retirement, namely the daily struggle to write. Unable to write after the success of Carnovsky, and bedeviled by a stubborn, unexplained pain, Zuckerman contemplates suicide by jumping off the Stanhope. But, he thinks, “what if the pain vanished halfway down, went the way it came, leaped from his body as he sailed from the roof--what then? What if he saw in every salient detail a next book, a new start?" Imagine an older Zuckerman announcing his retirement, then thinking to himself, “But what if I get my best idea for a book after saying I’ve retired?”

Later he decides to pursue medical training, not necessarily because of his physical pain, but more to escape the arduous work of the writer--the listening and trying to turn what he has heard into art—a doctor would instead listen to and then heal the patient, a more worthy pursuit. ("Listening was the only treatment he could give. They come, he thought, and tell me things, and I listen, and occasionally I say, "Maybe I understand more than you think," but there's no treatment I can offer to cure the woes of all the outpatients crossing my path, bent beneath their burdens and their separate griefs. Monstrous that all the world's suffering is good to me inasmuch as it's grist to my mill--that all I can do, when confronted with anyone's story, is to wish to turn it into material, but if that's the way one is possessed, that is the way one is possessed. There's a demonic side to this business that the Nobel Prize committee doesn't talk much about. . . . The only patient being treated by the writer is himself.") At least Zuckerman hopes for escape--while simultaneously wracked by doubt if it would really work. He wonders if his problem is not really that he is "living without nursing a book that nursed him." Nursing a book is what made life livable--without being in the middle of writing a book, he is practically unable to live at all. But there seems to be nothing to be done; now that he has written Carnovsky, the "story he could dominate and to which his feelings had been enslaved had ended." His parents have also both died, and the Newark of his youth has disappeared: "Without a father and a mother and a homeland, he was no longer a novelist." 

Is the pain keeping him from writing, or does he have the pain because he cannot write? And what does this question in Roth's fiction have to do with Roth's retirement in life? There does not have to be a relationship between Zuckerman's "pain in the neck," and Roth's retirement, and yet it is irresistibly tempting to try to sketch one out, even though The Anatomy Lesson was published almost 30 years ago. The temptation grows with the discovery of incontrovertible proof in Zuckerman Unbound that Roth can predict the future: Zuckerman's answering service tells him the Italian called:
"Twice in the morning, twice in the afternoon." If Zuckerman did not grant him an interview, the Italian, a Rome journalist, was going to be out of of a job. . . . "He says he doesn't understand why you should treat him like this. He got very emotional when I told him I was only the service. You know what I'm afraid of? That he is going to make it up, a personal interview with Nathan Zuckerman, and they'll pass it off in Rome as the real thing." "Is that something he suggested as a possibility?" "He suggested a lot of possibilities. You know when an Italian gets going."
Of course this is obviously a premonition of what really happened in 2010, when Italian journalist Tommaso de Benedetti fabricated an interview with Roth when he supposedly criticized President Obama. And look at that--it's the same person who came up with the fake Twitter account just last week!

" 'In Time they say you've had four wives. 'In life only three.' " 

The penultimate chapter in The Anatomy Lesson is called “Burning.” Zuckerman travels to Chicago and presents his case for attending medical school to an old classmate, now an anesthesiologist--expert at deadening pain. His argument does not go well, as it is given under the influence of a Percodan/vodka/pot cocktail. His old friend tells him to try climbing Mount Everest if he's tired of writing, and he replies, "That's like writing. You're alone with the mountain and an ax. You're all by yourself and it's practically undoable. It is writing." And later, still appropos of writing: "If you want to be reminded of your limitations virtually every minute, there's no better occupation to choose." The burning is Zuckerman's desire to "begin again," to have a second life.

But apparently, despite this burning, another compulsion remains strong, although its presence seems like a kind of torture: "The burden isn't that everything has to be a book. It's that everything can be a book. And doesn't count as life until it is." While he has not yet given up on medical school, Zuckerman creates an oral portrait of a fictional character named after his nemesis Milton Appel, trying out the effect on a stranger on the plane and his chauffeur in Chicago. The chapter ends with Zuckerman unable to stop speaking in the voice of his own creation. The final chapter, "Corpus," finds Zuckerman in the hospital, but as patient, not doctor. As he convalesces, he begins making the rounds with the interns. Is he gathering material as a writer, or as a medical student? Roth writes that he is doing it "as though he still believed that he could unchain himself from a future as a man apart and escape the corpus that was his." In his fiction at least, Roth seems to be saying there is no escape from doing what you are meant to do.


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New York, NY, United States
Overeducated mom, addled by constant interruptions due to demands of family and dog, trying to read books and write coherent sentences about them. Luckily, yoga keeps me centered. Sharing my love of yoga through teaching helps make sense of it all. I have a yoga blog at Since 2015, it has been my pleasure to serve as a reader for Epiphany, a literary journal publishing fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and art; on Twitter as @epiphanymag.


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