Philip Roth has done any number of things to shock people during his life as a writer. If you doubt that assertion, have a look at Portnoy’s Complaint. Not his best book, still, this novel in which masturbation plays a central role got people to sit up and pay attention. I remember the odd circumstances that led me to read the work. I was toiling in the Public Works Department in a suburb of Chicago in 1973 (the book came out in 1969), and behind our garage we had a yard, with a large junk pile of stuff we had picked up off the streets. One lunch hour, I discovered Portnoy in the dump and spent every lunch hour with him until I finished the sad story of his complaint. I had to leave the book where I’d acquired it; it was in no condition to pass on to anyone else.
Even more shocking than Portnoy’s Complaint was Roth’s recent announcement that he was quitting writing. Mind you, the man will soon be 81 years old, and he deserves a break. But a writer making a public statement of that nature is surprising. Usually, old writers don’t die, they just fade away.
And just in case anyone was tempted to tell Roth, “No, Philip, don’t do that,” he had an answer, more like a preemptive strike. He described his writing life as a complete exercise in agony, a daily struggle to the death with his material, an act that gave him no satisfaction and that condemned him to solitude. “The struggle with writing is over,” he announced. “The horror of being caged has lost its thrill.” He spoke of his job as “undoable,” one he approached “defenseless and unprepared.” That was the shock, really, more than the actual renouncing of writing: how could anyone whose books were read so eagerly by people all over the world have suffered so much at his trade?
Well, maybe he was exaggerating. Or maybe not. My tendency is to believe him; I don’t think he would joke about something so essential. But I do have a lingering question for him, and for other writers who use the same descriptions: if it was really that bad, how come you kept at it for so many years?
Of course, there’s Samuel Beckett’s famous shrug: Bon qu’à ça. No good for anything else. (I think it was Beckett, it sounds like him; if I have erred, someone will tell me.) But I’m still not satisfied. I can’t help thinking that there’s more joy in the trade than some writers want to own up to.
In a recent New York Times interview originally published in the Swedish paper Svenska Dagbladet, Roth made a number of interesting observations. The 1950s and the 1960s were the great age of the American novel for a number of reasons. The fact that writers wrote without any critical framework or ideology was in part responsible for their great and stirring output. As well, writers could live and write just about anywhere. They did not have to live in or write about an imperial center, the way Paris is in France, for example. The United States is a decentralized country, and its writing follows suit. Can we say the same thing about Canada? Politically decentralized, yes. Culturally as well? I’m not so sure. Just think about the slogan of CBC’s “Canada Reads”: One book to unite the country. I don’t think that’s possible or even desirable.
This most recent Swedish interviewer returned to Roth’s signing off – his leaving the writing life. Once again, Roth sounded sure of his decision, but without the bitter relief of his earlier pronouncements. It’s almost as if he had attained peace of mind – imagine such a thing happening to a writer!