by Alan Cooper
With the 2013 publication of its final (eighth and ninth) volumes of Philip Roth’s collected works, The Library of America (LoA) has reprinted every word of Roth’s thirty-one books, twenty-eight of them works of fiction. There will be no more Roth books. These hand-holdable volumes “printed on light-weight, acid-free paper that will not turn yellow or brittle with age” have preserved Roth for the ages. It remains to be seen what, if anything, can guarantee a Roth readership.
This completion of the LoA project coincides with Roth’s eightieth birthday and with his growing conviction that the fiction-reading public is dwindling in the face of electronic quick fixes, perhaps consigning the traditional novel to a footnote in literary history. Roth has announced his retirement from the writing of fiction, echoing yet again what has been for him a triggering precept, Rilke’s “You must change your life.” Roth’s public and his readership (not always the same thing) have responded with due celebration and wishful disbelief.
Critical revaluations and predictions are popping up in print. Which are the great novels, which the merely good — or wonderfully good — and do the shortened works of his last five productive years match up to his standards? After fifty-four years of pounding it out, is he now tired? lonely? losing it? entitled to a life away from the keyboard? or to some celebration? He has authorized a biography and chosen the biographer. He has attended the naming of a street after him in his native Newark, NJ and the plaquing of his childhood home as a city landmark. Hundreds of people have taken bus tours of his Weequahic neighborhood to see, and hear rehearsed, the places and events of his novels. Two documentary films have been made about his life and works. Speculations are abuzz — perhaps there will be another full-length novel, about a man who un-retires; perhaps a Nobel Prize will top the dozen or so major awards already bestowed upon him; perhaps the Swedes will drop their anti-Semitism!
But at an eightieth birthday celebration at the Newark Museum, where an overflow audience heard praises of his astonishing talent by world- renowned authors and scholars and a moving response by Roth on the importance, especially to a writer, of mining life’s small moments and of accepting the finality of death, it became clear that his shutting down owes to the convergences of time. Other speakers stood, Roth sat. He walked with a bit of a shuffle, but his handshake was firm and his eye engaging.
In recent interviews Roth has acknowledged he gets tired, he has a medical history, he has sometimes felt lonely; yet he has a personal life about which he remains silent (it’s none of our business), and an irrepressible sense of humor. During his years as a writer he sometimes felt the panic of being between books, of not knowing what his next subject would be, of awaiting some thought or memory that could raise a question that writing might explore. He let the fiction come from the imagination at work during the writing, concentrating on the passage at hand and trusting that somehow it would suggest itself into plot, setting, character. Sometimes it did not. Any success might have had to await the rewriting. Authorship took time. Other claimants on that time might have been easily resented. His books were his children; his childhood got relived in his books.
It was a Jewish childhood; it has been a secular Jewish life. Alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman’s statement, “Jews are to history as Eskimos are to snow[.]” or Nathan’s discomfort in a church, where every symbol posited destruction of Jews, or the fictive Roth’s calling his fictive alter-ego “Moshe Pipick” (not to be expected from a John Updike) reflect a sensibility that has chronicled the Jewish experience in America from a humanist point of view. In his Newark Museum response, Roth read a seven-page reminiscence by his Mickey Sabbath: the gravestone messages of Jews — the “beloved” fathers, husbands, sons, friends. “The beloved are comfortably dead,’ he quipped warmly and softly, and then quoted Kafka: “The meaning of life is that it stops.” In an older Jewish context “…man lieth down and rises not;/Till the heavens be no more, they shall not wake,/ or be roused out of their sleep” (Job, 14:12). Good company for a Jewish humanist. Readers owe it to themselves to reread Philip Roth.
Alan Cooper teaches English at York College, CUNY. Notable among his numerous contributions to periodicals, reviews, and books is his Philip Roth and the Jews (SUNY Press, 1996). His latest book is the young-adult novel Prince Paskudnyak and the Giant Bats.