categories: Cocktail Hour
That notorious slacker, Philip Roth, decided to take a day off from work recently. Actually he decided to take them all off. At seventy nine, with thirty one books under his belt, he claims to be calling it quits.
My money says he can’t do it. My money says the habits of imagination are too ingrained. My money says that his quitting, described here to Charles McGrath in a piece in the New York Times, sounds a whole lot like another person’s writing: “Mr. Roth hasn’t given up writing entirely. He is collaborating on a novella, via e-mail, with the 8-year-old daughter of a former girlfriend, and he has been writing lengthy notes and memos for his biographer.”
Roth goes on to say that these notes and memos have begun to fill up boxes. Hmmm… Collecting elaborate notes on one’s biography so that they can later be integrated into a book. Sounds kind of familiar. But if he thinks that is quitting, then good for him.
So what else has he been doing during this downtime?
“I sat around for a month or two trying to think of something else and I thought, ‘Maybe it’s over, maybe it’s over,’ ” he said. “I gave myself a dose of fictional juice by rereading writers I hadn’t read in 50 years and who had meant quite a lot when I read them. I read Dostoevsky, I read Conrad — two or three books by each. I read Turgenev, two of the greatest short stories ever written, ‘First Love’ and ‘The Torrents of Spring.’ ” He also reread Faulkner and Hemingway.
“And then I decided to reread my own books,” Mr. Roth went on, “and I began from the last book forward, casting a cold eye. And I thought, ‘You did all right.’ But when I got to ‘Portnoy’ ” — “Portnoy’s Complaint,” published in 1969 — “I had lost interest, and I didn’t read the first four books.”
“So I read all that great stuff,” he added, “and then I read my own and I knew I wasn’t going to get another good idea, or if I did, I’d have to slave over it.”
And what else?
He told McGrath that, for the first time, he’s been having a lot of guests. No longer the monastic writer, living a life “almost exclusively devoted to fiction,” he has filled his house with other people, people who, by his own lights, came in second to work for fifty or so years. Sounds good. People. Reading. Almost a summer idyll.
And in contrast to that idyll stands the old writing life:
“Writing is frustration — it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time.” He went on: “I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore.”
This is in line with how Roth has described writing throughout his career, strange for someone for whom prose seems to flow out of as if through a fire hose. But no, he assures us, that fire hose effect was an illusion, an illusion born of drudgery and daily labor. Frustration has reigned all along.
* * *
Teddy Roosevelt exhorted us to live lives “in the arena” but the life that Roth has lived is emphatically the opposite, “in the monastery,” and the god he worshipped there has always been clear. It may sound boring, the idea of sitting, or in Roth’s case standing, at a desk for fifty years. But to some of us, strange sorts perhaps, it sounds thrilling. Exhilarating. To be focused on one object. To marshal one’s energies toward a goal. To strive daily to make great and beautiful things.
And there is an added benefit. Life–shabby, unruly, unpredictable, painful life–takes on a kind of order when this sort of near-fanatic commitment reigns. Boredom, one of the great enemies of the restless mind, all but vanishes. Discontent and pain are not routed, of course, but they are to a certain sense put in their place.
It would be hard to argue that Roth’s moments and even days of frustration have not added up to a life of deep satisfaction. That sort of satisfaction is summed up well by Donald Hall, in his great book Life Work, when he first claims that the great goal of work is “absorbedness.” He means of course when you are so far in it that you don’t know where you are for a while. Later in the same book Hall asks the sculptor Henry Moore, tongue half in cheek, what the meaning of life is. Moore, taking the question seriously, answers:
“The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing–it must be something you cannot possibly do!”
What a thrilling idea.
What a hard thing to quit.