When is it time to quit, to stop doing what you’ve done all your life? I am reminded of this question by the self-proclaimed end of Philip Roth’s writing days. “To tell you the truth, I’m done…I did the best I could with what I had.”
I’m a great admirer of the tennis legend, Roger Federer, for his elegance and grace and winning ways on the court. Every time Federer loses, and that occurs more and more often now, I learn once again an important lesson about loss. I also think perhaps it is time for Federer to stop playing, although I am aware of how much he loves the game.
Ted Williams of the always-losing Boston Red Sox, retired from baseball at the peak of his performance, although he could have continued playing for several more years. He hit a home run his last time at bat and remains to this day the last hitter in the major leagues to hit over 400 in a single season.
Roth is not the first writer to stop writing near the peak of their skill. His last novel, Nemeses, is one of his finest. His work has always meant a great deal to me and I will miss reading another one. A friend wrote to me about Nemesis, “The last 3 pages are some of the most beautiful lyricism I've seen.”
Other writers have not bowed out so gently. Hemingway shot himself, Wallace hanged himself, the young Plath stuck her head in a gas oven, and Zweig, along with his wife, took their own lives with overdose of barbiturates. He wrote, “I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on Earth.”
Many writers simply run out of things to say, they have nothing new to write about, and even if they did, it would be far from their best and they were not ready to settle for anything other than their best. Roth has written over 30 books, several short stories, as well as a good many critical studies of authors he admired or wanted to introduce to a wider audience. What more could he do that he hasn’t already done before?
Maybe age is getting the better of him. It is the topic of some of his last books. The “massacre” of old age, he called it. He is 79 years old now and he is not only running out of years, but perhaps he has lost the ability to concentrate for sustained periods or the remarkable energy and vitality that characterized those sentences when he was at his best.
I am sure many writers, especially those as prolific as Roth, run out of ideas at some point in their life. Then it becomes a question what to do next, how to get through the day to be utterly frank. Roth doesn’t seem concerned with that question, not yet anyway.
In what he claimed was his last interview, reported by Charles McGrath in this Sunday’s Times, Roth said he sat around for months trying to think of an idea for a new book. He concluded, “I knew I wasn’t going to get another good idea, or if I did, I’d have to slave over it…I know I’m not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration…It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time…I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore.”
Not long ago he reread all of his books, beginning with the last, Nemesis. “I wanted to see if I had wasted my time writing. And I thought it was more or less a success.”
His many readers concur and, as he did, will want to reread a goodly number of his previous books. I am fairly sure we will conclude, as he did that it was “more or less” worthwhile.
Here is Roth in an interview last year: