Roth Agonistes

Why write? Philip Roth answered the question in a 1981 interview with Le Nouvel Observateur. He wrote, he said, in order “to be freed from my own suffocatingly boring and narrow perspective on life and to be lured into imaginative sympathy with a fully developed narrative point of view not my own.”

Philip Roth
Philip Roth; drawing by David Levine

A more intriguing question: Why not write? For this is what Roth, since 2009, has chosen to do: not write. When asked to explain his decision, he has tended to summon a Bartlebyesque detachment: “I have no desire any longer to write fiction,” he told one disappointed interviewer in 2014. “I did what I did and it’s done.” He elaborated slightly a month later, in a conversation with Sweden’s Svenska Dagbladet, crediting his self-imposed silence to

a strong suspicion that I’d done my best work and anything more would be inferior. I was by this time no longer in possession of the mental vitality or the verbal energy or the physical fitness needed to mount and sustain a large creative attack of any duration on a complex structure as demanding as the novel.

“Attack” is the word that rises, three-dimensionally, from the text. It recurs often throughout Roth’s nonfiction, invoked to describe the various aggressions he has absorbed, his resentment toward his critics, and his assault on the blank page that faced him each morning. During his early writing years in Chicago, Roth began each morning by shouting at the young face peering out from the mirror at him: “Attack! Attack!”

The force of Roth’s attack, sustained for more than a half-century, is what made his retirement so startling. It is also the quality that, more than anything, sustains this volume, which serves as an addendum to the Complete Novels, published in nine parts by the Library of America. Why Write?: Collected Nonfiction 1960–2013—a title that is itself a minor fiction, since three of the essays date from 2014—divides into three sections: a partial selection from Reading Myself and Others of 1975 (omitting his essays about baseball, politics, and literary eroticism), paired with four querulous interviews from the 1980s; an anthology of encounters with other novelists during the 1980s and 1990s; and a series of late essays, interviews, and award speeches. Occasionally there emerge vivid biographical fragments, like a description of the cafeteria near Lake Michigan where once a week he treated himself to a thick slice of roast beef lathered in its bloody juice, or his chance encounter, on a morning walk in Prague shortly after the Velvet Revolution, with a crowd of people laughing at giant television screens showing footage of a Communist Party meeting held several months earlier. “I thought that this must be the highest purpose of laughter,” Roth writes, “to bury wickedness in ridicule.” His novels carry the same lesson.

In a speech that recalls his childhood, he notes that fiction’s “ruthless intimacy” derives from the…

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