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Philip Roth: Enough Failure

“To tell you the truth,” says Philip Roth, whose interview (link below) with the French cultural journal Les Inrockuptibles announcing his retirement has just been published in English by The Paris Review, “I’m not much given to abstractions. I don’t have that turn of mind. And as soon as a conversation gets into metaphysics or philosophy, I fall asleep. The only thing that really interests me ‑ all I know how to do ‑ is to tell a story. As soon as people start talking in abstractions, I feel as if I’m ten years old again, I stop understanding, and I just want to take a long nap.”

Though Roth insists he does not believe that the life of a writer has anything to do with his books he is nevertheless preparing his archives to hand over to his biographer. Why?

“I have no choice. If it were up to me, I’d prefer that there not be any biography of me, but there will biographies after I die, so at least I want to make sure that one of them’s correct. Blake Bailey wrote an excellent biography of John Cheever, who was a friend of mine and a tough subject for a biography, since, being gay and alcoholic, he spent almost his entire life in hiding. Bailey got in touch with me, we spent two whole days talking, and he convinced me. But I won’t control his work. In any case, twenty percent of it will be wrong, but that’s always better than twenty-two percent.”

“When I turned seventy-four,” he says, “I realized that I didn’t have much time left, so I decided to reread the novels that I loved when I was twenty or thirty, because that’s what you never reread. Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Conrad, Hemingway … and when I finished, I decided to reread all my books, starting with the end, Nemesis. I read until I got tired of them, just before Portnoy’s Complaint, which is a flawed book. I wanted to see whether I’d been wasting my time by writing. And I decided that I’d actually done all right. At the end of his life the boxer Joe Louis said, “I did the best I could with what I had.” That’s exactly what I’d say about my work. I did the best I could with what I had ...

“Writing means always being wrong. All your drafts tell the story of your failures. I don’t have the energy of frustration anymore, or the strength to confront myself. Because writing is being frustrated. You spend your time writing the wrong word, the wrong sentence, the wrong story. You continually fool yourself, you continually fail, and so you have to live in a state of perpetual frustration. You spend your time telling yourself, That doesn’t work, I have to start again. Oh, that doesn’t work either—and you start again. I’m tired of all that work. I’m in a different stage of my life. And I don’t feel at all melancholy.”