Roth Agonistes

Nathaniel Rich in the New York Review of Books:

Philip-roth_2000-06-15Why 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.”

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!”

More here.