In his own words, “he's done”. Philip Roth, for half a century a towering figure of US literature and the author of 31 books including Goodbye Columbus, Portnoy's Complaint and The Plot Against America, will write no more.
The news came quietly, not at some prestigious festival or awards ceremony, but almost as an afterthought, let slip last month during an interview to the French magazine Les inRocks about his most recent – and, it transpires, his last – novel Nemesis, whose French edition has just been published.
"Nemesis will be my final book," he said, making clear there would not even be a memoir. "Look at E M Forster: he stopped writing fiction when he was around 40. I used to do book after book. Now I've written nothing for three years." Instead he had been working on his archives, preparing to hand them over to his biographer, Blake Bailey. "I don't want to write my own memoir. I want my biographer to have the material before I die."
Mr Roth is perhaps his country's most decorated living author, a peerless chronicler of the American Jewish experience that provides the theme of many of his novels, many of them highly autobiographical. Goodbye Columbus, a novella published in 1959, won him the National Book Award for Fiction, at the age of 26. Portnoy's Complaint, an explicit and hilarious account of the masturbatory fantasies of a lustful and mother-obsessed young Jewish bachelor that was published in 1969, made him both controversial and famous.
In 1997, Mr Roth was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his novel American Pastoral. In 2004 there followed The Plot Against America, set in New Jersey during the Second World War when the isolationist and pro-Nazi Charles Lindbergh had defeated Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election. Nemesis is the fourth of a quartet of short novels that deals with polio, the disease that was an often-mortal scourge when he was a boy.
Apart from the Pulitzer, his honours include two National Book Awards, two National Book Critics Circle award, and three PEN/Faulkner Awards. This year Mr Roth won Spain's Prince of Asturia Prize for Literature. But to the surprise of many, the Nobel Prize has always escaped him.
Now even America, by his own admission, increasingly passes him by. "I'm 78 now," he told Les inRocks. "I know nothing about America today. I see it on the television, but I don't live there any longer."
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