It was not exactly a good deal for literature. On the day that Philip Roth announces, almost in passing, that he's not going to write another novel, it is revealed that there is to be a further volume of Bridget Jones's Diary.
So no more “He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach – that it makes no sense”, and plenty more “Cigarettes: 4. Calories: 800. V v good”.
It's not that I've got anything against Bridget; I worked with her (or at least her alter ego, Helen Fielding) for a number of years when her diary appeared every Wednesday in The Independent, and can see why this sharply observed tale of 1990s anxiety and hedonism struck a chord with so many people.
But Roth's sentences have been the soundtrack to my life, his books as regular as my birthdays – only much more rewarding.
I have often wondered whether it's because I'm Jewish that Roth means so much to me. I regularly have this discussion with my colleague Dan, who is adamant that he misses none of the nuance, or the timbre of the Jewish jokes, even though he is, in the lexicon of Roth himself, a gentile. I don't know so much. When it comes to Philip Roth, you don't have to be Jewish to work here, but it certainly helps. A friend of mine once suggested a cartoon for the series First Drafts, a sardonic take on how life may have turned out differently. It shows Roth in front of a computer screen, having typed the words: “I'm Jewish – I don't really see any mileage in that so, moving on...” The author of 31 novels – more than a handful of which must be, by any measure (Jewish or not) considered masterpieces – was, alongside Woody Allen, the best purveyor of a Jewish joke in history.
He captures that strain of neurotic, solipsistic fatalism better than anyone. Take this wonderful passage from The Human Stain, his coruscating novel about deception and identity, in which he is explaining the significance of the Hebrew funeral prayer: “Most people in America, myself included... don't know what these words mean, but nearly everyone recognises the sobering message they bring: a Jew is dead. As though death were not a consequence of life but a consequence of having been a Jew.”
I defy anyone who's not Jewish (even you, Julie Burchill) fully to appreciate the finely calibrated mixture of self-absorption and self-deprecation that Roth conveys so perfectly. It's just so, well, Jewish. Roth won almost every literary award known to man, apart from the Nobel Prize, which has been given to definably lesser talents. And now it will remain outside his grasp. “I have dedicated my life to the novel,” he said at the weekend. “To the exclusion of almost everything else. Enough is enough...I'm done.” At 79, no one can say that Roth hasn't put his time in and even though the author himself says he hasn't really written anything new in years and unquestionably his most significant works have been some time in the past, the world is going be a different, inferior place without a new Philip Roth novel to anticipate.