In light of Philip Roth's recent announcement of his "retirement" from writing, a scene from the 1977 movie "Julia" comes to mind. It's a delicious cinematic moment, involving as it does the deft puncturing of pomposity — always satisfying to behold.
"Julia" is based on Lillian Hellman's 1973 memoir "Pentimento," which is about, among other things, Hellman's early days as an aspiring playwright. In the film, Jane Fonda plays Hellman, while Jason Robards Jr. is cast as Hellman's lover, Dashiell Hammett. The two are sitting by a fire on the beach. She's angry and frustrated; writing plays is hard work with uncertain rewards. She tells Hammett that she's had it. She'll quit writing. She'll forget the whole silly business. Naturally, she expects him to beg her not to do it and to pontificate about the tremendous loss to literature should she carry through with her threat.
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But he doesn't.
"It's a good time to quit," he muses. "Nobody'll miss you."
Meaning: Stop writing if you please, but for pity's sake, don't expect the world to look up from its lunch long enough to realize you've gone away.
When writers fall off the map, typically there is little fanfare. No Amber alerts ensue — although the contemplation thereof is amusing. Imagine this digital sign looming over the Dan Ryan: HAVE YOU SEEN JULIA KELLER? NO NEW NOVEL IN BOOKSTORES SINCE AUGUST! TIPS? CALL 911. Imagine blurry posters tacked to telephone poles, featuring the sad-eyed visage of a missing scribe, seeking the whereabouts of a book by her or him and offering a reward — perhaps a Barnes & Noble gift card.
The fact is, writers stop writing for all kinds of reasons, some of them self-willed, some of them not. As Cynthia Griffin Wolff notes in "A Feast of Words," her wonderful 1977 biography of Edith Wharton, "It is usually easier not to write than to write."
Harper Lee is perhaps the most famous example of a writer who simply decided to stop; after the success of "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1960), she never offered another novel to a world that clearly would have welcomed it. Short articles here and there, yes — but more books, no. Henry Roth, author of the renowned 1934 novel "Call It Sleep" (no relation to Philip Roth), seemed destined to become another Lee before he resurfaced six decades later with a new novel, published shortly before his death.
And then there are the others, the ones whose retirement was involuntary. The ones who wanted desperately to keep working. The ones such as the late Barbara Pym, the demure, deceptively clever British novelist whose books were unfairly dismissed as trivial tales of small-town life. After a few crumbs of early success, Pym could find no publisher for her books from 1963 to 1977— an outrageous situation that was only corrected when poet Philip Larkin made a fuss and forced publishers to recognize her quiet genius. Upon the 2009 death of Marilyn French, author of the groundbreaking 1977 feminist novel "The Women's Room" and many works of brilliantly incisive literary criticism, French's friends recalled her justifiable outrage at not being able to secure a publisher in recent years.
And yet here is Roth, sighing deeply and toying out loud with the notion of not blessing us with yet another tale of an aging man's tongue-lolling desire for a younger woman — which, with few exceptions, is the plot-knot at which he's been assiduously picking for the past few years. Hence my curiosity at the attention accorded Roth's "retirement" — I shall henceforth jettison the quotation marks for clarity's sake, although I hope you'll sense their presence, anyway, for the healthy skepticism they bring to the table. To be sure, Roth has hinted before at just such a putatively noble renunciation, complaining that nobody much cares about serious literature, anyway, so why bother? In fact, when I first read the Nov. 17 interview in The New York Times in which Roth announces his "retirement" — sorry, it's a hard habit to break — I recall thinking that I'd read this story before. Hadn't I? Roth has begun to sound a little like Richard Nixon after his 1962 defeat in the California governor's race, when the bitter politician declared to the assembled reporters that they wouldn't have him to "kick around" anymore — and shortly thereafter, of course, Nixon began to plot his 1968 presidential run. Retirement? Yeah, well — we'll see, won't we?
If, however, after 31 books in 53 years the 79-year-old Roth wants to quit writing, then so be it. But why treat his withdrawal as if it's the moral equivalent of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, standing on a bloody, windswept plain in 1877 after losing half his men to the pursuing U.S. Cavalry and declaring solemnly, "I will fight no more forever"? I realize that my real beef here may be with the media that covers Roth, and not so much with the man himself — but then again, he granted the interview and he set the lugubrious tone by showing off the Post-it note affixed to his computer, the one that reads, "The struggle with writing is over." Move over, Samson Agonistes.
For centuries, women and others often ignored by the mainstream literary establishment have fought for their voices to be heard, have clawed and dreamed and sacrificed to bring their stories to the world's attention. If Roth no longer wishes to submit himself to the "humiliation" of publishing his work — that's the word he uses in the lofty-sounding farewell interview, and it's a curious one, given the critical accolades that commonly follow his every utterance — then there are many, many other writers ready and willing to do just that: to put themselves on the line for the chance to garner readers who will take their work seriously. They are the writers described by Tillie Olsen in her legendary 1962 book "Silences" as "those whose waking hours are all struggle for existence" but who fight on. Olsen's work explores the lives of writers who mysteriously fall silent for a period of time — or, more tragically still, who never get the chance to tell their tales at all.
I wonder how Katherine Mansfield, the masterful short story writer who died in 1923 at 34 from tuberculosis, might have regarded the unaccountable luxury of Roth's decision. Writing in her diary as death edged nigh, she offered this passionate entry: "I want to work ... I want a garden, a small house, grass, animals, books, pictures, music. And out of this, the expression of this, I want to be writing." Cornelius Ryan was in the agonizing final stages of terminal cancer while he raced to finish his nonfiction epic, "The Longest Day" (1974) — which he did, just barely. British author Mervyn Peake fought the effects of the Parkinson's disease that would take his life in 1968 as he worked on the third volume of his fantasy series, "The Gormenghast Novels."
Sometimes the obstacles to writing are psychological, not physical. Sylvia Plath, single mother of two small children, separated from her husband in 1963 during London's coldest winter in six decades, fought demons right and left — yet still wrote the finest poems of her life as the darkness, literal and metaphorical, moved in.
If I seem to have stacked the deck — that is, to have chosen as poignant counterpoints to Roth only sorrow-struck writers who died young — then let's take another example. In 1955, Ernest Hemingway was, as Paul Hendrickson relates in his luminous book, "Hemingway's Boat" (2011), famous, weary, whittled by injuries and crippled by depression. "And yet, in the face of all his illnesses," Hendrickson notes, "he kept on writing, or tried to — that's the heroic part."
Roth's decision to leave literature behind — for now — is a personal choice, one he has every right to make. Indisputably, he has given the world some beautiful books, books filled with dazzling sentences. But while we're rolling out the sheet cake to commemorate his retirement, let us remember as well the writers who — having enjoyed neither Roth's critical acclaim nor his financial success — press on regardless.
Matthew Arnold, the 19th century British poet known for his feisty sideburns and his poem "Dover Beach," despaired in 1869 that his work was mediocre and his life would soon be over. He was wrong on both counts. But at the time, he was bereft — yet kept on writing, shifting from poetry to prose: "It may well be that I am at my end ... and that there will be little time to carry far the new beginning. But that is all the more reason for carrying it as far as one can, and as earnestly as one can, while one lives." In other words: Keep your sheet cake. I've got work to do.
Julia Keller, former Tribune cultural critic, is author of "A Killing in the Hills."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun