NEW YORK — Exit, Philip Roth? Having conceived everything from turning into a breast to a polio epidemic in his native New Jersey, Roth has apparently given his imagination a rest.
The 79-year-old novelist recently told a French publication, Les inRocks, that his 2010 release “Nemesis” would be his last. Spokeswoman Lori Glazer of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt said Friday that she had spoken with Roth and that he confirmed his remarks. Roth’s literary agent, Andrew Wylie, declined comment.
Roth certainly produced, completing more than 20 novels over half a century and often turning out one a year. He won virtually every prize short of the Nobel and wrote such classics as “American Pastoral” and “Portnoy’s Complaint.”
His name will remain on new releases, if only because the Library of America has been issuing hardcover volumes of his work. Roth also is cooperating with award-winning biographer Blake Bailey on a book about his life.
The author chose an unexpected forum to break the news, but he has been hinting at his departure for years. He has said that he no longer reads fiction and seemed to say goodbye to his fictional alterego, Nathan Zuckerman, in the 2007 novel “Exit Ghost.”
Retirement is rarely the preferred option for writers, for whom the ability to tell stories or at least set down words is often synonymous with life itself. Poor health, discouragement and even madness are the more likely ways literary careers end. Roth apparently is fit and his recent novels had been received respectfully, if not with the awe of his most celebrated work.
“I don’t believe it,” Roth’s friend and fellow writer Cynthia Ozick said upon learning the news. “A writer who stops writing while still breathing has already declared herself posthumous.”
His parting words from “Nemesis”: “He seemed to us invincible.”
Roth’s interview appeared in French and has been translated, roughly, by The Associated Press. He tells Les inRocks that “Nemesis” was “mon dernier livre” (“My last book”) and refers to “Howard’s End” author E.M. Forster, and how he quit fiction in his 40s. Roth said he doesn’t plan to write a memoir, but will instead go through his archives and help ensure that Bailey’s biography comes out in his lifetime.
Explaining why he stopped, Roth said that at age 74 he became aware his time was limited and that he started re-reading his books of the past 20-30 years, in reverse order. He decided that he agreed with what the boxer Joe Louis had said late in life, that he had done the best he could with what he had.