Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Retiring Writers

The tradition has always been for writers to die at their desks. Kafka, Dickens, Proust, Hemmingway- all left manuscripts and last works laying around.

In announcing her retirement, Alice Monro mentions the recent retirement of Philip Roth.
Ms. Munro said she was encouraged by the example of Philip Roth, who declared that he was done last fall, as he was getting ready to turn 80. “I put great faith in Philip Roth,” she said, adding, “He seems so happy now.”
Writing is demanding. It requires a constant dissatisfaction with past and current work, an unwillingness to ever believe that you've said it quite right. Why wouldn't you want to give that up?

I wonder, though, if in the back of their minds, these great writers who have walked away from their craft haven't remembered the example of all those dead writers who left work unfinished. It is, I think, natural to want some control over history's final analysis. Roth has retired to work more closely with his biographer; he is giving himself time to answer the questions- why this version and not that?; what do you think of this character 20, 30, 50 years later?; what scene would you like to revise?

As I am reading Proust in English, I am keenly aware of the complications death can impose on a story. Of the seven volumes, Proust was only able to oversee publication of the first four. The sixth book of In Search of Lost Time has been especially revised based on the discovery of multiple manuscripts and typesets. The books were translated into English by CK Scott Moncrief, who promptly died before finishing the translation of the seventh book. The Terence Kilmartin edition I'm reading is a re-translation of the translation of a work that was never finished.

I imagine Monro and Roth are happy to avoid that mess, too.

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