I’m fascinated by a writer’s mind. Not in a weird serial killer kind of way. More in a how-did-you-even-think-up-that kind of way. I think envy comes into it because there are just some authors I read that depress me with how I’ll probably never come close to their level of imagery and writerly skill. No more is this true than with the late Philip Roth.
His death is a sad blow to the literary world. He may have been a billionty-six years old (or, whatever, 85 I guess), but it still felt there was a lot left in him, despite him retiring from writing back in 2012. I won’t go into detail about his authorial prowess or the impact he made on the writing community. There are far greater fans and critics of his work that could better explain Roth’s achievements throughout his career.
What I will say is that his death has made me reach for a copy of American Pastoral, which has been stood upright on my bookshelf for some time now. I know that makes me sound like some sort of Rothian band wagon jumper, but when I saw the headlines, it made me want to dive back into his world. He was somewhat of giant when it came to prose and I’d like to share the following quote from the novel that struck me is a great truism when it comes to writing:
Writing turns you into somebody who’s always wrong. The illusion that you may get it right someday is the perversity that draws you on. (p.63)
Said by one of Roth’s most famous protagonists, Nathan Zuckerman, himself a writer. It’s a short quote, I know, but there’s a weird melancholy to that first sentence that’s got a bit of a punch to it. Writing can be about battling with the truth and even your own interpretation of things can be mistaken; someone will always tell you you got it wrong.
Being right is an ‘illusion’. It is perverse. But for Zuckerman (and indeed, Roth), there’s a sense of sheer bloody-mindedness to writing. The quest for a truth is what drives the writer on and the chance of being wrong (which will be all the time, as per the quote) should not be a dissuasion, but an opportunity to keep going in the face of inappropriateness.