"I didn't know what aging was - never heard of it. Then somebody told me'
If one didn't know better, it would seem Philip Roth has begun a race against time.
In the past six years, America's most decorated living novelist has published five books. In fact, he is writing so fast that he has made more work for The Library of America, which is issuing all his works in uniform editions. "Since we got started, I've written three novels," the 74-year-old writer says with a wry smile in an interview at his literary agent's office in New York. "So they already owe me another volume." But this is no race, just a novelist working well into his 70s.
At 74, Roth appears fit and healthy.
But while he continues to thrive, his characters are beginning to succumb to aging.
His new novel, Exit Ghost, concludes the story of Nathan Zuckerman, hero or narrator of nine Roth novels, including his Pulitzer Prize-winner, American Pastoral.
Roth first introduced Zuckerman in 1979 in The Ghost Writer as a young writer making a pilgrimage to the home of his hero, E.I. Lonoff.
Roth doubts he could have imagined Zuckerman's finale back then.
"I certainly couldn't have conceived of the subject of this book," Roth says, "which is aging." "I didn't know what aging was - never heard of it. Then somebody told me."
But he knows about it now. In Exit Ghost, Zuckerman returns to New York for the first time in 11 years, for prostate surgery that might restore his bladder control.
Zuckerman spends the book going from one meeting to the next, falling in love with a 30-year-old woman to whom he cannot physically make love.
He also begins to tangle with an aggressive young biographer named Kliman who is on the trail of his former mentor, Lonoff, and seems not at all intimidated by Zuckerman's eminence.
"What he discovers is that his powers of opposition are not what they were," Roth says. "Kliman has all the energy. Kliman has all the drive." Rather than bed the 30-year-old, Zuckerman goes back to his hotel room at night and writes imaginary scenes about her, which are spliced into the novel like little plays.
Between these interludes, Zuckerman travels about New York like Gulliver awaking from his slumber, agog at the semi-nudity of young women, and the ubiquitous cellular phones.
"I think it ends the Zuckerman saga on an appropriately Learish note," says National Book Award-winning biographer Judith Thurman, a longtime friend of Roth's.
Roth has another model for what it would feel like to return.
"I sometimes think of my parents," he says, "if they were to come back, I would have to explain 100 things to them. That's how much life has changed."
Roth himself is quite familiar with the city, coming in often from the woods of Northwest Connecticut, where he lives, to meet friends or for work, but unlike Zuckerman he does not have a lot of contact with younger writers.
Not by choice, he says. "It's just an accident of the way I live." Roth credits his Spartan existence, by now so well-known in literary circles it has become something of a legend, for his incredible production.
"Look at what he has produced," Thurman says.
In the '90s, he won all the major literary awards, often for the second time. Since 2000, he became a best-seller all over again (with The Plot Against America) and began working with the short novel in a new way.
His productivity and variety make him a beacon for younger writers, even as he remains a stranger to them.
"To think the same guy could write Portnoy's Complaint and American Pastoral is pretty astounding, says Dave Eggers, author of What is the What, "and gives hope to a lot of us to think you can mix the comic and the serious and the far more sober." The humor that earned Roth his reputation is still evident. Many of the scenes in Exit Ghost are laugh-aloud funny, in a bleak, cackling way.
Because he doesn't find the subject of aging to be amusing, Roth is surprised to hear that.
"On the whole it's so not funny that I didn't remember" the book's humor, he says.
To write the novel, Roth avoided going back to previous Zuckerman books, but he did re-read The Ghost Writer to make sure he got the facts correct.
After all these years, "I thought it was pretty good," he jokes.
But mostly, while the rest of America goes on reading him, Roth has been rereading - as Zuckerman does in the book - the writers he read in college.
"Conrad, Hemingway, Turgenev. I just re-read First Love and The Torrents of Spring - they are just extraordinary novels. It makes me want to read. I enjoy my reading." Roth realizes that as he ages, he is one of the relative few who have this kind of time for reading.
"The revolution that began with the movie screen, and the TV screen, which led to the decline of the literary culture, has just been accelerated by the new technological revolution," he says.
"People are just not interested in reading a book two or three hours a night." He is hardly a Luddite, though. In fact, Roth does have one of Zuckerman's dreaded cell phones.
"I own one," he says, fishing a little black number from his pocket, slipping back into a joking mood. "How could I live without my cell phone?" Now the big question remaining in his career is whether he'll need it this month, when the Swedish Academy makes its early morning phone call.
The writer is president of the National Book Critics Circle.