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Roth and the 'retiring’ artists who never can say goodbye

Roth and the 'retiring’ artists who never can say goodbye

Poetry News Agency | Abu Dhabi

Philip Roth has announced his retirement. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say he has reiterated his retirement. Two years after the publication of his 2010 novel Nemesis, Roth declared that it would be his last. Now it seems he has broken his self-imposed silence to affirm his self-imposed silence, giving a televised interview to insist that he is not going to give any more interviews, or appear on television. At 81, Roth is shuffling very slowly off the world’s stage, taking curtain calls. This is the showbiz way, in which retirement is a very flexible concept.
For most people, retirement involves giving up the day job to potter around doing stuff you always wanted to do. Like write, paint, perhaps pluck a musical instrument. But what if those very things are your occupation? It can be hard to take seriously pronouncements of retirement by artists, novelists, musicians, actors and other creative types. Perhaps because we have never taken seriously the idea that they had a proper job in the first place. These are people who make their living indulging in what everyone else considers leisure pursuits. What are they going to do with their spare time? Take up a hobby?
Frank Sinatra set the model for a showbusiness retirement, bowing out of public life aged 55 in 1970, only to shamelessly return three years later with an album and tour snappily branded ''Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back’’. Stars of the arts seem to treat retirement more like a sabbatical from the limelight, or possibly just a buzzword to stir interest in their latest project, with the implicit threat that fans had better catch them before they are gone for good.
Musicians in particular seem to have strange ideas of active retirement. Barbra Streisand, Billy Joel, George Michael and Kate Bush are among those superstars to have announced retirement only to return for sell-out shows (albeit Bush kept it up longer than most, staying off stage for 25 years). Sinéad O’Connor has retired so many times she once admitted, “I need to retire from retirement.”
“Musicians don’t retire,” Louis Armstrong once said. “They stop when there’s no more music in them.” And not even then, in many cases, as anyone who has witnessed one of Ozzy Osbourne’s post-retirement tours could attest. Tina Turner apparently enjoyed her 1990 farewell tour so much she had a second one in 2000 and a third in 2008. At 73, the old soul diva has been a bit quiet of late, but recently told Vogue that she was “waiting for inspiration”. And that, perhaps, is the sensible position for any artist. Life is long. Who knows when the muse might call?
In public life, retirement is not necessarily an age issue. Lily Allen retired in 2010 to be a stay-at-home mum, but was back in the studio two years later, admitting she had got “bored”. Jay-Z held a “retirement party” at Madison Square Gardens in 2003 at just 34, but was back in the studio within months of “the worst retirement in history”, admitting that “something, when you love it, is always tugging at you”.
There is often a slightly petulant element to public retirement, stemming from the insecurity that comes with a career lived in the glare of criticism. Teen star Justin Bieber surely holds the record for the briefest and most premature retirement, with just an hour between tweets in December 2013 announcing first that he was giving it all up, and then, on second thoughts, maybe he wasn’t. Well, he was only 19, a bit premature to contemplate a life of golf and gardening.
Actors seem particularly prone to the lure of early retirement, especially those whose careers have been defined by physical vigour and beauty. Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Ryan Gosling are among the matinee idols much given to speculation about swapping acting for more cerebral roles behind the camera. Cary Grant, Sean Connery, Greta Garbo, Brigitte Bardot and, more recently, Hugh Grant all called a premature end to still flourishing careers.
It doesn’t always stick, though. Clint Eastwood got much mileage from 2008’s Gran Torino, an elegiac film about an ageing tough guy, which he announced would mark his retirement from acting. It afforded the superstar a particularly graceful exit from the screen. But then he went and spoilt it all by returning in 2012 with Trouble With the Curve, a performance greeted with a kind of communal, “Didn’t you say you were leaving?”. Eastwood had clearly discovered one of the unspoken truths of retirement: it can be boring.
“I’ll never retire,” Tony Bennett has insisted, still crooning at 87. “What would I do? Watch the wall? I don’t get it. I dislike people that think they have to give up on life because of their age. That’s incorrect thinking. Never give up on life.”
Philip Roth has said he is having a good time doing nothing. I am glad he is enjoying his retirement. He has certainly earned it. But what is he going to do when an idea starts to percolate in his mind, or when the muse starts whispering his name? The last author to announce his retirement was Stephen King, in 2002. Since when he has published a dozen novels, effectively spending his retirement writing books. Which, I suspect, would quite appeal to most people.

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