the first edition of Philip Roth's best book: The Ghost Writer (1979)

The Ghost Writer

  • Author:  Philip Roth  (b. 1933)
  • Rank:  #20
  • Published:  1979
  • Publisher:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Pages:  222
  • First Line:  “It was the last daylight hour of a December afternoon more than twenty years ago – I was twenty-three, writing and publishing my first short stories, and like many a Bildungsroman hero before me, already contemplating my own massive Bildungsroman – when I arrived at his hideaway to meet the great man.”
  • Last Line:  ” ‘It’s like being married to Tolstoy,’ he said, and left me to make my feverish notes while he started off after the runaway spouse, some five minutes now into her doomed journey in search of a less noble calling.”
  • ML Edition:  none
  • Acclaim:  Pulitzer Prize Finalist (chosen by Committee for award, over-ruled by Board); National Book Award Finalist; National Book Critics Circle Finalist
  • Film Version:  tv movie (1984)
  • First Read:  Spring, 1995

The Novel:  Almost 30 years after this novel, Philip Roth would return to it.  It would bring the long, sordid history of Nathan Zuckerman to its humanitarian close, a deep echo of the original novel, strong enough not to be an embarrassment to the original.  But this is where it all began, the Zuckerman Trilogy, the Zuckerman books, the alter ego that marked Roth in literary history for almost 30 years.

For anyone who first came upon Zuckerman in the later books, or through his reputation in modern literary criticism, this opening book is somewhat of a revelation.  He is the polite young novice, the gifted short story writer headed out into the woods to bow at the feet of an established master.  But hidden under the polite exterior is the note-taking, the building of a new story that will set the literary world on fire and burn another bridge in the ever dwindling lines of communication between himself and his family.  When he argues with his father over a new story, one which relates a sordid family story with trademark Zuckerman (Roth) humor, his father yells at him for dragging up the past, for showing the Jewish people in all their ugliness, telling him that he isn’t the kind of person who does this.  But Zuckerman knows better, even in his young twenties: “I am the kind of person who writes this kind of story!”

So, to escape from his father, from his family, from a relationship that he has managed to break irrevocably (“I was then at the stage of my erotic development when nothing excited me as much as having intercourse on the floor.”), he goes to a retreat in the woods (“Purity.  Serenity.  Simplicity.  Seclusion.  All one’s concentration and flamboyance and originality reserved for the grueling, exalted, transcendent calling.  I looked around and thought, This is how I will live.”) to learn from E. I. Lonoff, the distinguished writer, who has done what Zuckerman longs to do (and, in fact, will do – for in Exit, Ghost, Zuckerman has been in the woods for a long time and only has to return to the city because of health reasons).

In Zuckerman’s interactions with Lonoff and his distraught wife, always threatening to leave and let Lonoff be happy with Amy, the young girl who is staying with them and who had once been his student, he is always steadfast and polite, acting the contrite son that he refuses to do with his own parents.  But inside, as we soon find out, he is always taking those notes, listening when he can.  He knows the importance of art, especially the potential importance of his own art (“But ‘the madness of art’?  I would have the madness of everything but art.  The art was what was sane, no?  Or was I missing something?”).

Looking back at this book, even after just the next Zuckerman book, let alone all the ones that followed (nine in total – the original trilogy, the epilogue, The Counterlife, the second (American) trilogy, then the final short novel), we can see how well Roth seems to have planted the seeds for what would become Nathan Zuckerman.  In the next book, we will learn that Zuckerman became a major figure, not only in the literary world, but the cultural one as well with the late sixties publication of Carnofsky, a title and subject designed to make literature grad students running around making comparisons to Roth and his own cultural milestone of Portnoy’s Complaint.  Even here, Zuckerman’s biography follows so perfectly along with Roth’s, it’s obvious that he’s not thinly disguised autobiography – he’s deliberately designed pseudo-autobiography just to make the whole process of literary criticism maddening. We get the self-hating Jewishness that Roth is always accused of (“Ma, you want to see physical violence done to the Jews of Newark, go to the office of the plastic surgeon where the girls get their noses fixed.”), we get the justification that anything written that reflects Truth is more important than any potential downside to what people might see in those stories (“As even the judge knew, literary history was in part the history of novelists infuriating fellow countrymen, family and friends.”), we get the smart, bitter, but funny man, who throws bombs in his personal life and dregs the wreckage for something new to put in a novel.

All of this would make for a good novel, but there is something more which lifts The Ghost Writer into a novel of the first rank, the best novel of a man who long ago should have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, who has been America’s greatest living novelist for longer than I can contemplate.  The novel is broken into four parts.  The first, “Maestro”, gives the events of the evening and the talk between Zuckerman and Lonoff (including the line that says so much about both men, when Zuckerman admits “I don’t think I could keep my wits about me, teaching at a school with such beautiful and gifted and fetching girls,” and Lonoff “replied flatly, ‘Then you shouldn’t do it.’ “).  The second part, “Nathan Dedalus”, hearkens back to Joyce as we pass through the night with Zuckerman in his idol’s study, jotting down book titles (which, I admit, is exactly what I would have done) and reliving the argument with his father that has partially lead to his departure to the woods.  The final part, “Married to Tolstoy” (which probably makes more sense to people that have now seen The Last Station) covers the events in the morning, especially the stress on the marriage of the Lonoffs, and what writing, and the particular beautiful and gifted and fetching girl has done to it.

But there is the third part, “Femme Fatale,” the part that shook me to the core and made this the most personal of novels, but also moves this novel into the world of first class masterpieces.  Nathan has met Amy Bellette, that beautiful and gifted and fetching girl (and even had his own moment of appreciation for her when she leaves early in the evening: “To get into the diminutive green Renault she had to hike up a a handful of long skirt.  Above the snow boots I saw an inch of flesh, and quickly looked elsewhere so as not to be found out.”), a former student who has come back to sort through Lonoff’s papers.  He overhears an anguished emotional (potentially sexual) conversation after she returns, when he is below her room, listening, as close as he can get to the ceiling.  Then, in the third part, he gives us her story, the way she survived through the war, how she was sick, but survived the camps, how she came to London, how she eventually came to discover her father’s survival and his discovery, and subsequent publishing of, her diary.  For the fetching Amy is also the poor, gifted girl that we all know: “the ardor in her, the spirt in her – always on the move, always starting things, being boring as unbearable to her as being bored – a terrific writer, really.  An an enormously appealing child,” is how Nathan describes her.  The haunted and haunting Anne Frank.

And reading, reading the very notion of it, that she might somehow have survived, that Nathan Zuckerman would have believed her to survive, could have imagined this, made me think all over again about her, about how much I loved her, and about how much Nathan seems to love her.  We are reminded of the line from Portnoy’s Complaint, so painful and funny at the same time: “How monstrous I feel, for she sheds her tears for six million, or so I think, while I shed mine only for myself.”  Except this time, Nathan, unlike pathetic Alex, combines both figures into one.  He is shedding the tears for the six million, and specifically the one, but also for himself, imagining how he could marry her, for who could scream self-hate at the Jew who married the most famous Jew of the 20th Century, the one who helped Anne Frank step back out of the shadows of darkened history.  Of course I understood how Nathan felt, for he takes Anne with him, the way I take Anne with me, the weight of the Holocaust, the weight of his history, the weight of my history (which I have already written about once, and could not possibly bear to write about again).  He longs to bring her back to life.

But it is not meant to be.  For in that final part we learn that all of this is Nathan’s story much more than it is Amy or Anne’s.  He longs to bring her back to life, but he cannot.  Amy is not Anne, as we discover: “But, alas, I could not lift her out of her sacred book and make her a character in this life.”  Instead, we see the writer in all his misery and splendor.  He has the notes, the notes that spring forth into the novel that we have before us, the great work of Nathan Zuckerman, the even greater work of Philip Roth.  Lonoff has him pegged in the novel: “I’ll be curious to see how we all come out someday.  It could be an interesting story.  You’re not so nice and polite in your fiction.”  That is the gift and the curse of the writer.  What we write is not what we have lived.  Sometimes it is more.