Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Ghost Writer opens as young Nathan Zuckerman comes to visit the distinguished stylist E. I. Lonoff at his home in the Berkshires. Zuckerman is filled with admiration and awe for the older writer, with whom he enjoys discussing literature. He is struck, moreover, by the young woman, Amy Bellette, a former student of Lonoff, who is helping Lonoff assemble his papers for deposit in the Harvard library where she works. He is also struck by Lonoff’s wife, Hope, the descendant of New England families different from Lonoff’s Russian-Jewish heritage. At several points, she expresses extreme frustration with the life her husband leads and asks him to “chuck her out” in favor of Amy Bellette, who is obviously in love with him. Lonoff has no intentions of doing any such thing; although he recognizes the young woman’s attractions and devotion to him, he is loyal to his wife and rejects all of her exhortations to the contrary.
Amazed by the situation he finds, but flattered by Lonoff’s praise of his work so far—four published short stories—Zuckerman is easily persuaded to spend the night on a daybed in Lonoff’s study. While trying to write a letter to his father, he finds and reads The Middle Years by Henry James. Lonoff has excerpted an intriguing passage from it about the “madness of art” and pinned it to a bulletin board near his desk. Later, after Amy returns for the evening, Zuckerman hears an argument in the bedroom above him, in which Amy tries to persuade Lonoff to leave Hope and go off with her to a villa in Florence. Lonoff refuses, and afterward Zuckerman has a long fantasy in which he imagines that Amy Bellette is in reality Anne Frank, miraculously saved from the Nazi death camps.
The next morning, all illusions disappear after another scene between Lonoff and Hope, when Zuckerman can find no trace of a tattooed number on Amy’s forearm. As he returns to the artists’ colony at Quahsay, Zuckerman receives some words of advice from Lonoff, who also anticipates with interest what Zuckerman will make in his fiction of everything he has seen and heard during his visit.
In Zuckerman Unbound, Nathan is no longer a young, somewhat callow writer, anxious about making his way in the world, but an accomplished novelist whose fourth book, Carnovsky, has become notorious (just as Portnoy’s Complaint became notorious in Roth’s own life and career). By this time it is apparent that the trilogy is a Bildungsroman, or portrait novel, based, like My Life as a Man, on Roth’s own experiences. It thus presents another “idea of one’s fate,” but without the mediation of Peter Tarnopol. The reader must be constantly careful, however, not to draw exact equivalences between Roth and his surrogates. For example, Zuckerman’s father becomes very upset by his treatment of the family in Carnovsky, quite unlike...
(The entire section is 1196 words.)
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The Novels (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
The trilogy and epilogue gathered together in Zuckerman Bound trace twenty years in the literary and personal life of Nathan Zuckerman. His story begins in The Ghost Writer, narrated by Zuckerman in 1976, which recounts events of twenty years earlier. At odds with his father and pillars of his community such as Judge Leopold Wapter over the content of his first stories, which present unflattering portraits of Jewish characters, Nathan visits the isolated Berkshire home of E. I. Lonoff, “the most famous literary ascetic in America,” to submit himself for candidacy as a spiritual son.
During the winter evening and morning he spends at Lonoff’s, he gets the validation that he is seeking—Lonoff toasts “a wonderful new writer” and declares that Nathan has “the most compelling voice I’ve encountered in years.” He also gets, however, a lesson he had not anticipated: about just how much the religion of art to which he has dedicated himself demands of its acolytes and of those close to them.
For if Nathan’s dedication to his art has begun to alienate him from his loving family, Lonoff’s single-minded dedication to his parables of “terminal restraint,” to a life made up of “turning sentences around,” has already cut him off from those nearest to him, especially his wife, Hope. While Nathan is visiting, her frustration and unhappiness explode, destroying his illusions that a writer’s life will be a serene and ordered idyll.
The proximate cause of Hope’s outburst and the means of escape from their isolation that both the older and the younger writer briefly imagine is a young woman named Amy Bellette. A refugee from Europe, a survivor of the camps with a shadowy past, she is a former student of Lonoff who has taken on the task of arranging his manuscripts. To Lonoff, she offers the possibility of starting over—a possibility finally as inconceivable to him as it would be to one of his characters, whose impulses are extinguished by “the ruling triumvirate of Sanity, Responsibility, and Self-Respect.” To Nathan, who imagines that she is actually Anne Frank, spared from the Holocaust to become his wife, she is a way of silencing his critics by allowing him to demonstrate his Sanity, Responsibility, and Self-Respect. For both Lonoff and Zuckerman, however, Amy is finally only a fantasy of escape. Each is left to face the consequences of his vocation without her help.
In Zuckerman Unbound, set in 1969, those consequences multiply for Nathan with dizzying and hilarious effects. As the novel begins, he has recently published his fourth book, Carnovsky, a no-holds-barred account of growing up Jewish in Newark. Wilder than anything the serious young writer has written before, it quickly becomes a succès de scandale that disrupts his entire life. His youthful ambitions for artistic fame are fulfilled, but fame in contemporary America turns out to be a bit more than he bargained for.
His picture is on the cover of Life magazine; people stop him on the street to advise him about how to invest his money and to ask him about “his” sexual exploits; his mail is almost evenly divided between propositions and letters comparing him to Joseph Goebbels; a rock singer he has never met leaves the audience of The Tonight Show doubled over with laughter by describing her experience with his sexual proclivities; his name is linked in gossip columns with other women he has never met; a jet-setting film star he has met, Caesara O’Shea, leaves him for Fidel Castro; and when he turns on his television set, he finds a panel of psychiatrists analyzing his castration complex.
In Florida, his mother is being inundated with telephone calls from the press asking what “Mrs. Carnovsky” is really like, while, back in New York,...
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Nathan Zuckerman has published several short stories that, although critically well received, have caused conflict within his family. His story “Higher Education” is a thinly fictionalized account of a family dispute over the distribution of an inheritance, and it portrays Jews in an unflattering and stereotypical—although to Nathan, realistic and necessary—light.
After corresponding with his literary idol, E. I. Lonoff, an older Russian Jewish writer, Zuckerman leaves for a visit to Lonoff’s secluded home in the Berkshires in Massachusetts. Zuckerman seeks validation from Lonoff to counter the criticism he is receiving at home; moreover, he wants to see firsthand the writer’s life he so idealizes.
Zuckerman’s visit with Lonoff shows a marriage in turmoil, the price that a serious writer pays in devotion to his or her craft. Adding to the family strife is the presence of the young, attractive Jewish student currently staying with Lonoff, Amy Bellette. As Nathan retires to bed, he imagines that Amy is none other than Anne Frank, the renowned diarist and Holocaust chronicler. Zuckerman fantasizes about marrying Frank and taking her home to meet his parents. In the morning, it becomes clear again that Amy is not Frank. Zuckerman returns to New York City, but not before Lonoff’s wife sets off on foot, intending to leave Lonoff, and Lonoff follows her.
Zuckerman is in the middle of a third divorce. He is now wealthy and famous following the publication of his first novel, Carnovsky, a controversial, amoral, and blatantly sexual account of coming of age as a Jew in Newark, New Jersey.
Zuckerman’s life, still, becomes unmanageable as the division between his public persona—the same rash, lustful, provocateur that...
(The entire section is 732 words.)
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Cooper, Alan. Philip Roth and the Jews. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. Cooper explores the spectrum of Roth’s writing, including his early works, the “post-Portnoy seventies,” and the Zuckerman novels. An excellent overall critical view.
Gentry, Marshall B. “Ventriloquists’ Conversations: The Struggle for Gender Dialogue in E. L. Doctorow and Philip Roth.” Contemporary Literature 34 (Fall, 1993): 512-537. Gentry contends that both Doctorow and Roth are different from other Jewish authors because of their incorporation of feminist thought into traditionally patriarchal Jewish literature. He notes that...
(The entire section is 292 words.)