Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1668
Twenty years after launching his up-and-down career with the prize-winning novella Goodbye, Columbus, Philip Roth has come up with another brief novel that could become a modern classic. Although its themes might restrict its audience, its assured craftsmanship and sustained control are remarkable—especially since the book is so patently autobiographical.
There are, to be sure, echoes from Roth’s early work: his Newark childhood, his Jewish angst, his sometimes sensational sensualism, and his tendency to shock. There is even an unnecessary masturbation scene and a smothering Jewish mother who must be escaped, not to mention his familiar literary passions: Kafka, Joyce, and Chekhov. Obviously Roth has not yet recuperated from his graduate seminars in contemporary fiction and criticism.
The plot of the novella is simplicity itself. Nathan Zuckerman, who is much like Roth in 1956 (he is also borrowed from the previous autobiographical and somewhat patchy My Life as a Man), spends a day and a half with the famous older Jewish writer E. I. Lonoff in his reclusive home in the Berkshires. Here he meets Hope, the unhappy gentile wife of the self-denying artist, as well as Amy, a beautiful and mysterious former student of Lonoff, and promptly falls in love with the alluring and talented girl. After a dramatic encounter the next morning, he and the girl go their separate ways—he to write down frantically all he had imagined and spied on during his pilgrimage to his literary master (which is this novel), while the unflappable Lonoff is left to patch up his shaky marriage and pursue his lonely art—which is revealed to the naïve young writer as “a terrible triumph.”
Roth himself has revealed his intentions in The Ghost Writer: to record the surprises in store for one who sets out to live the life of a dedicated artist. This seems broad and vague enough; it certainly encompasses most of the action here—even the exacting demands endured by Hope, the artist’s long-suffering wife.
There are, however, other approaches. Unless one accepts the thesis that Thomas Wolfe wrote at his best in the novella form, one would see little kinship between Wolfe’s untidy and overwritten autobiographical novels and Roth’s carefully balanced and understated fiction. Yet one recalls that Leslie Fiedler once wrote that “all Southerners are honorary Jews.” Perhaps it is a commentary on Wolfe’s current reputation to note that nothing has been made of his influence on The Ghost Writer. Yet it is palpable, and Roth intends for his reader to be aware of it. After all, Nathan Zuckerman in the earlier My Life as a Man wrote that when he went off to college he read Of Time and the River, and it changed his life. (He also later says that he outgrew the Southern novelist.) Here, young Nathan lists Wolfe as his favorite novelist when he was in high school. It is possible, then, that Wolfe suggested the overriding theme of The Ghost Writer, the quest for a spiritual father. One recalls that this theme was suggested to Wolfe after his first novel—by Maxwell Perkins, who became his spiritual father and was immortalized in You Can’t Go Home Again—just as Nathan is turning his abortive search into a work of art here.
Perhaps, too, Wolfe’s turbulent life and writing suggested another important motif to Roth: the attack on the artist by his own people who feel betrayed and become outraged when they find themselves vividly portrayed, warts and all, in his fiction. In Part II, “Nathan Dedalus,” Roth writes:Hadn’t Joyce, hadn’t Flaubert, hadn’t Thomas Wolfe, the romantic genius of my high-school reading list, all been condemned for disloyalty or treachery or immorality by those who saw themselves as slandered in their works? As even the judge knew, literary history was in part the history of novelists infuriating fellow countrymen, family, and friends.
In spite of Roth’s referring to his persona as “Nathan Dedalus,” Wolfe seems the most significant name of the three, because he made extensive, even obsessive, literary use of the attacks made on him by his family and acquaintances after the publication of Look Homeward, Angel. This is not to minimize the influence of the others, for, of course, Flaubert is Roth’s stylistic model, not Wolfe with his romantic, dithyrambic prose.
Another way of reading The Ghost Writer—not the best way, surely—is as a summary of the Jewish literary situation in the 1950’s. Not only has Roth used chunks of his own life—his middle-class childhood in New Jersey, his study at the University of Chicago, his army experience, his stay at Yaddo, and the flap over his first stories such as “Epstein” and “Eli, the Fanatic” (and later Portnoy’s Complaint)—but some other major characters are also based on real-life figures; or, more precisely, they are rather obvious composites. Although Roth has denied that he had anyone in mind other than his younger self, it is impossible to read the book as straight fiction, and this proves to be distracting at times. For instance, just as Nathan’s master E. I. Lonoff begins to seem a faintly disguised portrait of Isaac Singer, the light shifts and he becomes the reclusive J. D. Salinger, then Bernard Malamud, who teaches part-time at a college, as does Lonoff here. Although Lonoff looks like Singer, at times he takes on the majesterial quality of Henry James, whose story “The Middle Years” provides “the madness of art” subtheme and is quoted at length in the second part of the novella.
And it is much the same with the flamboyant and successful Felix Abravanel, whose many wives and court battles contrast so obviously with Lonoff’s retiring life and lack of critical attention. Just when he seems so clearly based on Saul Bellow, especially in the recalled scene of consternation when he shows up for a college lecture with his shiksa mistress, a detail is added, and Abravanel becomes Norman Mailer. To further complicate matters, he is described as looking somewhat like Thomas Wolfe—tall, with a head much too small for his body. (There is, of course, an inside joke here, for Wolfe was anti-Semitic.) And so it goes with Knebel, the editor of an influential Jewish quarterly. No doubt the book kept the New York literati buzzing for weeks when it first appeared in two issues of the New Yorker.
This distraction aside, however, the style and structure of The Ghost Writer are nearly unimpeachable. The whole novella is based on a series of contrasts, such as the love for the real father versus the love for the spiritual master and the untidiness and turbulence of life versus the order and design of art. Nathan and Amy are contrasting individuals, for they both look to Lonoff as a father; Amy, who wants to marry him, calls him Dad-da, and young Nathan admits, “I had come . . . to submit myself for the candidacy as nothing less than E. I. Lonoff’s spiritual son . . . [though] of course, I had a loving father of my own. . . .” Moreover, all four major characters create a fantasy that is doomed: Lonoff admits to wanting a year in Florence with a young woman (when Amy offers to make this a reality, like a character in his own fiction he inevitably refuses); his wife Hope wishes to escape to Boston; Amy fantasizes about her escape to Europe with Lonoff as her husband; and Nathan imagines that the mysterious Amy is in reality Anne Frank, whom he will marry, thus proving to his doubting and disturbed family that he is even more Jewish than they are—in spite of what they label as anti-Semitic in his apprentice stories.
Part III, “Femme Fatale,” seems the least effective of the novella’s four parts, perhaps because of the trendiness of the Holocaust material. At any rate, after masturbating while fantasizing about Amy Bellette, young Nathan imagines an entire past for the mysterious displaced woman from Fetching. In his fantasy she becomes Anne Frank, who has miraculously escaped the death camp, and while hiding her identity from her father, becomes the prize creative-writing student of Lonoff, whom she appealed to by letter, just as Nathan had. This fantasy of Nathan seems overly long, but no doubt Roth would justify it by suggesting that it shows the fertility of Nathan’s imagination, which is to stand him in good stead in his career as a writer.
No such questions can be raised about the climax, “Married to Tolstoy.” It is dramatic, economical, and, above all, convincing. The next morning, in the cold light of day, all fantasies are dispensed with. In a final confrontation of hosts and guests at breakfast, all of the thematic patterns are brilliantly woven together. Hope, rebelling against the deadly restrictions of her marriage to the monklike artist, offers him to Amy, who leaves, only to be followed on foot by the doomed wife. Nathan, appalled and chastened (he is called “boy” by his master), realizes the absurdity of his youthful need for a mentor and faces up to the demands of his own life as an artist. “There is his religion of art,” Hope cries to Amy, “rejecting life. Not living is what he makes his beautiful fiction out of! And you will be the person he is not living with!”
The Ghost Writer is an accomplished novella, Philip Roth at his richest and most controlled. If the novella has a flaw other than its Anne Frank material, it is the lack of freshness in the episodes dealing with Nathan’s squabble with his parents and his Jewish critics. This is merely a fictionalized version of parts of Roth’s Reading Myself and Others. Perhaps in the future he should not follow Norman Mailer so readily in writing advertisements for himself. In any case, his fiction is far superior to the early accounts, much of which should be left to talk-show gossip.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 131
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