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...
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