Philip Roth

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Roth, Philip 1933–

Roth, an American novelist and short story writer, exhibits in his fiction a brilliant satirical wit. His work explores problems of contemporary Jewish life: assimilation, the urban versus the suburban Jew, the eastern upper-class Jew versus the midwestern middle-class Jew. Roth has a flair for reproducing the speech patterns of American dialect, whether it is the idiomatic Yiddish quality of Jewish conversation or the cliché-ridden speech of a midwestern WASP. Roth has had the good fortune to achieve both critical acclaim and the fame of a best-selling novelist. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Irving Malin

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["I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting, or, Looking at Kafka"] is a masterful example of comedy. Roth uses cliché and fantasy, movies and spiritual longing, documentary and imagination, to construct a work which refuses to sit still. It is a dream-like marriage of opposing tendencies, texts, and "worlds," and in its striking way, it brings us closer to Roth's own life and style.

But the piece tells us much about the comic process. I believe that Roth implies a union in comedy. We laugh at a man slipping on a banana peel—or Kafka slipping into "normalcy"—because we connect events before and after the fall. There must, in fact, be a fall, an unbalancing which "dislocates" usual positions, roles, visions, but it cannot dominate the action; if it were to be "all," we would be merely horrified. We laugh, however, when we think of (con) sequences, contexts—for example, Kafka as Hebrew-school teacher—and we bring things together.

Therefore, comedy is wise. Surely, when we perceive that "accidents" can happen, we appreciate even more the usual "machinery" of life—we affirm normality, hoping that it can last. Comedy offers faith, finally, in routines of behavior, daily rituals, comforting returns.

"Looking at Kafka" is thus a comic work about comedy. It is "reflective," mirroring its themes in its actions (styles). It helps us to know Roth, Kafka, and ourselves as "normal" readers, implying as it does that the lines usually drawn to separate subjects are indeed narrow. It fuses criticism, life (history), and fiction, and it demands our close attention. (p. 275)

Irving Malin, "Looking at Roth's Kafka; or Some Hints about Comedy," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1977 by Newberry College), Vol. 14, No. 3, Summer, 1977, pp. 273-75.

Martin Green

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Roth seems to me the most gifted novelist now writing, at least if one puts a stress on tradition in using the word novelist. He translates his intelligence and his feelings into the terms specific to serious fiction, with more firmness than Bellow, more richness than Mailer, more patience and steadiness and taste and tact than anyone else….

[Roth's] stories are full of beautiful insights into books and authors, into the business of teaching and criticizing, and into living with works of literature over time.

I know no other novelist, for instance, who makes the discussion of books such a valuable part of his story's action—with critical comments quite substantial in themselves and yet not an obstacle to the flow of dramatized life. These comments are appreciation rather than analysis—much less exegesis—but they are none the less critical in the best sense. And if this is possible because so much of his novels' action takes place between different parts of the protagonist's mind, nevertheless it is dramatized life—and there are more external exchanges. (p. 156)

[In] The Professor of Desire , David Kepesh goes to Prague largely because he is devoted to Kafka, visits the latter's home, discusses him with a Czech professor (himself devoted to Melville) and finally dreams...

(This entire section contains 1433 words.)

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about him. In the discussion he has talked about his own sexual impotence, and interpretedThe Trial, as a story of similar sexual oppression. (The Czech professor, who suffers the political oppression of State communism, interprets Moby Dick in terms relevant to that suffering.)…

It is, typically, a presence and a contrast that are evoked each time. (p. 157)

[It] comes as no surprise that Roth is unusually susceptible to literary influence, which means, to some degree, literary fashion, and leads, in some cases, to disaster. Thus The Great American Novel (1973) is an attempt to write like John Barth…. Barth's mode was not indeed right for Roth, but his susceptibility to influence does not always lead him to disaster. Sometimes it leads to success, as we have seen and most often it stamps individual works with their special character. (p. 158)

Perhaps Roth's cultivation of his susceptibility to influence, and the weaknesses it brings, are more obvious than the strengths. But it seems to me that Roth consummates and combines the tendencies of … other writers, and produces a classical concentration of the literary imagination of our time. As I read him I find Salinger combined with Mailer, and Nabokov combined with Malamud, and I feel I am getting the best of each of them—when Roth is at his best. And it strikes me as a significant coincidence that a gifted novelist should cultivate this particular gift just when a school of criticism was arising which focused its attention on "the anxiety of influence."

It is perhaps notable that it was certain contemporaries, rather than Flaubert, Mann, James, or other of Roth's oracles, whom I was reminded of, who are for me the relevant surround to his work. Those grander and as it were more official sponsors I feel as living presences only in reading When She Was Good, 1967, (the least successful of his serious novels, though an interesting intention). There one can feel Flaubert and James, standing to the left and right of the author's chair, and bending over his shoulder to read each paragraph he completes.

But their absences or their distance from his other works fits in, as a part of Roth's treatment of the general theme, the grandeur and misery of ideas, the comedy and tragedy of their influence and non-influence upon behavior. (p. 159)

[However, it is the] comic, and earthy, and bawdy strain of his native [Jewish] culture, so unlike the austere, the noble, and the exquisite artists he admires, which Roth employs in his fiction to set it at a distance from its 'classical' sponsors.

All this, of course, Roth is perfectly aware of, draws our attention to, makes use of…. [But how] can any writer be so in tune with Mann, Woolf, James, and still so raucous and raunchy in word and deed? Even more, how can any writer pass so surefootedly and unembarrassedly from one to the other? No English novelist has ever been able to do that. Roth's work does reveal some of the dynamics and the limits of the process (his heroes are deeply upset by other people's vulgarity, and their vigour of language finds only a feeble counterpart in their behaviour). But it is nevertheless a wonderful achievement, and a vivid case of his interest in the limited powers of 'ideas' and 'literature'.

Roth's world of vulgarity is Jewish. To be a Jewish child, however, an experience Roth makes much of, is to grow up in a world of refinement. His heroes' families are the heart of all refinement…. [Roth's hero] grows up, as Jewish, with a map of life in which areas of refinement and vulgarity were marked off from each other clearly, but were not at war with each other. (pp. 160-61)

But Roth's work also records a rebellion, an exasperation with, a blasphemy against, [the piety of being Jewish]. That has seemed, especially to Jewish readers, the main thrust of his work, from Goodbye Columbus on. The story "Epstein," for instance, is built around the scene in which the father stands naked before his wife and child, his genitals apparently marked with venereal disease; a scene which outrages the piety taught in Leviticus XVIII against 'uncovering the nakedness' of a father.

Roth has always claimed that there was nothing anti-Jewish in this, nothing more than the artist's need to find pungent means of expression, and that seems plausible to me. On the other hand, that artist's need is, in our present phase of culture, for a pungency offensive to piety; to be an artist is to be in a state of inflamed exasperation, and it is not philistine to sympathize with those who protested.

However, from Roth's point of view, he was in those days socially pious himself because in sympathy with his society's criteria of seriousness. The big fact of his development, as he describes it, has been that he came to doubt even those criteria. In his early work, he tells us, he was always trying to be mature and responsible, to be manly, in whatever he wrote. (p. 162)

It is, nevertheless, in terms like manliness that Roth's heroes continue to measure themselves, despite his attempts to escape them. In an interview he said that his work changed with Portnoy, because of an increased responsiveness to what was unsocialized in himself. And Tarnopol tells Karen Oakes that now he's been broken by Maureen, he'll take Genet, Miller, and Celine as his literary heroes, and write like them. But he realizes immediately after that he is sensitive to nothing so much as to his moral reputation. And Roth's later work, including The Breast and The Professor of Desire, has a strain of moral suffering that sounds deeper than anything else. (p. 163)

Roth's career … is a vivid case of the changes that have come over American literary culture from the 50s to the 70s. But it is also a vivid case of continuity, for if his 'desire to be good' was replaced by a 'desire to be bad', both are there, in conflict, from the beginning. His first autobiographical hero, Gabe Wallach in Letting Go, is full of that conflict. And its terms are not so different in Professor of Desire, though the protagonist is much battered, saddened, almost silenced.

To place him evaluatively, I should put Roth beside Bellow, an author he much admires and much resembles, for Bellow too is an artist of conscience and comedy, with political responsibilities and autobiographical tendencies. One crucial likeness is between their senses of themselves as over-privileged, burdened with others' love or envy, too lucky by half. (This is a leading trait of all our Jewish novelists' heroes, and the crux of this genre of fiction.) Roth seems to me demonstrably the better in his handling of this central theme. In Bellow there is a softness of self-definition, a queasiness of self-love, which spoils a good deal. Roth's superiority is in fictional taste (in knowing what to omit) in the richer realism of his specification, and in the firmer personal centre to the extravaganzas of fantasy and the structures of reasoning. All in all, it seems to me, Roth is the central novelist of his generation, the one who sums up and dramatizes our central concerns. (pp. 167-68)

Martin Green, "Philip Roth," in Ploughshares (© 1978 by Ploughshares, Inc.), Vol. 4, No. 3, 1978, pp. 156-68.

Jonathan Penner

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 533

Lonoff, brilliant writer and austere recluse, is the object of a literary pilgrimage by Nathan Zuckerman, the central character of [The Ghost Writer]. Zuckerman is a writer too: 23 years old, four stories in print, and on the make in both senses of that phrase. (p. 1)

As an original for Zuckerman, we are likely indeed to think of Roth himself near the start of his career. The central issue of this novel has as its seed an unpublished story of Zuckerman's that upsets his parents extremely: a treatment of a Zuckerman family scandal, in which Zuckermans—therefore Jews—are revealed as adulterous, violent and greedy…. The distress of Zuckerman's elders recalls that which greeted "Epstein," Roth's own early story about an adulterous Jew.

But the issue goes far beyond whether or not Zuckerman's story should be published. As he comes to realize in the course of the novel, he faces difficult problems of loyalty and personal identification. The pull is between his art and his origins. (pp. 1-2)

This novel is not merely short … but specifically short-story-like. The characters are few, the subject is circumscribed. Although there are flashbacks, the main action takes place within 24 hours, and within the confines of a single house. One must be grateful to the author for not padding a delicate story in order to satisfy the prevalent taste for big books.

Still, one might have been made more grateful yet. The Ghost Writer suffers, if not from padding, at least from flaws of emphasis. Felix Abravenel for one, and Zuckerman's estranged girlfriend for another, are given too much flesh for the fine bones of the plot to bear.

Another flaw lies in the large structure: we learn in the first sentence that the story is being remembered by Zuckerman more than 20 years later. This distance proves useful, allowing for such footnotes as "I was then at the stage of my erotic development when nothing excited me as much as having intercourse on the floor." The trouble is that the story ends within the memory, leaving us with a framework novel missing half a frame. We would like to come back to the mature Zuckerman—and we would like, when we do, to feel an added resonance in the story. It would be hard to avoid anticlimax in writing such an ending, but if anyone could do it, Roth could.

And we can only believe that he could. This, his 11th book, provides further evidence that he can do practically anything with fiction. His narrative power—the ability to delight the reader simultaneously with the telling and the tale, employing economy that looks like abundance, ornament that turns out to be structure—is superb. He is so good in this book that even when he's bad, he's good. The Ghost Writer is a thoroughly earned triumph. It is built not only with high craft but also with base craft, the laborious turning of sentences—what we would expect, not from a Lonoff fixed in the firmament, but from the most nervous, the least "established," the most sweatily hopeful, of Zuckermans. (p. 2)

Jonathan Penner, "Books: 'The Ghost Writer'," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), September 2, 1979, pp. 1-2.

Robert Towers

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I had only to read [the] two opening sentences of "The Ghost Writer" to realize—with a long sigh of anticipated pleasure—that I was once again in the hands of a superbly endowed storyteller. That echo of the beginnings of a dozen great Russian tales … reassured me that Philip Roth is still exhibiting the good form that he recovered after "The Breast" and a couple of other aberrations. Whatever one may feel about the limitations of his vision and humanity as a novelist, the voice that Roth developed for his first-person narrations—notably "Portnoy's Complaint," "My Life as a Man" and, recently, "The Professor of Desire"—is surely one of the most distinctive and supple in contemporary American fiction. It is a voice of remarkable range, accommodating sentences of almost Jamesian convolution and allusiveness with sudden ejaculations of street language, comic hyperbole with ironic understatement, tones of melancholy self-deprecation with bursts of satiric glee. It is a voice that inspires in me, at least, confidence that what follows will be entertaining, sharply observed, possibly a bit nasty, almost certainly provocative. If I am sometimes discontented, exasperated or frustrated at the end, the fault is not that of the voice. (p. 1)

"The Ghost Writer" is one of Philip Roth's best short fictions, but, like so much that he has written, the rich promise of its style and inventiveness is in part betrayed by miscalculations of tone and structure, by a cleverness that sometimes bites its own tail. One could look upon "The Ghost Writer" as a long short story stretched further by the insertion of chunks of material that do not absolutely belong; alternatively, one can see it as a truncated novel in which certain elements of great potential importance remain undeveloped and unassimilated. Enjoying (and admiring) Roth as I do, I wish the book had been half again as long. (p. 13)

Robert Towers, "The Lesson of the Master," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 2, 1979, pp. 1, 13.

Mark Shechner

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Whatever else a story may do, its one indispensable element is the imagination's first premise: what if?… What if a petty clerk in Prague should awaken one morning to find that he has become an enormous insect, or what if Franz Kafka himself should survive his bout with tuberculosis in 1924, live long enough to have to flee the Nazis, and emigrate to Newark, N.J., just in time to become Philip Roth's Hebrew schoolteacher? Such is the premise of what is surely Roth's finest piece of short fiction, "'I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting'; or, Looking at Kafka."…

Here is an example of the writer pushing his premises as far as he can until some other consideration, some reality principle, pushes back. Franz Kafka can be kept alive long enough to get to Newark, but he can't be restored to confident sexual manhood…. To suppose otherwise might make a good story, but it would be about another man, not Kafka. Take another example: What if Anne Frank could have survived the Holocaust and emigrated to America to become a student—a coed—at a small college near Stock-bridge, Mass.? And what if, some years later, she should meet up with Nathan Zuckerman, a young writer from Newark, who is about Roth's age and is currently in hot water throughout Essex County because of a story he has written, featuring his own family, that is taken to be anti-Semitic? Stop there. The difficulties are immediately obvious. Anne Frank can't be reinvented like Franz Kafka. Kafka was so wholly of the imagination that it remains his medium even after his death, but Anne Frank belongs to history, and to a history so tragic and irredeemable that the imagination has to feel a little chastened before it. But what if our Zuckerman, whose fantasy life sometimes overpowers him as it should in a writer, were only to imagine that a young woman he meets might be Anne Frank, and that for his own personal motives that is just another reason to fall in love with her? Then you have Philip Roth's The Ghost Writer, a book about how Anne Frank might be invented by a young man who has need of imagining her.

This encounter takes place at the isolated country home of the writer, E. I. Lonoff…. Lonoff is a recluse who has renounced all passions except those of his art, and a master of style who has devoted his life to le mot juste, or turning sentences around and around until he has gotten them right. (p. 213)

This is the least tendentious of Roth's books, far more the bemused slice of life than the anguished self-exculpation. Here, it is the other guy's marriage that is on the rocks. Lonoff has chosen the perfection of the work over the perfection of the life, and Roth looks on the consequences with detachment. Maybe it is Lonoff's own imperturbability, his peculiar absence of conflict or normal passion, that robs the moment of its desperation, but situations that were disastrous in earlier books are merely ironic in this one.

Even the element of self-examination here is quite unlike the turbulent self-inquisition we have come to expect of Roth, since it is not destructive motives that are being mercilessly interrogated but the imagination itself. Accordingly, the regressive portions of the personality that elsewhere have been central take a back seat to such considerations as history and literature. The Roth who wrote this book is the Roth who edits the "Writers From the Other Europe" series for Penguin Books and spends much of his time in London or Prague in the company of Czech writers like Milan Kundera, to whom he dedicates this book, and Ludvik Vaculik. It is the Roth, in other words, who has set his sights on becoming a European novelist. (p. 215)

[The Ghost Writer] finds Roth poised ambiguously between his old obsession with sexual failure and domestic crisis and a more recent concern with history on the tragic plane, but unable to take the full plunge into matters on which he has so tenuous a grasp. Here, and in The Professor of Desire, he introduces some catastrophe of historic proportions—the Holocaust or the Soviet rape of Czechoslovakia—and then scales the story down to the level of a domestic blowup that seems quite beside the point. Even while his imagination wrestles with horrors of world-historical magnitude, his writing stays close to what he knows firsthand.

Yet Roth can scarcely be blamed for playing coy with the Holocaust and allowing his Zuckerman only to imagine the experiences Amy Bellette [the imagined Anne Frank figure] has come through. The fictional medium does not yield to simple outrage…. (pp. 215-16)

No idea lends itself to fiction except through a strategy of presentation, and Roth, who has not been a student of Henry James for nothing, knows that better than anyone. The strategy of placing Anne Frank's double in Stockbridge in 1956 and introducing her to Nathan Zuckerman gives Roth freedom to invent characters, entertain fantasies, and shuttle at will between continents, which are now only places in the mind, while any direct assault on history would have closed off these possibilities. And yet, for my taste, The Ghost Writer could have been bolder with its modest premises and taken a few more risks. This is Roth's most restrained book since When She Was Good, and his circumspection is certainly in keeping with the hazardous nature of his themes. Still, I'd like to know more about the Lonoff who does Durante imitations in the bedroom and less about that perfect equanimity and dedication. Unless we can imagine that there is something fairly wild lurking beneath all that composure, Lonoff must seem an unappealing figure…. His canons of reticence give us not a clue, and Roth, for once, has settled for telling us far less than we want to know. (p. 216)

Mark Shechner, "What Nathan Knew," in The Nation (copyright 1979 The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 229, No. 7, September 15, 1979, pp. 213-16.

Phoebe-Lou Adams

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Since Mr. Roth's previous novels have contained a number of characters as solidly convincing as a fire engine, it is a surprise and something of a disappointment to find [The Ghost Writer] populated by bloodless intellectual conceptions. It is as though he had written an essay (and it would have been a very clever, penetrating essay) on "Possible Attitudes of the American-Jewish Author" and had then turned his argument into fiction by constructing a character to fit each attitude. It is still a sound argument, but it makes fiction once removed.

Phoebe-Lou Adams, "PLA: 'The Ghost Writer'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1979 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 244, No. 4, October, 1979, p. 108.

Daphne Merkin

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On the evidence of his latest novel, The Ghost Writer,… Philip Roth continues to be a promising writer.

Roth's first book, Goodbye, Columbus, comprised a collection of stories and a novella. They were written in a voice that was mordantly funny, yet inflected with a quality of seriousness. It was uniquely suited to the lightly-borne anguish of Roth's fictional situations and capable of sustaining interest in the fairly specialized conflicts of which it spoke.

He was writing about American Jews—both the assimilated ones, who take the land of plenty in their well-heeled stride, and the bewildered ones, who look backwards to the insular, clearly-defined world of the shtetl—with the mixture of derision and affection that comes from the too-lucid understanding of a writer straddling two histories himself. The ancient and the new were juxtaposed in the title novella, Goodbye, Columbus, to startling effect; one saw how cultures accommodate and resist each other; and, remarkably, Roth enabled us to grasp this struggle almost entirely through dialogue. (p. 18)

Roth's impeccable ear not only captured what was being said, but what was left unsaid as well. This talent would take him far, all the way to the indiscretions and rantings of his first big commercial success, Portnoy's Complaint. It would also hinder his developing the themes that engage him beyond the obsessional. (pp. 18-19)

Letting Go, his second novel, was a lengthy work of almost Hardyesque sobriety. It concerned a group of floundering post-adolescents, and it evoked the atmosphere of emotional stagnation as much by the settings—the academic communities of Iowa and Chicago—as by the malaise of the characters. The novel was a turnabout in being distinctly nonethnic—problems caused by Jewishness now ceded to problems caused by humanness—and self-consciously literary: The street-wise, punchy story-teller of Goodbye, Columbus was replaced by a brooding, cerebral spirit, an earnest forger of the links joining the exigencies of Life to the meditations of Art. Letting Go seems to me to contain some of Roth's best writing; he convincingly grappled with the besetting anxieties of manhood that later become suspended in caricature. Roth explored this side of himself—the old-style moralist—once more, and markedly less successfully, in When She Was Good, a bleak portrait of feminine willfulness.

After that the tragic muse was abandoned in favor of the scandalously comic: Portnoy beat his breast on Dr. Spielvogel's couch and the public responded with appreciative laughter. Roth apparently discovered that he didn't have to labor at probing moral depths or drawing social pictures when he had such a fast-hitting method of one-liners and sketchy characterizations to fall back on. His next three novels, Our Gang, The Breast and The Great American Novel, all skated on the thin ice of hostile fantasy and an increasingly wild humor. The regressive, infantile streak that had always been a component of his temperament was allowed to usurp his more subtle and considered traits. The consequences were disastrous, because as a bad boy Roth just isn't bad—i.e., inventive—enough: He is still trying to shock Mother.

My Life as a Man signalled yet another adjustment in Roth's treatment of his fictional material. The focus turned sharply inward; the satire was directed intrapsychically rather than at national pastimes or institutions. The author recaptured some of the poignancy of his first book by the simple act of retracing his steps back to the germinating obsessions: being a dark Jew among golden Goyim; a vulnerable male among predatory females; a deficient son to loving parents; a dilatory arrival at the gates of maturity. In this and his next novel, The Professor of Desire, there is much that is witty and much that is touching, but it is the feeling of claustrophobia that emerges most strongly….

In The Ghost Writer the narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, a young and promising writer of short stories that sound conspicuously like those in Goodbye, Columbus, speaks admiringly of Lonoff, the established older author whom he is visiting at his Berkshire hideaway: "I loved him! Yes, nothing less than love for this man with no illusions: love for the bluntness, the scrupulosity, the severity, the estrangement: love for the relentless winnowing out of the babyish, preening, insatiable self…." It is, alas, precisely Roth-alias-Zuckerman's "babyish, preening, insatiable self" that inhabits the center of the novel and directs the proceedings. The Ghost Writer testifies more to need and craving than to aspiration or risk; the motives propelling a young writer are explained to us by the older writer he has become. I suppose the novel can be read as a story about the conflicting allegiances to Art and Life, and the betrayals involved therein. Unfortunately, this is never really attended to by the plot. What we get is a handful of perceptions about domestic trauma and artistic imperiousness, and some vintage dialogue….

Even Roth's celebrated problematic Jewishness gets a rather tired nod here in the form of Zuckerman's fantasy involving Amy Bellette, a young assistant of Lonoff's whom he envisions as a resuscitated Anne Frank.

The Ghost Writer is a slight book about almost-major themes. It seems to me that Roth has his finger on a truly compelling dilemma—that of divided personal and intellectual loyalties—but that he confines it to a very small arena. Instead of opening it up to the stratagems and demands of the world out there, he has lingered with the battles that are familiar to him and to us. It is time that he dared to move on. (p. 19)

Daphne Merkin, "Roth's Promise," in The New Leader (© 1979 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LXII, No. 19, October 8, 1979, pp. 18-19.

Sheppard J. Ranbom

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 412

The Ghost Writer transcends the label "ghost story" in its balanced artistry and its dead certainty of language. While Lonoff and Nathan Zuckerman discuss a mutual writer-acquaintance, Abravanel …, one sees Lonoff to be a simple man who shuns any form of success or social life. There is everywhere the balance between Lonoff's genius and his pathetic domesticity….

There is also the primal balance of young and old (Nathan and Lonoff, his literary father; Nathan and Doc Zuckerman, his real father, a pitiable figure who tries to keep Nathan from publishing a story about the Zuckerman family; young Amy and the middle-aged Hope Lonoff, rivals the whole way through). But best of all there are the subtle balances that make fiction into art. Roth balances the weather outside the house with the storm inside. While snow pelts against the eaves, setting an eerie mood, one sees Roth in complete control….

[In] all the stories that meet in Roth's narrative, there is the ghost that haunts the writer who cannot rest unless he is in the process of writing. Lonoff demonstrates to Nathan that what happens in the life of a really talented writer does not matter. Events cannot be controlled, but they must be written down….

Lonoff is a fatalist. Yet he gets through life unscathed because the events of his world that he cannot control pose no threat to him—his world is as "fantastic" and as harmless as breakfast cereal. In The Ghostwriter all fantasy—art, the ideal life, the dreams of raising children to emulate their parents, even the young girl that both men are attracted to—is made to seem sugar-coated and unreal.

Yet it is the insubstantial nature of these things that makes characters complex. When ideals and dreams conflict with the facts as they are and with other people's ideals and dreams, we realize that something must give….

Full of the irony of the first-person voice that has always been the strength of Roth's work—"something that begins at the back of the knees and reaches well above the head" (the quality that Lonoff says he admires most in Nathan's writing)—The Ghost Writer has a voice that is stronger than the loudest speech. Recently Roth's voice has grown teeth, and The Ghost Writer bites into the heart of the artistic enterprise.

Sheppard J. Ranbom, "The Ghost and Mr. Zuckerman," in Books & Arts (copyright © 1979 by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc.), Vol. I, No. 3, October 12, 1979, p. 17.

Candace Hagan

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On the range of literary criticism, Philip Roth has been targeted by Jews and Gentiles, literary authorities and laymen, as an exploitative, narrow-minded reinforcer of Jewish stereotypes; a writer who is dedicated to portraying, as one Rabbi editorialized several years ago in the New York Times, "a melancholy parade of caricatures." Some have even attacked his works as dangerous, dishonest, and irresponsible. Roth has rebuked these accusations from the time he was made famous in 1959 by Goodbye, Columbus, a novella and group of short stories about which Roth explained his use of Jewish characters and lifestyles as simply vehicles to portray universal themes. Many claimed Roth had depicted in this book the quintessential negative portrait of Jews and Jewishness.

In an essay for Commentary, ("Writing About Jews," Dec. 1963), Roth countered such assessments of this and subsequent books by saying of his critics:

Not only do they seem to me often to have cramped and untenable notions of right and wrong, but looking at fiction as they do—in terms of 'approval' and 'disapproval' of Jews, 'positive' and 'negative' attitudes toward Jewish life—they are likely not to see what it is that the story is really about …

Fiction is not written to affirm the principles and beliefs that everybody seems to hold, nor does it seek to guarantee us of the appropriateness of our feelings. The world of fiction, in fact, frees us from the circumscriptions that the society places upon feeling; one of the greatnesses of the art is that it allows both the writer and the reader to respond to experience in ways not always available in day-to-day conduct; or if they are available, they are not possible, or manageable, or legal, or advisable, or even necessary to the business of living.

With The Ghost Writer, Roth has written a fictional piece that reflects the philosophy of the 1963 essay through the somewhat autobiographical guise of his own experiences of becoming a writer. In this book, Roth discards much of the detailed descriptions of Jews and their lifestyles, the concentration upon sexual exploits, and a substantial amount of the blatant humor found in his earlier works, and concentrates instead on the preoccupation that an artist, in this case a writer, must have with his craft. Through this theme, explored through the personalities of two writers … Roth seems to retaliate against years of criticism with half-masked references to his own previous works, their intent, and the misinterpretations they suffered. On a deeper level, the book offers glimpses of the necessarily remote nature of an artist: the artist as an observer, not a true participant, in the systems, institutions, or mores of society….

In The Ghost Writer, Nathan Zuckerman, a young Jewish writer, searches for reasons to maintain his vision against the constraints and pressures of his family and the philosophy that they represent….

Nathan's quest leads him, "bashful and breathless," to an introverted, soft-spoken, meticulous man [Lonoff], a man whose ordered, seemingly intensely moral and domestic life is in direct contrast to that of Nathan, who is described as an "unchaste monk" by his ex-girlfriend…. Yet as Nathan spends the evening and next morning as a guest at the Lonoff's, he slowly begins to perceive a sense of things gone awry in the writer's home, and in his life. (p. 11)

Observing all of this, Nathan perhaps sees the inevitability of the clash between art and the rest of the moorings in his life…. Nathan begins to understand the lesson he has received from the master, a lesson which Lonoff himself is still perfecting: the belief in the absolution of art. The man as artist must be different from the man as participant in this world; but he must be both, even if only as an observer in the latter.

The reader is left with the idea that Nathan has joined the ethereal fraternity of artists where a member trains his thoughts on creativity, but keeps one foot very earth-bound…. In this imaginative novella, Roth initiates the complicated explanation of the artist's dilemma through the allegorical portrayal of Nathan's maturation as a writer, and at the same time seems to reaffirm his own faith in the art and in his previous works. (p. 27)

Candace Hagan, "The Calling," in The Lone Star Book Review (copyright © 1979 Lone Star Media Corp.), Vol. 1, No. 6, November, 1979, pp. 11, 27.


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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 614

What if there had been a Jewish version of Henry James? In this marvellously controlled ironic novella [The Ghost Writer], Philip Roth has invented a bristlingly vivid Jewish James called E. I. Lonoff, a selfless patriarch of 'sympathy and pitilessness'. Then he unleashes a disciple on Lonoff, a young Jewish and rather Rothian writer who is comically eager to learn the lesson of the master. After a day of observing the 'terminal restraint' that passes for life in the Lonoff dacha in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts, young Nathan Zuckerman has learned a different lesson from the one he set out to get: one man's 'madness of art' is another man's poison.

In Henry James, the 'madness of art' must sponge out the bright colours of mere life. James's lesson is brutally clear: a man must choose either life or art, he can't have both. Roth, however, brilliantly revises James's lesson: according to the Ghost Writer the master and his lesson don't quite match. The son was born to make a ghost of his father. While the Ghost Writer stands figuratively on the shoulders of Henry James, one of its wittiest insights occurs when its nosey young hero stands literally on a volume of James so he can overhear the live-action Aspern papers of Lonoff's love life upstairs. The literary voyeur Nathan should have learned the lesson offered by his own experiences earlier in the evening: his inability to write a letter to his real father, his joyless masturbation on the master's daybed, and the intoxication when he reads 'The Middle Years', James's story of a destructive discipleship. All Nathan hears, of course, is a self-parodic renunciation scene as the master refuses to kiss the breasts of his presumed mistress, the pretty refugee Amy Bellette.

Roth's mercilessly compact plot shows that young Nathan will never achieve the moral and artistic scrupulousness of his literary father. At the same time, however, Roth's serene, cool, utterly assured style tells us that he, at least, has found his way through to the calm power of a novelist's 'middle years'. In The Ghost Writer he tries on a Jamesian Jewish mask as 'the Jew who got away', standing back from the ironies of life. The mask fits elegantly.

All along Roth's fiction, like the life-styles of his heroes, has been about performance. The Ghost Writer is a novel about performance too, since it is another public acting out of Roth's major theme of broken inheritance but it plays upon its theme by a marked absence of colourful gestures….

As David Plante has said, every 20th-century writer is a ghost of Henry James. We can't choose our fathers. All we can do is choose, like Roth, to reject them. The Ghost Writer's style is remarkably straight, cool and simple—un-Jamesian. Roth, never having had a Jamesian father, is telling us that he no longer needs one. There never was a Lonoff. American Jewish writers have had to make do with realist and folk-tale patriarchs like Abraham Cahan, Isaac Babel and I. B. Singer, with martyrs like Kafka and Anne Frank, and with the contemporary performers. So Lonoff is a ghost, a fiction, the sort of writer an impressionable young man might imagine finding in an isolated house in the mountains. In The Ghost Writer Philip Roth says in the most sharp firm way that he is very much alive and kicking those 'ideological Benya Kriks' in New York from this own hide-out in the Berkshires. And he has got away with it too; The Ghost Writer is a well-tempered triumph.

Helen McNeil, "Can't Have Both," in New Statesman (© 1979 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 98, No. 253, November 9, 1979, p. 728.

Pearl K. Bell

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At the age of forty-six, Philip Roth has relented. He has written a short and touching novel, The Ghost Writer, which is remarkably free of the zeal for settling scores that soured so much of his work. In place of the animosity he lavished on nouveau-riche vulgarians in Goodbye, Columbus, on repressive Jewish mothers in Portnoy's Complaint, and destructive Gentile wives in My Life As a Man, Roth has drawn the characters in The Ghost Writer with delicacy, compassion, and a tender respect for their honorable intentions….

Roth has endowed [Nathan Zuckerman, the troubled young Jewish writer,] with cultural sophistication and a fervent sense of literary vocation…. More important, he is obsessed … with the classic tension that plagues writers—the discordant demands of art and life.

Life has recently been battering Nathan's conscience because his father, after reading a long story his son has written about an ancient family scandal, has accused him of betraying the Jews by disclosing such vulgarity and greed to a hostile world ("not for the goyim")….

As we gradually learn, Nathan is still distressed by the rift with his father when he arrives, at the beginning of The Ghost Writer, at an isolated Berkshire farmhouse to visit the great American Jewish novelist, E. I. Lonoff. To be granted an audience by the legendary recluse is a rare privilege, and Nathan has come as an excited pilgrim to pay homage to and seek encouragement from this "ideal father" who is "an artist instead of a foot doctor." It is a situation rich in Jamesian echoes of the tales and novellas about the literary life, such as "The Lesson of the Master" and "The Figure in the Carpet," which Henry James was writing in the 1880's and 90's. The very opening of The Ghost Writer ("It was the last daylight hour of a December afternoon more than twenty years ago … when I arrived at his hideaway to meet the great man") is immediately reminiscent, though far more spare, of the first sentence of "The Author of Beltraffic."…

Lonoff and James, together, are the magisterial instructive presence for the young acolyte, but the novel abounds with other literary ghosts: Kafka, Chekhov, Babel, Flaubert, and, perhaps the ghostliest of all in Roth's view, himself when young. And this suggests what the title, with its sly play on words, means: that the imagination and craft of a writer are nourished so directly by the masters of the past that they become, in no invidious sense, his "ghost writers."

Roth seems eager to demonstrate, as he was in The Professor of Desire, his incorrigible literariness, as though this will flout those critics who have called him vulgar. (p. 72)

For all its self-mocking sassiness, The Ghost Writer is Roth's salute to his youthful courage in defying Jewish family pieties and committing himself to what James's dying novelist, in "The Middle Years," calls "the madness of art." Though Roth has defended himself strenuously throughout his career against the rabbis and the Wapters who accused him of abetting anti-Semitism, he has now brought the acrimonious debate into his fiction and, holding all the aces, he triumphs once again…. In their separate ways, Lonoff and James and the ghostly vision of Anne Frank [Amy Bellette] embolden the young writer to trust the tale, and thus set him free.

But free to do what? There is no question that Philip Roth is a very good writer, never more appealing, witty, unguarded, than in The Ghost Writer. It is the best thing he has done, a bright evocation of youth and age and the literary ardor and egotism that bind them. But if in the end the book also seems rather thin, it is because it promises an intellectual and moral range which it does not wholly attain. Roth seems reluctant to engage himself fully with the demanding question he asks in many different ways throughout the novel: must life be sacrificed to art, in the uncompromising manner of a Lonoff? After all, Nathan Zuckerman does not bring Anne Frank home as his bride; when morning comes, nothing has been settled.

The dilemma deserves more patient scrutiny than it receives in Hope Lonoff's impassioned outburst, in the closing scene, against her husband's "religion of art." Her indictment is like the curtain speech in a "well-made" play—an eloquent and conveniently tidy summation of all that has gone before. "Nothing can be touched," she cries, "nothing can be changed, everybody must be quiet, the children must shut up…. Not living is what he makes his beautiful fiction out of!" It is a stirring speech, for her grievances are not petty. But it is hard to know how Zuckerman (and Roth) respond to her denunciation. In his haste to wrap up the package with this rousing finale, Roth skirts the messy, inelegant complications within the enigmas that have brushed across his consciousness. He has not yet assimilated the lessons of the masters as well as he would like us to believe. (p. 73)

Pearl K. Bell, "Roth & Baldwin: Coming Home," in Commentary (reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), Vol. 68, No. 6, December, 1979, pp. 72-4.∗

Lorna Sage

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Philip Roth's talent feeds off shame. Shame at bad faith, others' suffering, sexual failure (still worse, success); the shame of literature, and the distance between language and feeling; and shame at his own shell-less narcissism. The Ghost Writer is mainly about this last kind, but since literary ambition for Roth subsumes the question of his relation to the Jewish past, and his doomed craving for a warm, live muse, it takes in the others as well.

And it does so with bland economy, both of structure and style….

It's a lucid, elegant fiction, teetering on the edge of fable…. The writing is never less than pleasurable, and is often strikingly, locally persuasive. However, the superimposition of self-consciousness on self-revelation has a smug feel to it. If I wanted one word to describe the impression it leaves, it would be "finesse"—the sense that Roth is here palpating his writerly ego in too practised a manner, and is in danger of losing touch with the very power to offend, embarrass and engage that he is, shamefacedly, celebrating. He is (in? through? despite?) his self-mockery, too close to playing the great writer himself these days to be convincing about his guilt and gaucherie.

Lorna Sage, "The Dangers of Finesse," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1979; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4003, December 7, 1979, p. 86.


Roth, Philip (Vol. 119)


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