Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 111
Philip Roth 1933–
American novelist and short story writer.
Roth exhibits in his fiction a brilliant satirical wit. His work explores problems of contemporary Jewish life. 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. His recent novels, The Ghost Writer and Zuckerman Unbound, examine the artist's interaction with society.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed., and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2: American Novelists since World War II.)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4963
[As] an artist Roth has placed his faith in Realism, not Judaism…. [From] the wider perspective available when the ethnic emphasis is set aside for a while, Roth's career is not marked by a vagrant choice of subjects but by a single-minded dedication to a significant goal: finding subjects and techniques which will reveal the effect of the interpenetration of reality and fantasy in the lives of his representative Americans. This concern is what makes an aesthetically coherent whole of his otherwise diverse fictions and supplies the developmental logic which his critics have so often failed to discern. (p. 9)
[In Goodbye, Columbus] Roth is already preoccupied with the central conflicts in American life as they are experienced in the everyday lives of his Jewish characters. These conflicts are economic, psychological, and generational, as well as religious, and they repeatedly point to the underlying incongruity between ethical ideals and material realities in American culture…. [Even in this early work Jewishness is used not to universalize,] but to particularize: to make universal conflicts more specific—"of a time, a place, a group of people, a situation"—and thus more realistic. (p. 19)
In each of the stories [in Goodbye, Columbus] we learn what reality feels like to the protagonist and are encouraged to see the world as he sees it. And this is an important point to recognize at the outset, since this identification of hero and narrator has been Roth's most characteristic fictive voice from the beginning of his career to the present. (p. 33)
Neil [the protagonist of Goodbye, Columbus] should not be confused with Philip Roth. Neil's awareness of his own motives … is never fully equal to his creator's, for the ingenuous questions he poses at the end of his narrative have already been carefully answered in the story itself. Completely accepting Neil's version of events, then, is misleading; instead we must read between the lines, noticing what he does not say as well as what he does in order to draw essential conclusions and implications….
The libidinous and acquisitive part of Neil sees Brenda and the affluent suburban world she inhabits, transforms them into a Polynesian maiden dwelling in an exotic American Tahiti, cam-ouflages itself under the guise of love, and cries, "I want!" At the same time the disapproving moralist in him sees a spoiled little rich girl, a family of Brobdingnags living in a world of conformity and expedience, and decorously protests, "I am horrified." This internal struggle—and Neil's hazy awareness that he has been more willing than he would like to admit to heed the acquisitive cry and ignore the horrified whisper—is what gives his retrospective narrative its bitter, misanthropic tone. Like Portnoy [the central character of Roth's Portnoy's Complaint], he seeks revenge and vents his frustration through verbal abuse; unlike his liberated successor, however, he is denied the outlet of obscenity and must settle for a more restrained mode of satiric attack. (p. 35)
What Neil never fully acknowledges,… is that Brenda is both a person and a symbol to him. She has no life in the novella except as a projection of his desires and fears. Without being fully conscious of it—even in retrospect as he tries to sort out their affair—he sublimates his immediate dislike for her as a person in the interest of his quest for the American Dream of money, status, and Edenic satiety which she and her family personify…. While Neil never appreciates the crucial distinction between loving and wanting Brenda and loving and wanting what she represents, Roth tries to make sure that the reader will. (p. 37)
Like Goodbye, Columbus, Letting Go is a novel of initiation and education. While it exhibits the same mastery of American vernacular, social detail, and characterization which his critics had admired in Goodbye, Columbus, however, Roth's novel is a much more difficult, much more complex work than his relatively slight collection. The tendency toward facile polarization of language and character which too frequently marred his early stories—a willingness to rely too heavily on sharp contrasts between the superior sensibilities of his struggling heroes and the inflexibility of the self-satisfied characters who surrounded them which inevitably pushed those stories into the realm of caricature and farce—is all but abandoned in Letting Go. Though social satire is still a prominent element in Roth's art, strict moral schematization is replaced in this novel by an acceptance of the centrality of accident and ambiguity to the realistic depiction of contemporary life. The novel, unlike the stories, is far too complex to allow the comforts of easily distilled moral judgments or clearly defined heroes and villains. Instead, it presents a world as cluttered by seemingly inconsequential action and trivial incident, as unpredictable and defiant of simple definition, as the real world it so accurately reflects; and peoples it with characters as caught up in the web of conflicting moral demands, as frustrated by their inability to make reality conform to their aspirations, as are many of its readers. (p. 48)
[Almost] nothing happens in Letting Go which does not illuminate or advance the psychological journey of its central characters from innocence to experience and maturity. We forgive the first novelist his weaknesses—an occasionally embarrassing stab at portentousness, several arbitrary shifts in point of view, some excessive repetition, a few characters … who are used rather than explored, a perceptible drop in interest in the last hundred pages or so—because his book is finally such an impressive achievement in the mode of Jamesian psychological realism in spite of them.
More importantly, we are willing to overlook these weaknesses in retrospect because, like the characters in the novel, we cannot help but conclude the experience of Letting Go with a deeper understanding of [its] uncomfortable truths…. (p. 59)
The same gloomy aura of inevitability which marked Roth's first novel permeates his second [When She Was Good], and together they can be viewed as somber companion pieces which explore the lives of the American generation which reached its maturity in the Fifties. Letting Go, Roth's contemporary variation on the characters and themes of [Henry James's] The Portrait of a Lady, investigated the psychological debts and sorrows of the urban, college-educated members of that generation in a Jamesian style and language exactly suited to its subjects. When She Was Good, his Midwestern Madame Bovary, his contemporary Main Street, focuses on the remaining members of that generation: the men and women from small towns and suburbs who never went to college or never finished, those who were seemingly predestined to grow up, marry, raise their children, and die within an afternoon's drive of the places where they were born…. (pp. 63-4)
Its disruption of simple chronology, its use of changing centers of consciousness, its repetition of the same incident from several points of view, its guise of authorial objectivity all testify to its technical modernity. Revealing all of the novel's major incidents in the first forty pages, and then spending 250 pages retelling them—and retelling them in the banal language of the characters themselves besides—is a particularly modern approach. Through his linguistic choice, Roth manages to make all of the popular American clichés … tangible factors in the lives of his characters. The limitations of that language effectively mirror the limitations of possibility and perspective which are the fundamental antagonists in [his female protagonist's] pathetic tale. Characteristically, Roth's choice of language and narrative viewpoint forces us into the point of view of Liberty Center's inhabitants, compels us to share their restricted perspective.
Within its melodramatic framework Roth's text unconventionally challenges the sympathetic presuppositions of readers accustomed to finding in American fiction a series of recognizable variations on the archetypal male/female relationship…. (p. 66)
Roth attempted to reverse authorial and reader sympathy throughout most of the book. By presenting much of the story through Lucy's eyes, When She Was Good … attempts to make the reader view the conflict from the woman's perspective. Roth shows why Lucy became a paranoiac shrew, why she did what she did, why a life which begins in a typical desire to do and be good becomes a masochistic extravaganza instead. In the process, he provides devastating insights into the toil in pain and pathology which the archetypal male/female roles can exact from all concerned. (p. 68)
The complexity of When She Was Good is suggested by the fact that while Roth's characters are typical … (as are the characters in most of his fiction) and, therefore, his tale is realistic …, Roth frames his story in formal devices designed to create an aura of myth and legend about it—as Hemingway had done in The Old Man and the Sea and Carson McCullers did in her Ballad of the Sad Café. He sets his tale in the recent past, for example, recognizing that Americans evidence a "dedication to the past so brief that it was legend before it hardened into fact." He makes the story's geographical location intentionally vague: … all we really know is that Liberty Center is somewhere north of Chicago. The name of his town, Liberty Center, metaphorically suggests its symbolic nature and is an ironic commentary on the pathetically limited perspectives and possibilities of its inhabitants as well. The narrative begins in an omniscient, objective, third-person voice, gradually shades into the voice of Willard Carroll, then into the voices of Roy and Lucy, before concluding in the same objective voice in which it began. The effect of framing the story in a prologue and epitaph narrated in this omniscient voice is two-fold. It distances the action and assigns it a legendary, folkloric quality; and, like the choruses in Greek tragedy, it serves to set the scene and comment on the final outcome, producing the effect of ironic understatement in the book's closing pages. Within this framework, the characters' language is tightly controlled so that it maintains a typical tone and vocabulary throughout. (pp. 70-1)
In each of his earlier fictions Roth had attempted to find the most effective means to convey the feel of our cockeyed world, the quality of the social being's private life, the forces at work in those public and private worlds as a particular, representative individual perceived them. In Portnoy's Complaint he found a new, perhaps ideal, way of telling that tale…. Through the device of the psychoanalytic monologue Roth managed to combine the best features of both [fantasy and realism].
The advantages of this stylistic choice are numerous. The psychoanalytic setting provides a realistic justification for Portnoy's vehement soul-baring and finger-pointing, for his use of words and images which would be unacceptable in a more public context, and also for his emphasis on sexual memories. It also provides him with an audience, essential since Portnoy is both analysand and performer, character and author in his own seriocomic tale. The dramatic monologue which this setting provokes has the effect of locking us into Portnoy's vision of the world; and his viewpoint is unqualified by any other (until the punch line), reveals as no other could his interpretation of the burden of his reality…. [We] are forced (as he is) constantly to question where the line between objective reality and his pathological fantasies lies. We are, in other words, forced to consider the interpenetration of reality and fantasy in a life, and are, by extension, made conscious of the same interpenetration in our lives. The monologue form also permits digressions, exaggerations, repetitions, descriptions, and oversimplifications which, while vital to our understanding of Portnoy's character and psychology, would be less acceptable in another narrative context. (pp. 87-8)
Roth's exercise of style as a means to freedom of consciousness and expression … is in the American grain; and so is the subject which that style is meant to expose and explore—Portnoy's complaint. For like his American forebears, Alexander Portnoy wants most of all to be free—of his past and its burdens, of the weight of a culturally formed conscience and consciousness. Like [them], he seeks impossibly total satisfaction, impossibly complete freedoms from his environment, and lashes out at the world where he cannot find them. And reaction to his particular experience of the traditional American conflicts—of self vs. society, freedom vs. responsibility, pleasure vs. duty, self-definition vs. societal definition—is to pursue equally traditional American dreams of escape. (p. 90)
Alex cannot escape his civilization's discontents through physical flight because he has already internalized them. He is a victim of what Tony Tanner has characterized as the American hero's worst nightmare—conditioning. And he can find no escape from it except obscenity and the psychiatrist's couch—and even there he is not really free. (p. 91)
Alex is anything but a "hip" young Sixties man who uses obscenity almost unconsciously as an indication of his liberation from the older mores and taboos. To Portnoy obscenity is an achievement—and a weapon. He uses it because, like his parents and the society whose sexual conventions he is struggling so hard to violate, he thinks it is "dirty" too. He knows that the words he uses offend; they are meant to. He is obscene because he believes that through language he can break down the battlements of his own moral defenses—defenses which have been imposed on him by his society. But since he has internalized his Jewish and American societies' values, by talking and acting "dirty" all he really manages to do is increase the guilt which binds and tortures him. The guiltier he feels, the more frustrated he becomes; the more frustrated he becomes, the more vehement is his obscenity and his sexual promiscuity. Until finally he is literally speechless, caught in the whirlpool of this vicious circle, only able to express himself through an anguished howl of pain at his condition.
"Why must you use that word all the time?" Portnoy's Jewish Pumpkin asks two pages before that closing howl …, and "Why he must," Roth [has said,] "is what the book is all about."… It is finally fair to say [that] the "bad" language in Portnoy's Complaint … is a perfect expression of the conflict in the book. That language places Portnoy's Complaint in the tradition of native American humor, and that central conflict indicates his relationship to the characters of Roth's earlier and later fiction. (p. 94)
Like all of Roth's hero's, Portnoy is torn between the redemptive impulses of the moralist and the less-worthy impulses of the self-indulgent libidinous slob…. Like them Portnoy feels called upon to redeem the neurotic woman he is involved with; like them, he both shuns and covets that role. He is, like all of Roth's heroes, "locked up inself," struggling to come to terms with the burden of his past, to submerge the pleasure principle to the reality principle and emerge from the process whole. (p. 96)
[In Richard Nixon many] writers, like Roth, who are concerned with the meaning and usage of words—have always seen the apotheosis of the opportunistic politician who twists and corrupts the language for his own purposes. (p. 99)
What distinguishes Roth's effort [Our Gang] from … others is not so much its accurate mimicry of Nixon's numerous verbal tics—such mimicry is only to be expected from a writer whose ear for American speech has been characterized as the "finest since Sinclair Lewis." Its originality lies instead in its application of the comic techniques of Swift and, perhaps more importantly, the nineteenth-century native American humorists, in an effort to expose and deflate its subject—to counterbalance the dignity and reverence which shielded him by ridicule and disdain. (pp. 99-100)
[In its] lack of subtlety, and in its use of deflationary parody, burlesque, reductio ad absurdum, blatantly ad hominem attack, buffoonery, and abusive language, Our Gang fits neatly into the ranks of American political satire. (p. 102)
[In Roth's] version of the Our Gang comedies, pint-sized pranksters full of mischief and cute schemes, in and out of "scrapes" … become full-sized con-men, with heartless and harmful schemes which threaten us all. Nothing is too crude or too low, the theory behind such satire goes, as long as it serves the purpose of reducing the exalted leaders to the point where their flaws can be suggested or exposed. Thus the comedy is Keystone because of its slapstick and vaudevillelike schtick. But underlying the humor, just beneath the surface and never completely out of mind, is the uncomfortable recognition that though Tricky Dick and his friends are outrageous parodies, fictional constructs as unreal as Sophie Portnoy or the Patriot League, they are also just real enough to make us stop between laughs and shudder. (p. 104)
Our Gang was written hurriedly and must ultimately be judged an uneven, slapdash affair. Although it is funny—in parts immensely funny—it is a failure. And it is a failure on its own terms—as literature. Though different in kind, When She Was Good is also one of Roth's most "political" works; and the earlier book's strengths point up. the source of Our Gang's weakness. Both were designed as works that would alter their readers' perceptions. When She Was Good succeeds in that task because its typical story draws readers who might disagree with Roth's views about American self-righteousness—draws them into the life and thoughts of a heroine and through her story causes them to see things in a new way. Our Gang does not…. When She Was Good creates a disposition to look at things in a certain way through its artistic power, Our Gang depends for its effect upon its reader being predisposed to its biases and perspective. (pp. 107-08)
In The Great American Novel morality and satire are secondary; comedy—for its own sake and as an expression of the artist's consciousness set free—is paramount. It is his funniest, most purely comic novel, a tour de force of native American humor's techniques which makes his use of those techniques in his other comic fiction that much clearer. (p. 109)
[The] stories which grew out of oral sources on the frontier made extensive use of the vernacular, seldom indulged in subtle psychologizing, emphasized masculine pastimes, derived much of their humor from physical discomfort, employed exaggeration and popular myth, and dealt chiefly with the lower classes of society. The content of The Great American Novel displays each of these characteristics too….
Roth has [accurately] reproduced the vernacular of his ball-players. Profanity, clichés, racial epithets, and ungrammatical constructions abound in The Great American Novel, just as they do in American speech. (p. 110)
The form of The Great American Novel also resembles that of the Southwestern tales…. Oral sources tend to foster stories made up of "episodes and anecdotes rather than thoroughly integrated plots." And though … [Roth's novel has] more of a plot line than Southwestern tales characteristically possess, it is still essentially a "picaresque novel in the form of anecdotes within a framework."… (p. 113)
In one sense, both Our Gang and The Great American Novel can be seen as false steps—in spite of their comic inventiveness and their exploration of the fantastic nature of the authorized versions of reality in the American "asylum." For by choosing to focus on the public sphere in both of them, Roth sacrificed much of the "felt life" which has given his best fictions their intensity and power. Both books are vulnerable to charges of unevenness and superficiality; and The Great American Novel skirts the "crudest forms of frontier psychology."… Both suffer because they place a priority on the public life which does not allow Roth to exercise his most outstanding talent: his ability to project the private confusions and domestic crises of heroes grappling with unmanageable realities we all must face in one form or another. (pp. 121-22)
[The Breast] is best approached as a transitional work which bridges the wide technical and thematic gap which separates [The Great American Novel and My Life as a Man, two] highly disparate books. The Breast bridges that gap by employing an inversion of the tall-tale pattern used in The Great American Novel to highlight the existential and aesthetic questions which dominate My Life as a Man. Its language is a combination of the obscenity which marks his comic fiction and the more moderate and restrained diction of his other work…. The story focuses, as all of his best work has, on the social being's private life—but in this case that private life belongs to a man turned into a creature as fantastic as the Big Bear of Arkansas. (p. 132)
[In earlier books] Roth began with real people and events and then fantastically exaggerated them for comic effect in an effort to convey the texture of the reality that he sees around him. In The Breast he reverses that process, begins with a patently unreal event, a fantastic and comic transformation, and then explores its implications with restraint and rigorous realism. The approach is a cross between Kafka's and the Southwestern humorist's.
Though it was inspired by Kafka's ["The Metamorphosis"], however, Roth's story is marked by a critical difference in intention. Where his predecessor's third-person narrative insists on the reality of its situation through its use of point of view, Roth's first-person tale tries to make its readers accept "the fantastic situation as taking place in what we call the real world," at the same time that it works to make "the reality of the horror one of the issues of the story." Kafka chose to deny his story some of its potential ramifications by asserting on the first page that Gregor's transformation into a gigantic beetle "was no dream"; Roth makes explanation—and the impulse toward explanation—a central element in his tale. Kepesh cannot be absolutely sure of where the reality of his predicament lies, and so neither can we. Whether his transformation is or isn't a "dream, or a hallucination, or a psychotic delusion" is the question which determines both the form and the meaning of The Breast…. (p. 134)
Through his use of this perspective, Roth manages to create a provocative fable: of a rational man forced to acknowledge the irrationality of experience, of the artist struggling to make the incredibility of reality credible in his fiction and thereby create ordered art out of chaotic and disordered experience. The vehicle for his fable is the story of a moral humanist absurdly confronted with the ulitmate in dehumanizing reification: metamorphosis into a 155-pound erogenous zone. (pp. 134-35)
Left with nothing but sensation, speculation, and faulty expression, [Kepesh] is more literally "locked up in self" than any of Roth's other heroes. But not only is he the Roth hero in extremis, he is more alienated, more solipsistic, than any other hero in recent American fiction. He is pure self-consciousness and can do nothing but think about his condition and its possible causes. (p. 136)
His best novel to date, [My Life as a Man] can be read on at least four levels: as deeply moving confession of the intimate details of a destructive marriage, as a coda to the persistent concerns of all his previous work, as an exemplary tale on the process of creating art out of the emotional welter of personal experience, and as the most fully realized of Roth's recent variations on Kafkan themes and techniques. A complex and multi-faceted work, it is the kind of book which compels its readers to reconsider all that its author has written before, and provides a standard of excellence by which to measure all that may follow. (p. 142)
Roth has never envisioned [his characters] more completely or conveyed the misery of their predicament with more intense effect [than in My Life as a Man]. What is relatively new, in a body of fiction whose persistent flaw has been a tendency toward diffusiveness, is a clear structural principle which molds the action into a coherent whole and offers another level of meaning beyond that of the surface conflict. Goodbye Columbus, Portnoy's Complaint, and The Professor of Desire are the only other full-length works in which Roth has displayed such complete control of his materials; and My Life as a Man sheds light on all of the work which separates these three milestones. Rereading his major fiction with it as a guide, shows more clearly than any critical argument can that, though Roth's techniques have varied …, his central preoccupations have remained … constant. (p. 148)
Like Tarnopol [the protagonist], Roth has sought the right narrative voice, the right techniques; and the imaginative recapitulation of that search and its attendant difficulties serves as the underlying structural principle of My Life as a Man. How does one express the incredibility of the private and public quotidian? How does one turn the personal frustration and impotence that incredibility inspires into art? These are the questions Roth and Tarnopol try to answer in their writing. (p. 149)
Like [each of Roth's heroes and heroines, Tarnopol] is obsessed. Each of them reacts to the feel of his or her cockeyed world by constructing fictions—more often useless than useful—designed to cope with that reality. The narrative voice in Roth's major fiction has gradually assumed the characteristic form of a self-contained monologue narrated by an artist-figure; and that progress is repeated in the movement of the narrative voices of the sections of My Life as a Man—from third person, to first person, to autobiographical monologue…. We are constantly forced to ask … just how much of the narrator's obsession is grounded in reality, and how much is a projection of his or her own paranoia. The uncomfortable sense of ambiguity this point of view produces in the reader is exactly the effect Roth is trying to create.
In My Life as Man Roth intensifies this sense of ambiguity by using details from his own biography…. He makes the line between fact and fiction, the real and the imaginary, even more difficult to find than it usually is in his fiction by making many of the details or Tarnopol's life correspond to the publicly known details of his own. (pp. 151-52)
Roth's use of biographical references has several other functions as well. While many of the details of Tarnopol's biography parallel those in Roth's, they also reflect those of many other contemporary American writers. In a sense, the book is not just Tarnopol's story but a kind of "Everybody's Autobiography." (p. 152)
Tarnopol's marital melodrama is not just a paradigm for many of the marriages of the Fifties, or for the impact on the personal level of what Roth has described as the "demythologizing decade" of the Sixties: it is also a paradigm of the difficulties that every artist faces when he tries to create structured, controlled, meaningful art out of incredible and disordered public and private experience. (p. 153)
[The] reader of The Professor of Desire who returns to The Breast in hot pursuit of relationships will find as many discrepancies as connections…. On the whole, of course, the facts and characterizations of the two novels do coincide closely enough for the later book to be viewed as an "antecedent" of The Breast—and we are certainly fortunate that Roth did not feel too tightly bound by the sketchy character conceptions of the earlier, slighter book. But it is probably best simply to note the obvious connections and then move on to consider The Professor of Desire on its own terms, rather than to read it for hints of the absurd metamorphosis we know a character named Kepesh will later undergo. (pp. 159-60)
The Professor of Desire [is] one of the most formal of Roth's fictions. This formality is not imposed from without, however, but integral to the novel's contents. For the entire book may be viewed as a monologue in the present tense that is the introductory lecture on "the professor's desire" which Kepesh prepares during the last half of the book for his comparative literature seminar, "Desire 341."… [This is] a debate between the two sides of his nature [the disapproving moralist and the libidinous slob], with each side scoring points and the final decision no more available than knowledge of the future…. Every incident, every character, every detail, every nuance and shift in tone of voice is carefully chosen to elaborate this conflict in this context. (pp. 160-61)
[One] of the most significant aspects of The Professor of Desire is that, in it, Kafka's spirit is joined—and, for much of the novel, superseded—by Anton Chekhov's…. [This] new influence modifies the Kafkan tone of his two previous novels, producing a tenderness, a compassion, and an extension of authorial sympathy beyond the protagonist that add yet another dimension to his work. (p. 166)
Kindness and humanity, a sense of the unexplainable mystery of life, a blend of comedy and pathos, a sympathy for the human condition and a hard-won understanding—these are the qualities, present sporadically in all of Roth's work, which are developed most fully through this [new Chekhovian] voice. (p. 168)
The Professor of Desire [seems] most Chekhovian as it ends. "Chekhovian," because it displays the same qualities Kepesh admired in "Lady with a Lap Dog"—a movingly transparent ending, "no false mysteries, only the harsh facts directly stated"; "ridicule and irony" gradually giving way to "sorrow and pathos"; a "feel for the disillusioning moment and for the processes wherein actuality pounces upon even our most harmless illusions, not to mention the grand dreams of fulfillment and adventure."… And "Chekhovian" in the same way that Roth applied the label to [a story by Czech author Milan Kundera]: "not merely because of its tone, or its concern with the painful and touching consequences of time passing and old selves dying, but because it is so very good."… (p. 169)
Bernard F. Rodgers, Jr., in his Philip Roth (copyright © 1978 by Twayne Publishers. Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1978, 192 p.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1409
Sixty years after Joyce published his [bildungsroman known as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man], its themes sound hackneyed: a youth caught between his vision of the truth and the sentimental, institutionalized beliefs of his elders; the artist escaping from the world of his father through flights of fancy that become fact. To redeem this adolescent fantasy from the storehouse of cultural commonplaces, a writer has just two choices. The serious approach already canonized, Philip Roth applied his comic vision to the task. The Ghost Writer, haunted as much by Henry James as by James Joyce, is the result.
The story concerns Nathan Zuckerman, at one point called Nathan Dedalus, a young writer of promise who visits master of the short story, E. I. Lonoff, at his country home. Borrowed from James's "The Lesson of the Master," this device yields for Roth more than an examination of the demands of art, for although he agrees with James that a writer's domestic and creative lives will conflict, Roth delights in the chaos that results. The outlines of James's tale remain: Zuckerman and Lonoff discuss their lives and work; "the great man" warns his protégé not to follow his example (that is, to live a life so devoid of experience that he can write only fantasies); the advice proves less valuable than the young man's final recognition that he cannot but follow Lonoff's example.
But Lonoff and Zuckerman's conversations do not, as in James's tale, remain the center of attention; much less do they glorify genius or prescribe a code for writers to live by. Instead, domestic confrontations and internal struggles dominate. Romantic notions of "the grueling, exalted, transcendent calling" fizzle as the Lonoffs squabble and Zuckerman frets over his own family troubles, especially his father's belief that his most recent story ["Higher Education"] dishonors their family and all Jewry as well…. Threatened like Stephen Dedalus with a choice between his father and his art, Zuckerman seeks solutions in fantasies that gradually supplant the main tale as they grow increasingly desperate, elaborate, and ridiculous. All these conflicts portray the artist as a comic victim of his own obsessions, yet the narration sustains a larger context. Recounting his visit to the master from a distance of twenty years, Zuckerman finds unexpected lessons in the traumas of his youth: the differences between fantasy and realism, the roles of the imagination in art and life, the relation between the artist and his art.
Not surprisingly, the explicit contrast between realism and fantasy proves the least satisfying of these themes, for Roth's own commitment to realism makes the contrast appear self-serving. (pp. 46-7)
As narrator, Zuckerman may of course expose his character through a bias toward realism. But correspondences between him and his creator confuse matters, suggesting not only that realistic writers do indeed lack imagination, but also that they have no responsibility for material that they borrow from life…. [The] similarities between Roth and Zuckerman … imply that the author has in fact spoken for himself through his personas all along. The contradiction is unsettling and disappointing.
But it is also something of a trap that Roth has set for the reader determined to equate realistic stories and real life…. Lonoff has much in common with Bernard Malamud; yet as Zuckerman describes the master's tales and family feuds, Lonoff could just as well be modeled on I. B. Singer or Leo Tolstoy. Similarly, rumor holds that Felix Abravanel, an affected and egotistical writer whom Zuckerman abandoned as a potential master, stands for Saul Bellow—but what about Norman Mailer? And Lonoff's former student Amy Bellette: "Where [have we] seen that severe dark beauty before?" Of course. She's Anne Frank.
Attempts to identify literature with life lead to absurdity, and the distinction between them stands at the center of the novel. Doc Zuckerman, certain that gentile readers will find renewed cause for anti-Semitism in the greedy Jews of "Higher Education," cannot grasp that his son is its author: "You are a loving boy … You are not somebody who writes this kind of story and then pretends it's the truth."… The father does not understand that every literary work has a ghost writer. Most of the characters in The Ghost Writer write; and every one, when compared to the persona of his work, gives "the overall impression of being somebody's stand-in."… Zuckerman's stories show a similar disjunction between author and persona. No wonder he fancies that Amy Bellette, the mysterious beauty with a "fetching" accent, is really that most famous of all Jewish writers, Anne Frank. (pp. 47-8)
The reconstruction of Anne Frank's transformation into ghost writer Amy Bellette stands without introduction or conclusion identifying it as the product of Zuckerman's imagination. The very end of the novel does reveal that the tale belongs to fantasy rather than to reality, but roughly half of the novel allows—indeed, encourages—us to believe that Anne Frank, mistakenly listed among the dead, did in fact manage to survive the war, remain undiscovered by her father, and immigrate to America through a series of credible and not entirely unlikely events.
Roth's fiction thrives on such confusions between the real and the imagined, challenging what he once called "the official version of reality" and celebrating the incongruities that result….
This technique links Roth with the classic southwestern humorists, whose tall tales also mix outrageous fantasy with meticulous realism and also dupe their audiences (temporarily, at least) into accepting the impossible as true. Neither the tall tale nor the Roth story explicitly identifies the limits of fantasy, but where the tall tale slips quietly into fantasy and thereby promotes willing suspension of disbelief, the Roth tale asserts the incredible outright and proceeds to coerce belief. Thus Zuckerman's tale of Anne Frank quickly announces that Amy is Anne and then moves back to supply plausible explanations to every objection that a reader might make…. (p. 49)
Just as realistic detail supports The Ghost Writer's fantasies, so imagination sustains its realism. Lying well beneath a polished surface, the novel's artifice invites, as it frustrates, efforts to identify the characters as real people…. For his part, Zuckerman exemplifies the nervous youth desperate for approval and success. Maturity has diminished his seriousness about himself, but not the intensity of his feelings…. More important, both to Zuckerman's realistic quality and to the novel's themes, the young writer has a virtuoso imagination. Not the only evidence of his creativity, Zuckerman's three fantasies about Amy Bellette are the most telling. Each attempts to resolve the conflict between Zuckerman and his father, who wants his son to disavow "Higher Education" and express a more conventional Jewish consciousness in his work. Rejecting such demands, the youth wishes to remain loyal to his art yet regain his father's approval. All variations on this theme, the three fantasies give form to the novel as it diverges from the Jamesian structure of the visit to Lonoff, and they finally provide the lesson that the master cannot.
It is a lesson born of failure. The fantasies grow more extravagant and ridiculous as they make increasing concessions to reality, yet they produce only realism: life does not imitate art. Without form and facts, however, the imagination cannot function. (pp. 50-1)
[The] fantasy fails utterly as a solution to the problem. Despite the evidence of Amy's looks and age, despite his own "unchallengeable" explanation, Zuckerman needs her cooperation. She must abandon the persona that protects her art. A reluctant but committed ghost writer, Anne Frank would not; a college librarian, Amy Bellette cannot. Zuckerman yields. Reality does not conform to the demands of fantasy.
Futile as substitutes for reality, Zuckerman's fantasies nonetheless remain useful fictions. They force him to accept the consequences of his art and his proper role as ghost writer. But they also reveal that realism and fantasy depend on each other. Fantasy stands at the center of Zuckerman's realistic narrative, the tale of his visit to the master's home. And that story, like the fantasy of Anne Frank, takes its shape from art—not from life or from pure imagination, but from literature itself.
The product of his own middle years, The Ghost Writer shows Philip Roth at his best. The hand is the hand of Henry James. The voice is the voice of Roth. (pp. 51-2)
Judith Yaross Lee, "Flights of Fancy," in Chicago Review (reprinted by permission of Chicago Review; copyright © 1980 by Chicago Review), Vol. 31, No. 4, Spring, 1980, pp. 46-52.
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Who is the ghost writer in Philip Roth's The Ghost Writer? In this nouvelle of guilt about anti-Semitism, the ghost seems to be that of Anne Frank. Roth speaks of her as a "Jewish ghost," and writes of Anne's "seething passion to come back as an avenging ghost!" But Amy Bellette's delusion that she is Anne Frank rediviva cannot sustain the imaginative load the ghost writer carries. It is the madness of art, not the madness of Amy, that is required, so the ghost reveals itself finally as Henry James himself, a ghost that does the writing of the book.
Philip Roth invokes James by his quotations from and continual reference to the latter's short story, "The Middle Years." By a literary sleight of hand, however, he conceals another Jamesian story, "The Author of Beltraffio," for the main line of the plot of that long tale is the main line of the plot of The Ghost Writer. (p. 48)
Until The Breast (1972), in which Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" had acted as both a germinating idea and a formal constraint, Philip Roth's novels had been loose baggy monsters, while his short stories amounted to a certain kind of personal reportage set in a confessional mold. The reader felt Roth's obsessions constantly pushing their way to the foreground of the tale. Those obsessions were somewhat boring, consisting exclusively of Roth's sexual preoccupations mixed with memories of his courses in literature, concerns very typical today of certain young writers and artists.
But in The Breast Roth had shown he could take a literary model and develop it on his own terms with variety, ingenuity, and control. In his most recent book, The Ghost Writer, he has gone on in the same way to elaborate the nouvelle as the modern master of the genre, Henry James, had developed it, in order to make his own fable, which this time would satisfy his deeper feelings about family guilt as well as his more immediate, urgent sexual concerns. This has produced a fine short novel, in which he relies on Henry James, the clever artificer, for the shape of his plot, but in which also, Henry James turns out to be the virtual ghost writer…. (pp. 48-9)
The Ghost Writer follows The Breast in showing that Roth's attitude to literature has changed. This may be because he has begun to read James with an eye closer to the latter's fictional strategies than merely to the kinds of characters invented by the 19th-century American writer. James's narrative technique, developed persistently throughout his literary career, was to locate for the reader, in a literary classic within his story, some character or situation taken from it, and then to recreate the form of the classic itself through an original variation on it….
Roth sticks his neck out when he invites the reader to compare him to James, for placed against "The Author of Beltraffio" and "The Middle Years" his own legend suffers in those points where the models behind his story can be detected. Yet one must admire him for it. Roth is not doing a Jamesian story. He is making a modern version from the example of James's fiction. Is he saying that his masters today are not what the Ambients and the Dencombes, James's fictive writers, used to be? Their successors are the Lonoffs and the Abravanels, Roth's models, who are the Mailers and the Malamuds writing today. (p. 49)
Compared to James's Dencombe, there is something essentially wrong about Lonoff as a writer. He comes across as a man impervious to any personal impression, so he can concentrate on his art. His artistic process seems to lack the "passion" and "madness" ascribed to art by James and underlined by Lonoff. Is Roth trying to tell us that his hero, Nathan Zuckerman, rather, has the passion and the madness—the passion in his erotic fantasies, and the madness in his conversion of Amy to Anne Frank as atonement to his family? (p. 51)
Adeline R. Tintner, "Henry James as Roth's Ghost Writer," in Midstream (copyright © 1981 by The Theodor Herzl Foundation, Inc.), Vol. XXVII, No. 3, March, 1981, pp. 48-51.
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"Zuckerman Unbound" is about a young Jewish novelist rather like Philip Roth who has just published a wildly successful book called "Carnovsky," which is rather like "Portnoy's Complaint." It's a fine idea: it gives Philip Roth an opportunity to play with celebrity, writers and readers, truth and fiction….
[Nathan Zuckerman, the young Jewish novelist, finds that like] his book, he has become everybody's property….
On the basis of their dual celebrity, a famous actress grants Zuckerman a night in her bed. The next day she stands him up in order to fly to Cuba to see her real lover, Fidel Castro. Zuckerman discovers that literature is not as potent as politics….
Alvin Pepler, the only other major character in "Zuckerman Unbound," has a photographic memory, which may be Mr. Roth's comment on reality unmediated by art. Alvin was the bona fide hero of a television quiz show until the producers forced him to give way to a prototypical WASP who had to be fed the answers. Mr. Roth seems to be saying that authenticity is not always dramatic.
Pepler pursues Zuckerman, first fawning on him and then accusing him of stealing his life for his book. This is the jealousy ordinariness feels for fame. Though he is an ingenious symbol, Pepler is too monolithic, too quickly comprehended, and that is a weakness in the book. Except for Pepler, Zuckerman contends only with himself much of the time, and while Mr. Roth manages this with wit and grace, it is generally true that we are most appealingly ourselves when we are with someone else.
Mr. Roth's voice is convincing and emotionally charged. It is just a bit too easily recognizable, though, like a trademark. It seems to be pitched just a little too high up in the sinuses, too reedy with ironic incredulity. Mr. Roth is old enough now to be past some of these astonishments. It may be time for him to start talking from the diaphragm.
Anatole Broyard, "Books of 'The Times': 'Zuckerman Unbound'," in The New York Times (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 9, 1981, p. 13.
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If it were only a matter of wit and intellect, Philip Roth's position as one of the masters of American fiction would be unquestioned. But egged on by some perverse internal logic, he has since Portnoy's Complaint usually resorted to the tactics of a schoolboy: playing pranks, defying conventions, alternately revering and mocking his elders, and scandalizing his peers. His new short novel, Zuckerman Unbound, is another extravagant complaint, this time putting the blame on fame, though certainly not exonerating, even on grounds of double jeopardy, the family….
The voice is familiar—the exasperation, edged with laughter, bordering on hysteria, of Portnoy's "Whew! Have I got grievances! Do I harbor hatreds I didn't even know were there!"—but we can't recognize the prose. The merriment and rollicking buffoonery of the controversial earlier novel are noticeably missing.
His sentences punctuated by an incredulity that reminds us of the maniacal nods by which comedian Woody Allen cues us in to the world's absurdities, Zuckerman embarks on a saturnine chronicle of the vexations a popular and talented writer is forced to endure…. His most adhesive fan and persecutor is Pepler…. (p. 36)
[The reader] may wonder why Roth has such patience for this objectionable figure, with his distressing confusion of personal vanity and racial pride, no doubt destined, with some justice, to provide one more argument in the Anti-Defamation League's dossier on Roth's mishandling of Jewish characters. But the temptation is all too clear—Pepler is the perfect catalyst for talents at which Roth has no peer: mimicry and derision….
While their speech is different, victim and victimizer are psychological birds of a feather, preening their egos and brooding over their good name. Both hoard compliments…. And both reason from paranoia, behaving as if they lived in a permanent stage of siege….
Though in his essays collected in Reading Myself and Others, Roth is quick to dismiss identity between author and hero, it is not hard to imagine that he harbors [thoughts similar to Zuckerman's]. Always plotting to scoop the critics and preempt their attacks, he permits one of the few characters he respects, Zuckerman's silvery-haired European agent, André Schevitz, to upbraid the novelist….
André and his wife Mary … are the chief prompters here in that never ending dispute that Roth conducts with critics like Irving Howe, with the Jewish community, and with himself about his ambivalence toward middle-class Jewish life. "You felt stultified writing 'proper, responsible' novels," André reminds him. "You set out to sabotage your own moralizing nature, and now that you've done it, and done it with the relish of a real saboteur, now you're humiliated, you idiot, because nobody aside from you seems to see it as a profoundly moral and high-minded act."
The reader probably will feel that he couldn't have said it better himself. Ever since Roth invented the conniving Private Sheldon Grossbart in the superb early story, "Defender of the Faith," he has been compulsively dwelling upon criticism of his treatment of Jewish characters, and devoting interviews, articles, and fictional episodes to defending himself…. The irony of the situation is that far from hating Jewish life, Roth has continuously immersed himself in it, and no other American writer has conveyed its pungent mixture of warmth, shrewdness, humor, and exclusiveness with greater resonance.
Yet there is something about his fiction that invites such reproaches. But the problem has less to do with ethnic loyalty than with his predilection for the ludicrous and the irascible in the human species, and his natural aversion (despite fascination with desire) to a romantic image of men and women. (p. 37)
In his early stories and novels, Roth was able to convince readers of his serious intent partly because he abided by the literary conventions; and the constraints of building plot and character already created some illusion of the author's faithful attention to the outside world. Since Portnoy's Complaint, however, Roth has summoned up only a perfunctory curiosity for the passing throng but a passionate intensity for the scrutiny of himself or his fictional alter egos, without learning from the master self-scrutinizers, Proust and Dostoevsky, to ponder his frailties in some larger context. His two genuine preoccupations have been with the writer's craft and the writer's ego….
Roth's sparkle and compelling style make it even more frustrating that the range of his interests should have become so narrow….
In the final section of Zuckerman Unbound, unlike anything in the rest of the book, Roth describes the hero's visit to his dying father in Florida…. It is an absolutely remorseless portrait of a professionally articulate man who cannot think what to say to a dying parent—and an extraordinary piece of writing….
Perhaps the moral of the book is a literary one. Having liberated himself so completely from the conventions and purposes of the old-fashioned novel—creating a sense of place, characters we can identify with, the security that diverse behavior is understood—Roth may choose to bind himself to them again. The writer who agitates us with the death scene in Zuckerman Unbound can write in still another and better way about life. (p. 38)
Isa Kapp, "Has Success Failed Roth?" in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1981 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 184, No. 21, May 23, 1981, pp. 36-8.
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[Zuckerman Unbound, avowedly a sequel to The Ghost Writer, is] in many ways a repetition which moves to a similar conclusion. It would seem that not only is Roth obsessed with the relationship of art to life, but particularly obsessed with the relationship between art (or the life he writes) and life (the life he actually experienced and remembered)—how much is transformation (art) and how much is mere transcription (betrayal)? I say "Roth" but, in line with this whole problem, he can side-step or back-step here. Zuckerman has written a best seller called Carnovsky. As it happens—as it happens—it is about a young Jewish boy growing up in Newark, his compulsive onanism, his sexual obsessions, etc. As it happens, this sensational and notorious novel was published in 1969 (like Portnoy's Complaint) and brings Zuckerman a degree of fame, fortune, and notoriety which prove to pose as many problems as his previous poverty—indeed these problems constitute or precipitate the incidents in the novel.
Now we may be tempted to think—well this is really Philip Roth writing up what happened to him (more life than art). But in the book when people think that Zuckerman is really Carnovsky of the novel, he is indignant and outraged. "They had mistaken impersonation for confession and were calling out to a character who lived in a book." So if someone says "Zuckerman" when accusing him of all sorts of things, he can say, no, that is Carnovsky: don't confuse life and art. And if I or anyone else says "Roth," he can say, no, that is Zuckerman: don't confuse life and art. Fair enough—up to a point. But changing a name is hardly "the madness of art" and sometimes one feels—I keep it indefinite, nothing is verifiable in this area—that one is rather closer to the madness of life. Or, perhaps, that the two are becoming indistinguishable. (pp. 3, 6)
In terms of family and relationships there is a cost to pay as the book shows. Indeed at the end, after effectively putting his family behind him, he takes a ride round Newark where he spent his youth. But everything has gone, has changed. The only Newark left of his childhood is that depicted in Carnovsky. There is some sense of relief and the book itself may be seen as acting as an act of exorcism. "Over. Over. Over. Over. Over. I've served my time." But there is a sense of isolation and desolation. When a passing black notices him starting down the street, he says, "'Who you supposed to be?' 'No one,' replied Zuckerman, and that was the end of that. You are no longer any man's son, and are no longer some good woman's husband, you are no longer your brother's brother. And you don't come from anywhere anymore, either." But—he'd written it anyway. And perhaps that is "the madness of art."
Philip Roth has written a worthy sequel to The Ghost Writer, which was his best novel for some time. This one is firm and hard—even at times excoriating; it moves well and is written economically—no fat on it. It is hard not to read it as some very personal statement or exploration, but of course I must not confuse Roth with Zuckerman. Or art with life. Which is where we came in. But I do hope that Philip Roth finds other areas of experience to write about in the future. (p. 6)
Tony Tanner, "The Gripes of Roth," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1981, The Washington Post), May 31, 1981, pp. 3, 6.
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Is Zuckerman Unbound a success? The answer, unfortunately, is no. What Roth has always done well, he does as scintillatingly as ever. His dialogue rings true; his prose is crystalline. His talent for the outrageous flourish is as devastating as ever…. If nothing else, Zuckerman Unbound is dependably funny.
As deftly as any other writer, Roth can also capture a sense of psychic claustrophobia, the feeling of being trapped because one is a member of a family, or a success, or a Jew. Perfect strangers, as well as unloved relatives, presume that they understand Zuckerman, that he in turn will be automatically sympathetic to them and will feel indebted because of a label someone else has affixed to him…. In The Ghost Writer, Roth quoted Anne Frank's diary despairingly: "The time will come when we are people again, not just Jews."
But Zuckerman Unbound fails ultimately, and Roth seems aware of its failings because he puts criticisms of them into the mouths of crackpots and psychopaths, dismissing and lampooning such cavils. A crazed extortionist over the telephone summarizes Zuckerman's work: "Flash, yes; depth, no." (pp. 30-1)
Further, the book is a catalogue of the unpleasantness that can accompany success…. Roth, in short, is aware of many sins. But the act of acknowledging one's errors does not excuse them.
Roth understands Zuckerman Unbound's chief failing as well. Ever since Goodbye Columbus, he has been writing about the intolerability, the impossibility of a life committed to satisfying the demands of others. And he has shown that he is well aware of the pain writing can cause. Zuckerman analyzes himself as: "coldhearted betrayer of the most intimate confessions, cutthroat caricaturist of your own loving parents, graphic reporter of encounters with women to whom you have been deeply bound by trust, by sex, by love…."
Zuckerman, however, is more than a mere traitor in the name of art. He cannot acknowledge any sympathy or even respect for his past, his heritage, his father. His father dies and Zuckerman's brother is devastated. Zuckerman, meanwhile, feels liberated: "He was no longer any man's son."…
Can one's history be so easily cast off and dismissed? Does success liberate the present from claims of the past? Freud convinced us that we never entirely escape our roots; psychoanalysis continues to teach that it is possible to live with guilts and memories but never possible to escape from them. Yet Roth shows Zuckerman declaring his liberation with no indication that the perception is wrong….
But if such struggles are indeed resolvable, why is Roth still writing about the (supposedly invalid) claims of the past on the present after 12 books? If Roth himself has passed beyond this question, why does it still nag at him until it has provoked yet another novel after a quarter century of writing?…
The nature of Zuckerman's deepest inner response (and Roth's, too, one feels) is hidden from the reader; the questions are asked, but the glib answer Roth offers is inadequate.
It is unfair, perhaps, to demand that an artist eviscerate his psyche for our entertainment and edification. It's one of those claims on the artist that Roth argues a stranger has no right to make. And in fact, Roth's next novel will follow Zuckerman to Europe, so perhaps the issue is far from settled. Perhaps Zuckerman Unbound is a chapter in a saga that will ultimately ring true and resound deeply once it is completed. Given only this novel, however, the reader feels like an accessory to the ridiculed extortionist who laments, "Flash, yes; depth, no." (p. 31)
Henry Weil, "Still Waiting for His Masterpiece," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1981 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 8, No. 6, June, 1981, pp. 26-31.
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[In Zuckerman Unbound Roth] doesn't do much with the novel's main theme, which is, or should be, what it's like to be famous. The book veers off from this into some family matters—[Nathan Zuckerman's] fruitless attempt to win back the wife he's walked out on, the death of his father—which give the feeling of not being integral to any true narrative but rather devised to make up the appearance of one. Roth seems to me to be fulfilling an obligation to write another novel, the next one, and to have started with a creative idea, faltered, then filled out the book with some odds and ends of personal experience, perhaps taking care of some unfinished emotional business.
I'm not concerned with whether or not the novel's domestic events are actually part of Roth's autobiography (though there's evidence that they aren't remote from it). The point is that they feel like they are, because they don't feel like they're part of Zuckerman's. The novel's chief theme should be the nature of fame and celebrity; this isn't a fiat on my part but what the book itself advances for part of its way. Indeed, in an important episode Roth inadvertently reveals how he's thrown away the opportunity to make Zuckerman Unbound a better book than it is.
Nathan has a one-night affair with Caesara O'Shea, a screen goddess. In the course of the evening he looks through a book she's been reading, a little-known work by Kierkegaard called Crisis in the Life of an Actress and Other Essays on Drama. The title essay offers remarkable insights into the lures and oppressions of fame and is one of the shrewdest such inquiries I know. But Roth merely toys with it, using it for a bit of color, a bit of narrative embroidery. Had he regarded the essay seriously, taking it, let's say, as a set of notes or ideas for a fiction, we might have had a novel, a work of imagination about a psychic and social reality that has become increasingly insistent and enigmatic. Instead, this greatly gifted writer has given way to a need for justification and made the book sporadically serve that need. He's entitled, as one of his characters might say. But, then, so are we.
By the book's end, Nathan, Roth's surrogate, does feel justified. But he manages this in a way that leaves us greatly unsatisfied, with all the questions and ambiguities of celebrity unexamined. His father's death closes the past and, with that, Nathan's recent history is closed, too. He simply walks away from its disturbances, having assimilated what has happened to him, his status and luck. But it's by an act of will, not as the outcome of the creative flow. Roth wants to accept himself, wants to get off the high sea—the "virtue business," as Nathan calls it—so as to take himself, and be taken, for what he is, simply an entertaining writer. All right. But in this novel there is less entertainment than a self-conscious effort to establish the credentials of the entertainer; the life keeps getting in the way of the work. (p. 737)
Richard Gilman, "My Life as a Writer," in The Nation (copyright 1981 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 232, No. 23, June 13, 1981, pp. 736-37.
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Nathan Zuckerman, thrice-married son of a foot doctor, is not just a novelist who likes to quote Flaubert and invoke the powers of Art. No, as Philip Roth intimates in the title of his new novel, Zuckerman Unbound, Nathan has a great mythological predecessor, Prometheus, whose own story was told by Aeschylus in a similarly titled tale. Zuckerman, of course, does nothing so dramatic as stealing fire from Zeus for the benefit of human civilization. All he does is write a book.
In fact, as we know from Roth's own previous book, The Ghost Writer, that is all Nathan Zuckerman has ever wanted to do. The narrative is Nathan's tale of his youthful journey to receive the Word at the feet of E. I. Lonoff—distinguished author, consummate literary craftsman. "I had come," he explains, "to submit myself for candidacy as nothing less than E. I. Lonoff's spiritual son"—being on the outs with his own father for a rather indiscreet piece of fiction about family life.
But as Zuckerman Unbound tells us, in 1969, thirteen years after that meeting, Nathan writes a book that might have shocked his spiritual father as much as his real one. That book is Carnovsky, a book very like Roth's own Portnoy's Complaint….
The carnal heat is hardly contained between the book's pasteboard covers. Carnovsky stirs the public into a frenzy….
So Nathan, after laboring for years at the altar of Art, has become rich and famous—though not quite in the way he might have imagined. Everywhere he goes he is taken for Carnovsky….
If Carnovsky is a long complaint about a Jewish childhood, Zuckerman Unbound is a just slightly less frantic whine about the burdens of fame and fortune for the book's author….
The story is told in a voice that seems perfectly suited to its subject's mixture of the tragic, pathetic, banal, and fantastic. It is almost spoken, not written, with abrupt sentences and bare descriptions. The first-person voice of The Ghost Writer was weighted with a mature irony, combining the comforting stillness of falling Berkshire snow with the pulsing restless anxiety of the young Zuckerman's imagination. The present book's irony, inferred more than heard, creates more puzzles and provides fewer charms.
In fact, after The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound seems impoverished in characters and indulgent in its narrative, as if. Roth has lost his way…. Reading Zuckerman Unbound as a piece of fiction about a fame-tortured fiction writer makes it seem only casually interesting, limited in ambition and achievement, lacking in the rich and the rare or the raucous and the wild….
But the book is disturbing and challenging. It asks that something be made of it, that it be understood, treated with more care than Nathan's Carnovsky is by his reading public. Zuckerman Unbound is almost the story of a book being misread—by its author as well as by its readers—chaotically mixing the real with the imagined.
As a novelist, of course, Nathan himself is always making his art out of the "vrai," as he calls the "real" (after Flaubert)…. Nathan depends on the vrai, taking notes on his daily encounters, filling lines of his black composition book with details of characters far better realized than his own.
But when people call him "Carnovsky" in the street, he is quite clear about their error (echoing Roth's similar words on his experience with Portnoy): "They had mistaken impersonation for confession and were calling out to a character who lived in a book." The book breeds a "living fiction" all around him, "his dignity handed over to Oberon and Puck." His readers become novelists themselves, fictionalizing Nathan while treating his book as Truth. So while Nathan casts his spell on the vrai, that reality casts its "counter-spell"—The Vrai's Revenge he calls it. "He who's made fantasy of others now [is the] fantasy of others."…
So as fiction is taken for truth, and life is turned into art, distinctions begin to dissolve. The vrai is judged as Art…. (p. 21)
The real, then, becomes an "unwritten world," waiting for its aesthetic order, challenging the author's imagination….
The queer thing is, of course, that in Zuckerman Unbound the "unwritten world" is thoroughly written; the vrai is thoroughly fictional. Many characters simply represent fictional types, without the "rounded" quality of realistic creation…. Zuckerman Unbound is almost sheer artifice.
It does, though, challenge the reader to react as if it were a "Zuckermanized" version of truth—truth, that is, about some writer who had just written a carnal best seller…. "Roth" seems to be enacting his own narcissistic dream, daring his fiction to be taken as truth, while asking through Zuckerman—"are you reading me?"
Coy play with truth and fiction is one of our literary tradition's favorite tropes, used from Don Quixote to Pale Fire. But what is Roth up to here? Where is the power of literature located? Has he reduced it to self-centered gamesmanship? Why does this book seem at once so fascinating and so disturbing?
Zuckerman is almost a latter-day Emma Bovary, his life disrupted not by reading about desire, but by desiring to write….
Roth has presented a similar situation in earlier novels; characters are caught in a confusion of the real and the imaginary, a problem caused by "literature" in its broadest sense….
In the midst of their confusion, the characters are also trapped by some overpowering destiny against which they struggle—but every twist and turn just gets them in deeper…. The desire to be freed becomes its own enslavement. The prisoner is always lost, always turning back to early family scenes. No matter which way he turns he is face to face with his past and his fate; he is nearly always looking in the mirror, alone. "Oh, so alone!" Portnoy calls out. "Nothing but self! Locked up in me!" The labyrinths of enslavement are narcissistic variations on Kafka's enclosed worlds.
The way Nathan Zuckerman confronts this problem, in both The Ghost Writer and Zuckerman Unbound, is through literature itself; despite the confusion literature creates, in "turning sentences around," as E. I. Lonoff does in The Ghost Writer, other tumblers may turn as well.
So when the young Nathan Zuckerman goes to seek a spiritual father in Lonoff, he is acting against the constraints of his nonliterary past. (p. 22)
Sixteen years later, still striving for elevation above the paternal restrictions, Sanity, Responsibility, and Self-Respect are themselves overthrown by Nathan's Carnovsky. It is what the younger Zuckerman might have called an "un-Jamesian lapse from the amenities." Carnovsky is an attempt at liberating the writer from an enclosed system of constraints. "You felt stultified writing 'proper, responsible' novels," Zuckerman's agent reminds him…. Carnovsky was not just a book. It was an act that effectively changed the writer's life, causing his divorce, cutting him off from the moral ties of family and obligation. The book, literally and literarily, is a revolt against the moral voice of Nathan's father….
The book was meant to figuratively free the writer from the father; it literally did so. The literary is literal. "You and your 'liberating' book," says the brother. But it worked. Zuckerman is free….
Literature than seems to have solved his problem. It has subsumed the vrai. It has denied the claims of the real and the moral, leaving Zuckerman unbound. But he is also in complete isolation. Nathan is driven around his old Newark neighborhood, now a slum, locked in a limo, the driver packing a .38 revolver. His art is not about people—that aesthetic died with his father—it is about itself. The Revenge of the "Vrai."
Zuckerman is bound again. He may be a Prometheus, stealing parental flames for civilizing purposes, but he is left with a pathetic, onanistic idea of Art; it is a private project, a search for freedom, its flamboyance without civilizing heat.
There are many puzzles left about this book. Roth's position is not Zuckerman's. Literature, he shows, in the brilliantly executed final scenes, has "real consequences." The father has the final word. Literature is about more than itself; it is more than a set of formal relations between words; it has a moral force; literature is an act.
But if literature is part of a larger social fabric, why is Roth's canvas so small, why are the social analogies in the book so forced? Why are references to Oswald and Ruby and the Vietnam war so strained …? Is there anything outside the narcissism of this writer, or is he, like his character, permanently locked into it?
There is perhaps one other indication of the author's position. Zuckerman Unbound ends in 1969. The Ghost Writer tells of events taking place in 1956, but it is written twenty years later, in Roth's fictional conceit, by Zuckerman himself.
So Zuckerman Unbound is not a sequel to The Ghost Writer. The order is reversed. The Ghost Writer is the book Zuckerman himself will write, seven years after the pathetic end of this work. That will be Zuckerman's attempt to return to his literary origins, to reestablish his relationship to his past, to understand the making of Art from Life, and revise his vision of his father, and his own moral struggles.
Zuckerman Unbound may be just such a Zuckermanizing attempt for Roth. With its ironic perspective on Zuckerman's bounded world, Roth seems to want Zuckerman to free him from the very desire to be freed that plagues Zuckerman. The result may be a double bind; Roth may be left as bound as his character. The book raises all of the questions of Roth's career. Is his fiction a Promethean gift? What is its civilizing power? To what end is it used by the author? What stand does it take "Dans le vrai"? Zuckerman Unbound is affecting and intriguing; it fascinates with the cleverness of its circumscribed fictional world. Zuckerman himself really seems unbound by the end of the book, though far from free. Roth, it is clear, wants more; his unbinding, though, is not yet completed. (p. 23)
Edward Rothstein, "The Revenge of the Vrai," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1981 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVIII, No. 11, June 25, 1981, pp. 21-3.