The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth (1979) Vintage (1995) 180 pp
Thank goodness for blogs! About a year ago I read Roth’s Everyman, and though I appreciated it, it didn’t make me want to read anything else by Roth. On the bookshelves at the bookstore were lined up in a row many acclaimed Roth books, but nothing convinced me I should spend my time with them. After reading how much John Self at The Asylum enjoyed Roth’s Zuckerman books in his review, I felt it was time.
What a pleasure! Roth’s writing alone is so precise and so simple that experiencing just the diction, let alone the pain and wry humor, of one sentence after another left me giddy. This is a master prose writer. Just look at how much he packs into a fairly straightforward introductory sentence:
It was the last daylight hour of a December afternoon more than twenty years ago — I was twenty-three, writing and publishing my first short stories, and like many a Bildungsroman hero before me, already contemplating my own massive Bildungsroman — when I arrived at his hideaway to meet the great man.
The whole book is like that. Each word does its job better than any other word in its place could. In the kind of simple prose that only the best writers accomplish, Roth lays out the story of Zuckerman’s overnight stay at the “hideaway” of the writer whom he worships, E. I. Lonoff, who not only has inspired Zuckerman’s writing, but has become a kind of surrogate father merely through the page:
In fact, my own first reading through Lonoff’s canon — as an orthodox college atheist and highbrow-in-training — had done more to make me realize how much I was still my family’s Jewish offspring than anything I had carried forward to the University of Chicago from childhood Hebrew lessons, or mother’s kitchen, or the discussions I used to hear among my parents and our relatives about the perils of intermarriage, the problem of Santa Claus, and the injustice of medical-school quotas (quotas that, as I understood early on, accounted for my father’s career in chiropody and his ardent lifelong support of the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League).
So in a sense, Zuckerman sees in Lonoff the definition of his own heritage. But all is not well at the Lonoff home. Also staying with Lonoff and his wife is Amy Bellette, one of Lonoff’s former students (and one of the funniest parts of the book is when Zuckerman sees her for the first time and wonders if Lonoff is her father). Amy’s presence has caused a bit of tension between Mr. and Mrs. Lonoff, tension that perculates during dinner after Amy has left. While eating dinner, Zuckerman explains to the Lonoffs how he has just separated from his girlfriend, leaving out some of the more unflattering details:
Describing all her sterling qualities, I had, in fact, brought myself nearly to the point of grief, as though instead of wailing with pain and telling me to leave and never come back, the unhappy dancer had died in my arms on our wedding day.
Then, almost out of the blue, during the dinner Mrs. Lonoff demands that Lonoff throw her, Mrs. Lonoff, out of the house. She wants to leave him and Amy alone. She wants release, breaking a glass for emphasis. All of this in front of Zuckerman, who is shaken:
My heart, of course, was pounding away, though not entirely because the sound of glass breaking and the sight of a disappointed woman, miserably weeping, was new to me. It was about a month old.
Of course, Mrs. Lonoff does not leave. Thus the book begins!
And I honestly would have been quite pleased with the book if the rest of it had been observations written in this wonderful style. As I said, Roth’s sentences are just fun to read. But that is far from all this book has to offer. This is not a puerile Bildungsroman, but the creation of an artist in the real sense, someone who consciously accepts a calling while recognizing what it costs — think Stephen Dedalus (because Roth wants you to). During the night’s stay, events conspire to bring Zuckerman face-to-face with his artistic calling. He’s already burned some bridges with his family, most heartbreakingly with his father who thinks he’s exploited and slandered his Jewish heritage and his family for art’s sake. Through the remainder of the novel, in a great bit of metafiction, Roth explores what sacrifices could/should/must be made in order to succeed in creating fiction that is true. The Ghost Writer is too rare a combination of perfect style and genuine substance.
A bit of a warning: from here on out this post contains spoilers. I went into this book knowing next to nothing about it, and I think that’s the best way. So, save yourself some pleasure by reading the book before you read the rest of this post.
I was pleasantly, so very pleasantly, uncomfortable with Zuckerman’s exploitation of Amy Bellette (not to mention Anne Frank) to create his justification for why he must let his father go. Especially poignant considering it not only justified his sacrificing his family relations but also brought him back into the Jewish fold. How could they reject him if he is the husband of Anne Frank? I have shied away from The Plot Against America, believing that most alternative histories are hokey and should as a rule never be read. But after seeing how adept Roth is at making an alternative history not just interesting in the hypothetical sense but also important to an understanding of “the way things are,” I will be reading what Roth thinks would have happened if Lindbergh had won the 1940 presidential election.
Also, I admit with a bit of shame how much I enjoyed the final scene for its comedy and not just for its poignancy. Though I felt for Hope in her “higher calling,” and I flinched during her final scene (so pathetic), her falling on the ice, failing to start the car, and then finally walking away in her clunky snowboots (“when she turned into the road she immediately passed out of sight. But then, of course, she wasn’t very big to begin with.”) was really quite comic. Roth doesn’t let us fully pity her because all the while Zuckerman and Lonoff are commenting on the car battery. But this was one of those scenes that made me wonder if Roth meant them to be like Sidney:
Little children don’t realize that underneath the big blowhard who rolls on the floor and makes them laugh there can be somebody who makes other people cry.
With insights like that, that come around again in the end to show just what it costs to be an artist, it’s hard to blame Roth for the coldness in this final scene. What a rich book! I’m so glad I still have the rest of the Zuckerman books in front of me.