The Ghost Writer
by Philip Roth (1979)
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.
Great review, Trevor. I think you’re going to like the Zuckerman books more and more: by the third (The Anatomy Lesson and fourth (The Prague Orgy), Roth is firing on all cylinders as never before.
Re alternative history novels. I recommend Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, probably his best book and a great novel by anyone’s standards.
Great news about the Zuckerman books! I really cannot wait. And thanks for the recommendation. Dick is another author I have heard whispers of but have never ventured into myself. I look forward to it!
A slim volume that packs about three different narrative arcs in it, any one of which a lesser author would have contented himself. There are the obvious parallels between Zuckerman and Roth, Zuckerman’s ability to create an alternate reality for a character (something he would do to greater — and greatest — effect in American Pastoral), and the de-mythification of idols. I don’t know how you read that final scene with Hope leaving and Lonoff stumbling after her, but I took it to be Zuckerman’s realization that this man he’s always assumed to be the apotheosis of Art Itself has sacrificed nothing for his work, to the detriment of all else; namely, life. Earlier in the novel, Zuckerman may have found that romantic, shutting yourself off to everything but your work, but by the end, I think he’s backed off the “Lonoff is a God” stance.
And, by the way, does anyone do tantrums better than Roth? Hope’s explosion in the final chapter to Amy about her husband is as withering as literature gets.
I know you’re planning on getting through the rest of the Zuckerman books throughout the summer, Mike, and I wonder how you’ll feel about that final scene after reading them. I actually read it a bit differently, but I loved the ambiguity. It seemed that Zuckerman might still be envying Lonoff’s situation, even though I think Roth was showing readers the potentially tragic consequences. I’ll have to look at it again, which is a pleasure anyway!
I haven’t read American Pastoral yet, but several people, and now you, have given me trusted opinions about it – I’ll have to visit it soon! Any rants in it?
I’ll be waiting with interest to hear your comments on the tetralogy as a whole Trevor, these particular books haven’t grabbed me right now (emphasis on the right now, I may have a very different view in a few months) but it’s plainly ambitious work and your write-ups are very interesting.
I don’t know Roth particularly, is there one you’d recommend which requires a bit less commitment than the start of a four part series?
Hi Trevor, I thought I was in the comments section for The Anatomy Lesson, where my post above sits a bit more naturally. Hope that makes my post make a bit more sense.
I actually think that The Ghost Writer is the perfect start to a long relationship with Roth.
Even though it is the first book in a series, all of the books stand alone. You could read The Ghost Writer this year and then revisit Zuckerman, like an old acquaintance, in a year or two when he’s worked out some things and become famous. Then a few years later, visit him in his middle-aged pain. Or you could even read them out of order, I’ve heard.
The Ghost Writer doesn’t call for a sequel either. It has a very fulfilling ending that I love thinking about. Furthermore, I think because in a way the book takes Roth himself back to the beginning it also introduces the rest of Roth’s work (much – most – of which I still have to read). And if that doesn’t encourage you, each book is short, with fairly large type, and the prose is smooth as can be, easy to slide right through.
But if the story doesn’t appeal, Roth has an award-winning record like no other author. He has plenty of excellent books out there, with great stories, stunning literary pyrotechnics, and nuanced motifs that delight and haunt.
I wouldn’t recommend starting with Everyman. As great as that book was, I think it would have been more fulfilling had I read it after knowing Roth’s work better. I loved it, but it didn’t tell me to go read the rest of his books. The Ghost Writer did.
I look forward to your comments about Roth when that day comes!
I’m taking a different tack: reading his output in consecutive order. Granted, I’ve ony read his first one, Goodbye, Columbus, which comes bundled, as far as I know, with the only published Roth short stories. Next up, after the Booker longlist is polished off, will be Letting Go, his longest novel at over six hundred pages.
You know, Stewart, I’m not sure I’ve ever taken an author on from the beginning to the end – at least, not one who has written several books. I’d like to try that sometime. Good luck with your trek through Roth. I look forward to your reviews on his early books because I have not read any of them pre-The Ghost Writer.
Does anyone have any suggestions for other authors who are particularly suited to being read from first book to last consecutively?
It’s something I’ve been wanting to do with my blog, but other books continue to pop up. Although I’ve read a number of John Steinbecks, I’ve started from the start there too with Cup Of Gold. Same goes for Jim Crace, Cormac McCarthy, and, one day, Saul Bellow. To my mind, starting at the beginning is when they were still learning the ropes, so to speak, and should hopefully offer an in to their ideas, themes, and style.
You make a very good case for The Ghost Writer there, my concern primarily was embarking on another series when I’m part way through A Dance to the Music of Time, but it’s stand alone nature takes that concern away largely.
Thanks for the recommendation.
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