I’ve developed a tentative taste for Philip Roth over the past few years, so with his forthcoming novel Exit Ghost being described as “the final Nathan Zuckerman novel,” I thought it was high time I read the first one: The Ghost Writer (1979). Zuckerman is typically considered to be Roth’s alter ego, so will he – like the narrator ‘Roth’ in other books, and the character David Kepesh in a further trilogy – be a self-regarding Jewish intellectual with a weakness for voluptuous women? What do you think?
The Ghost Writer describes a night spent by the young Jewish writer Nathan Zuckerman at the home of his literary idol, E.I. Lonoff. Zuckerman has published a few short stories, and has been invited to speak to the established Lonoff (no doubt I should know who, if anyone, Lonoff is based on, but I don’t: I think I know who Zuckerman is based on though). The older man has a way of describing the full-time writer’s job:
I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning. And if I knock off from this routine for as long as a day, I’m frantic with boredom and a sense of waste.
Further: “I ask myself, Why is there no way but this for me to fill my hours?” Well, Zuckerman comes to suspect there is another way for Lonoff to fill his hours: he spies, along with Lonoff’s wife Hope, a young girl called Amy Bellette in the home. Or perhaps he’s just projecting, because for Zuckerman – for so many of Roth’s men – women are judged primarily by their beauty. “With that face she must be more than twelve. If not, I could wait.”
At this point we usually round on Roth for his misogyny, only to find, when he takes the character of Amy Bellette and does something entirely unexpected with her, and gives her a real (and I do mean real) character, that he has pre-empted our criticism. Zuckerman learns, or at least is told, that “Because you want it [is] not a good enough reason.” And that “you don’t chuck a woman out after thirty-five years because you’d prefer to see a new face over your fruit juice.” Hope Lonoff, too, comes into her own at the end of the novel, and acts against any easy objectification that we think Roth, or Zuckerman, or Lonoff, might be thinking of.
Along the way there is a rich stew of the writer’s relationship to his material and to his society, the powers and responsibilities that “great talent” brings. Sometimes this takes the form of nicely observed gems of a writer’s affectations (for the journey to Lonoff’s, Zuckerman has brought with him “easily enough paper to write the whole of my first novel if it should happen to come to me while riding back and forth on the bus”), elsewhere it’s an angrier humour. Zuckerman has offended his family with a story he wrote which they and their friends think will be grist to the mill of anti-Semites (“Is there anything in your short story that would not warm the heart of a Julius Streicher or a Joseph Goebbels?”). His mother telephones him about it:
“Oh, Nathan, where’s your humility, where’s your modesty – where’s the courtesy you’ve always had?”
“The Big Three, Mama! Streicher, Goebbels, and your son! What about the judge’s humility? Where’s his modesty?”
“He only meant that what happened to the Jews -”
“In Europe – not in Newark! We are not the wretched of Belsen! We were not the victims of that crime!”
“But we could be – in their place we would be. Nathan, violence is nothing new to Jews, you know that!”
“Ma, you want to see physical violence done to the Jews of Newark, go to the office of the plastic surgeon where the girls get their noses fixed. That’s where the Jewish blood flows in Essex County, that’s where the blow is delivered – with a mallet! To their bones – and to their pride!”
Times like these, the writing seems thrown onto the page, full of life and vigour, and setting up such a rich character in Nathan Zuckerman that you can see why Roth made a trilogy out of him, and kept him as narrator for several other novels besides. And all this from sitting in a room all day, turning sentences around.