Roth Philip

Philip Roth: Patrimony

Occasionally – well, quite often, if I’m truthful – I have a sudden urge where I need to get a specific book, right now. A few months ago it was Philip Roth’s memoir of his father, Patrimony. I tried my local bookshops but without success. I ordered it online and clutched it with glee when it arrived. Then, in the usual fashion, I didn’t want to spoil the anticipation by reading it too soon and stuck it on my shelves.

Patrimony (1991) is subtitled A True Story, but we know Philip Roth too well to take such a claim at face value. His book Operation Shylock, subtitled A Confession and ostensibly a non-fiction account narrated by ‘Philip Roth,’ ends with a postscript: “This confession is false.” His autobiography The Facts is interrupted (and critiqued) by Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s fictional alter ego. We’re used to seeing Roth’s formidable literary muscle being flexed via complexity, reflexiveness, even something like postmodernism – so it’s extraordinary to see it being exercised in the service of something much more direct and simple, and retaining all its awesome power. This time, it really is true.

In 1988, when Roth was 55, his 86-year-old father Herman developed something which was initially diagnosed as Bell’s Palsy. “Look, count your blessings, the doctor said; except for a blind eye, a deaf ear, and a half-paralyzed face, he was as healthy as a man twenty years younger.” However, when a brain scan is carried out, and Roth sees the results before his father does, he is moved not just because of the inevitable presence of

the tumor invading the brain but simply because it was his brain, my father’s brain, what prompted him to think the blunt way he thought, speak the emphatic way he spoke, reason the emotional way he reasoned, decide the impulsive way he decided … and now it was being compressed and displaced and destroyed. … God’s will erupted out of a burning bush and, no less miraculously, Herman Roth’s had issued forth all these years from this bulbous organ.

This inspires a journey backward and forward, to his father’s past and his – not a spoiler, I think – short future. “He was still, systemically, a marvel, and therefore fated to be spared nothing.” The past begins with Roth’s mother’s death, seven years earlier, after which Herman embarrassed Roth and the funeral guests by spending the day clearing out her personal belongings: “They were all items for which my father could imagine no function now that she who had treasured them was gone.” Roth, despite his discomfort, sees something to admire in this, an example of his father’s “refusal to sidestep the most brutal of all facts.” It is a refusal which Roth has inherited, not least displayed in this volume. “He could be a pitiless realist, but I was not his offspring for nothing, and I could be pretty realistic too.”

Following his wife’s death, Herman begins to deteriorate at least socially, and Roth has to encourage him to live again, as well as to help him with his basic hygiene, and there is something extraordinary in reading of the great novelist scrubbing his father’s bathroom like, well, like a normal person. Then again, even he acknowledges, when standing over his mother’s grave, that “at a cemetery you are generally reminded of just how narrow and banal your thinking is on this subject.”

Patrimony is not without comedy or drama, and Roth cannot quite restrain his novelist’s skill at painting a scene. There is a skit where Roth poses as a psychiatrist to avoid the attentions of a volatile cab driver, but ends up ‘treating’ him (“You know something, Doc, my old man’s in his grave now without his four front teeth. I knocked ’em out of his fucking mouth for him”), and there is a brilliantly funny set piece where Roth attends a string quartet recital with his father and elderly friends, in aid of the Jewish poor in Florida. After suffering a performance “as alarming as it was heroic, as though these four aging people were trying to push free a car that was mired in the mud,” the audience is frustrated time and again as they rise to go to the refreshment tables and are ushered back by the club president for the next movement. Eventually it ends.

“Bravo! Bravo!” The applause had turned into a rhythmic pounding with wild overtones of a kind you couldn’t have imagined emanating from this temperate crowd, but their relief at being sprung was that great. The applause was loudest from those who had bounded out of their seats and were already lined up two deep in front of the refreshment table. “Bravo!”

On it went until, in a triumphant voice, the president announced above the tumult, “Ladies and gentlemen! Ladies and gentlemen! Good news! The artists are going to give you an encore!”

I thought there would be a riot. I thought plates would go sailing through the air from the direction of the refreshment table. I thought somebody might just walk up and put a foot through the cello.

Much of the book, however, concerns the literal life or death decisions that come from long conversations with specialists. Roth is perpetually horrified by the various expectations the doctors have of his father: that he can withstand an eight hour operation, two eight hour operations, two, three or four months’ convalescence, learning to walk again. When one consultant tells Roth that what he has in mind for his father is “a routine operation,” Roth “had thought, ‘Sure it is – routine for you.'”

[My father] managed to take that in without flinching, which was better than I did. Eight to ten hours, then five to six days, and what would he be worth after that? After the impoverished childhood and the limited education, after the failure of the shoe store and the frozen food business, after the struggle to gain a managerial role in the teeth of the Metropolitan’s Jewish quotas, after the premature deaths of so many loved ones … after all that he had weathered and survived without bitterness or brokenness or despair, wasn’t eight to ten hours of brain surgery really asking too much? Isn’t there a limit?

The answer is yes, yes absolutely, yes to the thousandth degree – this was asking too much. To “Isn’t there a limit?” the answer is no.

Roth is unsentimental in his portrait of his father – stubborn, unseeing, cruel to Lil, the woman he later shared his life with – but also understanding of his need to reminisce all the time, everywhere they go.

You mustn’t forget anything – that’s the inscription on his coat of arms. To be alive, to him, is to be made of memory – to him if a man’s not made of memory, he’s made of nothing.

This takes forms which we might not and yet – given Roth’s fictional interests – might well expect of him. Helping his father in the bath, he can’t help noticing his penis.

I looked at it intently, as though for the very first time, and waited on the thoughts. But there weren’t any more, except my reminding myself to fix it in my memory for when he was dead. It might prevent him from becoming ethereally attenuated as the years went by.

Roth has done his father justice, and done him proud – and if he himself comes out of it pretty well (the dedicated son, the worried carer, the fixer of memory) then so be it. I was reading my copy on a plane, stuck on the tarmac as a thunderstorm raged overhead, and I had my mini Ikea pencil for marking notable passages jammed in an awkward pocket. It was so much trouble to fish it out each time, and I fished it out with such frequency because it all was so quotable, that in the end I kept it out, clutched like a cigarette as I marked one joyous paragraph after another of this sombre and lively and brilliant book.

“I must remember accurately,” I told myself, “remember everything accurately so that when he is gone I can re-create the father who created me.” You must not forget anything.

Philip Roth: The Prague Orgy

Here we are then with The Prague Orgy (1985), the fourth part of what Vintage clumsily calls “the trilogy and epilogue” Zuckerman Bound.  (You can read my thoughts on the others here, here, here and here.) How will they refer to it when Exit Ghost, the last instalment, is published in their paperback edition? “The trilogy, epilogue and appendix” perhaps? It is beginning to sound like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: a Trilogy in Five Parts.

The Prague Orgy

I don’t want to stretch a point but perhaps Zuckerman books have more in common with Douglas Adams than they appear to. Philip Roth, in a 1986 interview reprinted in Reading Myself and Others, cites a stage direction in The Prague Orgy: “Enter Zuckerman, a serious person.” This, Roth says, “could have been the trilogy’s title. … what’s laughable in Zuckerman Bound is his insatiable desire to be taken seriously by all the serious men…” OK, so not quite Arthur Dent, but it’s refreshing to be reminded, among all the hushed respect for Roth as the Great American Novelist (a view I’m more and more coming to agree with), that comedy – “the soul sinking into ridiculousness even as it strives to be saved” – is at the heart of these books.

It would be easy to overlook The Prague Orgy in favour of other Roths, not least on value for money grounds (84 pages for a standard paperback price?), but it turns out to be a scintillating distillation of everything I have (gradually and then suddenly) come to love about Roth. His mastery of his fiction is apparent on every page. Right at the start he’s showing us how he could be a ‘normal’ fine writer, with Zuckerman’s impressions of two people he’s just met:

A woman of about forty, pale eyes, broad cheekbones, dark, severely parted hair – a distraught, arresting face. One blue vein bulges dangerously in her temple as she perches at the edge of my sofa, quite still. In black, like Prince Hamlet. Signs of serious wear at the seat of the black velvet skirt of her funereal suit. Her fragrance is strong, her stockings laddered, her nerves shot.

He is younger, perhaps by ten years: thick-bodied, small, sturdy, with a broad, small-nosed face that has the ominous potency of a gloved fist. I see him lowering the brow and breaking doors down with it.

Many writers would kill to have that compact descriptive gift and nothing else. The two Zuckerman has just met, Eva and Sisovsky, are Czech emigrants who want Zuckerman – in his position as “the American authority on Jewish demons” – to go to Prague and bring back Yiddish stories written by Sisovsky’s father. Sisovsky, a writer himself, curries favour with Zuckerman:

“I don’t wish to compare our two books. Yours is a work of genius, and mine is nothing. When I studied Kafka, his fate in the hands of the Kafkologists seemed to me to be more grotesque than the fate of Josef K. I feel this is true also with you.”

This is the first inkling in the book of that long-running obsession of Roth’s, of the relationship between “the written and the unwritten world.” The Prague Orgy is full of it. Once in Prague, then still under Soviet occupation, Zuckerman discovers that writers there are treated even more disrespectfully than they are back home:

The workmen at their beer remind me of Bolotka, a janitor in a museum now that he no longer runs his theatre. “This,” Bolotka explains, “is the way we arrange things now. The menial work is done by the writers and the teachers and the construction engineers, and the construction is run by the drunks and the crooks. They get along better with the Russians.” I imagine Styron washing glasses in a Penn Station barroom, Susan Sontag wrapping buns at a Broadway bakery, Gore Vidal bicycling salamis to school lunchrooms in Queens – I look at the filthy floor and see myself sweeping it.

Sweeping his own floor for dirt – and making money out of it between hard covers – is what Zuckerman has been accused of back home by his Jewish family and critics, so maybe this doesn’t seem such a bad deal. Is it worse to be misread, as Zuckerman (and Roth) so often feels he is, or not to be read at all because the censor won’t allow it out? “The police are like literary critics: of what little they see, they get most wrong anyway.” And he is reminded too of Eva’s fate, an actress whose role as Anne Frank was used by the authorities as ‘proof’ that she was a Jewish subversive:

They have used Anne Frank as a whip to drive her from the stage … the ghost of the Jewish saint has returned as a demon. Anne Frank as a curse and a stigma! No, there’s nothing that can’t be done to a book, no cause in which even the most innocent of books cannot be enlisted, not only by them, but by you and me.

The story proceeds by comedy and character, as Zuckerman is subjected to the temptations of Olga, the widow of the author and guardian of the stories Zuckerman wants to smuggle back home; her dialogue has the livid life of Roth at his best. Zuckerman is also under surveillance, and is led to believe that he is about to be jailed unless he leaves the country immediately. But what can he do but keep telling his story?

One’s story isn’t a skin to be shed – it’s inescapable, one’s body and blood. You go on pumping it out till you die, the story veined with the themes of your life, the ever-recurring story that’s at once your invention and the invention of you.

In the same 1986 interview mentioned above, Roth says, “I’ve had two audiences, a general audience and a Jewish audience. I have virtually no sense of my impact upon the general audience, nor do I really know who these people are.” Well, here’s one right here. And the impact is enormous.

Philip Roth: The Anatomy Lesson

(This is the third book in the Zuckerman series. See also The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, The Prague Orgy and Exit Ghost.)

There’s a common view that for a writer to write about writing is a mark of failure, or at least boring. Who wants to read that stuff? Well, I do. My take is that if I get pleasure out of great writing, then writing about writing must double the delight; or square it. Others, I know, feel the sum is actually a subtraction, and that they cancel one another out. Where my heart swells, theirs sinks. All this is by way of prelude to The Anatomy Lesson (1983), a book about writing and its effect on the writer even more intense than the earlier volumes, The Ghost Writer and Zuckerman Unbound. And it’s a blast and a breeze.

The Anatomy Lesson

It is 1973 and Nathan Zuckerman is in pain. Not existential or metaphysical pain – though, that too – but the real thing, riddled with “a hot line of pain that ran forward behind his right ear into his neck, then branched downward beneath the scapula like a menorah held bottom side up.” He is “jangling with pain each time [a] cab took a pothole.” He’s a prisoner of it, unable to write, unable to get up, unable to do anything but lay down on his ‘playmat’ and watch the trials of Richard Nixon sideways.

Through his prism glasses he followed our President’s chicanery – the dummy gestures, the satanic sweating, the screwy dazzling lies. He almost felt for him, the only other American he saw daily who seemed to be in as much trouble as he was.

He also distracts himself from the pain by engaging with one of his four women in an activity suited to such a cunning linguist, back down there on the playmat (“step right up, sit right down”). It is perhaps this, or something related to it, which has brought him here: Zuckerman feels the pain is a symptom or rebound of his writing against him, particularly the lewd novel Carnovsky which so incensed his family. “Saddled with fifteen pounds of head”, its weight presses down on him: his head, having brought him to success, is now bringing him down. He tries therapy, medication, special pillows and electric shocks:

Six times a day he gave himself a low voltage shock for five minutes. And six times a day he waited for the pain to go away – actually he waited for it to go away a hundred times a day. Having waited long enough, he then took Valium or aspirin or Butazolidin or Percodan or Robaxin; at five in the evening he said the hell with it and began taking the vodka. And as tens of millions of Russians have known for hundreds of years, that is the best pain suppressor of all.

Then again, pain is just pain, and if Zuckerman can’t blame it on his writing, he can’t reverse that and rely on it to provide him with subject matter either: he “understood just how little one can depend upon human suffering to produce ennobling effects.” And Zuckerman is just Zuckerman: still he is amazed at how people – from family to literary professors – can confuse him with his character Carnovsky in his most famous book (an analogue for Roth’s own Portnoy’s Complaint).

From what he’d read of the reviews in the feminist press, he could expect a picture of himself up in the post office, alongside the mugshot of a Marquis de Sade, once the militants took Washington and began guillotining the top thousand misogynists in the arts.

This of course is doubly clever because Roth has been saddled for most of his career with comparisons to his narrators and characters (“There’s nothing more wearing than having to go around pretending to be the author of one’s own books – except pretending not to be”). Here, as with the other Zuckermans, he simultaneously invites the comparison and repels it, throwing the reader into a complex system of mirrors where Roth is and isn’t Zuckerman, who is and isn’t Carnovsky. Roth is the only writer I know who can pull off such postmodern games without indulging in textual trickery too: the book looks like a solid story but it is riddled with trapdoors.

On top of this, Zuckerman adopts a persona within the story. Incensed by accusations of anti-semitism from critic Milton Appel, who had “unleashed an attack upon Zuckerman’s career that made Macduff’s assault upon Macbeth look almost lackadaisical,” Zuckerman delights in calling himself Milton Appel when conversing with strangers, creating a new character for the critic as a pornographer. No-one can sustain a rant like Roth, and Zuckerman’s monologues as ‘Appel’ the porn baron are among the comic highlights of the book, poking fun at, among other things, Roth’s own supposed misogyny as a writer, and going further than most would dare in the process.

Exploited? If anyone’s exploited it’s the God damn men. Most of these girls are on a total ego trip in front of the camera. Sure I had animals in my last film, but nobody there forced anybody to fuck them. Chuck Raw, my star, walked off the picture because of the dog. He says, ‘I love dogs and I won’t be a party to this, Milton. Banging women fucks up their minds – they can’t handle it. Any dog who fucks a woman is finished as an animal.’ I respected Chuck for that. I have the courage of my convictions, he has the courage of his. Don’t you get the idea yet? Nobody is putting these people in chains! I am taking them out of their chains! I am a monster with something to offer! I am changing American fucking forever! I am setting this country free!

Yet what makes The Anatomy Lesson so extraordinary – and easily my favourite of the half dozen Roths I’ve read – is that in the middle of all this high octane prose, which turns the pages itself even when the story is idling, there is a controlled and tender portrayal of grief as Zuckerman recalls his mother’s death.

The mother who’d been so enormous to him for the first ten years of his life was as diaphanous in recollection as [a] chiffon hood. A breast, then a lap, then a fading voice calling after him, “Be careful.” Then a long gap when there is nothing of her to remember, just the inevitable somebody, anxious to please, reporting to him on the phone the weather in New Jersey.

Which leads to intimations of mortality, something that we haven’t seen the last of in Roth:

In the car to the cemetery, what is there to think? On the road to the cemetery, stupefied or wide awake, it’s simple: what is coming. No, it stays unseen, out of sight, and you come to it. Illness is a message from the grave. Greetings: You and your body are one – it goes, you follow. His parents were gone and he was next. Out to the cemetery in a long black car.

So where Zuckerman hoped for “an end to the search for the release from self,” he finds instead that the pain, like his writing, brings him further into himself than ever. The awareness spreads through him, through the story like, well, like a menorah held bottom side up.

This self-reflection on the decline of the body brings with it a certain amount of self-loathing, and a reprise of rage, as Zuckerman tries to decide which is easier to bear: the memory of grief, or the presence of pain, when he discovers an obscene and hate-filled note on a green index card to his mother from someone who hated Zuckerman’s books, and took it out on her.

He’d walk over to Meyer Lansky’s hotel to find out from the bell captain who could be hired to do a little job. Why not that for a change, instead of flying back to New York to file the green index card under “Mother’s Death”? You could not be a nothing writer fellow forever, doing nothing with the strongest feelings but turning them over for characters to deal with in books.

Books like this one. And how fortunate we are that Zuckerman – I mean Roth – I mean Zuckerman – has turned them over to us, and keeps on doing so. The pain is his, the pleasure all ours.

Philip Roth: Exit Ghost

(This is the fifth, and apparently final, book in the Zuckerman series. See also The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson, and The Prague Orgy.)

I had an excuse all ready to explain to myself why I started reading Philip Roth’s new novel Exit Ghost before I read the previous book in the ‘series’, The Anatomy Lesson. It was that I knew that reading about Roth’s supposed alter ego Nathan Zuckerman in old age and infirmity would be so depressing (remember The Dying Animal? Remember Everyman?) that I’d be grateful to travel back in time and visit him afterwards in fuller life. So that’s the excuse. Really, of course, the reason was that my weakness for a new book won out over my orderly sense that the novels should be read chronologically. Who can resist a new book? I can’t fool me.

But the expectation of relentless grimness, and the stark cover design by Milton Glaster (better known for designing another piece of American iconography) are deceptive. Exit Ghost is a fluent and warm book, elegiac but moving, in which a man who has been around almost the entire length of Roth’s career as a writer, struggles against coming to terms with his ageing and mortality.

Nathan Zuckerman had moved away from New York to be alone as a writer, and “to be rid of the lingering consequences of a life’s mistakes.”

I had banished my country, been myself banished from erotic contact with women, and was lost through battle fatigue to the world of love. I had issued an admonition. I was out from under my life and times. … I lived, by choice, where I could no longer be drawn down into the disappointments.

Eleven years later, in 2004, he returns to the city to have treatment for the incontinence he has suffered since a cancer op, hoping to leave with “the chance of exerting somewhat more control over my urine flow than an infant.” When there, he finds himself haunted by elements from his past life (and past books): Amy Bellette and E.I. Lonoff, from The Ghost Writer, feature prominently on and off stage. Zuckerman revisits Lonoff’s books while trying to rebuff a pushy journalist who wants to write Lonoff’s biography; and the result shows that Roth is as gifted a reader as he is a writer:

When you undertake an experiment like this after spending twenty or thirty years away from a writer’s work, you can’t be sure what you’re going to turn up, about either the datedness of the once admired writer or the naivete of the enthusiast you once were. But by midnight I was no less convinced than I was in the 1950s that the narrow range of Lonoff’s prose and the restricted scope of his interests and the unyielding restraint he employed, rather than collapsing a story’s implications and diminishing its impact, produced instead the enigmatic reverberations of a gong, reverberations that left one marvelling at how so much gravity and so much levity could be joined, in so small a space, to a skepticism so far-reaching. It was precisely the limitation of means that made each little story not something stultifying but a feat of magic, as if a folk tale or fairy tale or a Mother Goose rhyme were inwardly illuminated by the mind of Pascal.

Speaking of the restricted scope of his interests, Zuckerman is also haunted by a new person in his life: a beautiful young writer named Jamie Logan, with whom Zuckerman agrees in a “rash moment” to have a house-exchange. He will return to the city for a year and Jamie and her husband will retire to Zuckerman’s country home. He immediately realises that he wants Jamie to swap not houses but husbands:

In the country there was nothing tempting my hope. I had made peace with my hope. But when I came to New York, in only hours New York did what it does to people – awakened the possibilities. Hope breaks out.

Zuckerman knows that nothing can come of his new obsession with Jamie – his cancer treatment has left him impotent as well as incontinent – and so he is haunted by his own past as a virile male, and by the knowledge that the future, which once held these possibilities, is now such a limited thing. This does not stop his attachment to her (“There is no situation that infatuation is unable to feed on. Looking at her provided a visual jolt – I allowed her into my eyes the way a sword swallower swallows a sword”).

Instead, Zuckerman writes dialogues between him and Jamie, inventing a present for them in place of the impossible future. These are at their best heartbreaking, and affecting even when making uncomfortable and creepy reading: we know Zuckerman is leching his last, reduced finally to the life of the mind. He envies her husband and the man he believes to be her lover (“unknowing youth, savage with health and armed to the teeth with time”). Meanwhile Jamie is more concerned about the Bush-Kerry election, which Zuckerman has ignored (“I had decided no longer to be overtaken every four years by the emotions of a child – the emotions of a child and the pain of an adult”). To those who share Jamie’s (and, from interviews, Roth’s) antipathy for Bush, it will be a comfort to recognise that books like this will be read by generations to come and will provide the first draft of history.

Exit Ghost is a filling and mature book, replete with literary references from the title onward (and many of which I missed, judging from this valuable interview with Roth about the book, which contains some spoilers). Almost every character, appearing or referred to, is a writer. There are occasional humps in the road, like the biographical essay on George Plimpton, which both fits and doesn’t quite (“He died as we all do: as a rank amateur”). It’s hard to deny that reading this novel will be a richer experience if you already know The Ghost Writer, though it’s not essential as Roth (and Zuckerman) fills us in on the characters’ pasts. On the other hand, reading Exit Ghost first will reveal many of the events in the earlier book.

To me the reading of Exit Ghost felt like the moment when I as a reader finally had a full appreciation of Roth as a writer. This late appreciation of his stature will be nothing to him, but it means the world to me. And speaking of late, if Roth were to produce nothing else, what better valediction could there be for his writing life than this book, speaking of the late life of a writer and man, with the closing words “Gone for good”? But Roth happily is still writing – perhaps not happily – and at work on his next book. So “remorse can wait.”

Philip Roth: Zuckerman Unbound

(This is the second book in the Zuckerman series. See also The Ghost Writer, The Anatomy Lesson, The Prague Orgy and Exit Ghost.)

Warm on the heels of The Ghost Writer, I’ve bolted down the second of in Roth’s Zuckerman Bound trilogy, confusingly titled Zuckerman Unbound (1981, two years after The Ghost Writer).

Now Nathan Zuckerman is a successful novelist, his novel Carnovsky acting as an analogue (I presume) for Roth’s own Portnoy’s Complaint, a similarly sexual comedy which made him as much of a household name as real writers ever get to be these days. “Gone were the days when Zuckerman had only to worry about Zuckerman making money: henceforth he would have to worry about his money making money.” But is he happy?

All this, this luck – what did it mean? Coming so suddenly, and on such a scale, it was as baffling as a misfortune.

So Roth gives us the downsides of success with both barrels: but, to sweeten the pill, still makes it (mostly) a comedy. As he goes about his business, Zuckerman faces the leeches and walking wounded which any famous figure attracts, including Alvin Pepler, a former game show contestant who now wants Zuckerman to help him publish an expose of the corrupt world of the US gameshow (or as he puts it, “the decline of every decent American thing into liars and lies”). He faces reams of correspondence from those who probably shouldn’t be allowed anything sharp:

The only letters at all tempting were those marked “Photo Do Not Bend,” and there was none in this batch. He had received five so far, the most intriguing still the first, from a young New Jersey secretary who had enclosed a colour snapshot of herself, reclining in black underwear on her back lawn in Livingston, reading a novel by John Updike. An overturned tricycle in the corner of the picture seemed to belie the single status she claimed for herself in the attached curriculum vitae. However, investigation with his Compact Oxford English Dictionary magnifying glass revealed no sign on the body that it had borne a child, or the least little care in the world. Could it be that the owner of the tricycle had just happened to be pedaling by and dismounted in haste when summoned to snap the picture? Zuckerman studied the photo on and off for the better part of a morning, before forwarding it to Massachusetts, along with a note asking if Updike would be good enough to reroute photographs of Zuckerman readers sent mistakenly to him.

There is more fun to be had, when Zuckerman briefly dates a starlet, and the light tone remains even when his unsolicited phone calls turn threatening. It’s surprising then that the book should take a different turn in the final section, dealing with mortality, and returning to the family crosstalk so richly mined in The Ghost Writer. Mainly because of my mood, I really could have done with continued laughs, but I shall look forward with enthusiasm still to part three of the trilogy, The Anatomy Lesson (and with appropriate apprehension to the new Zuckerman book, Exit Ghost, which like all Roth these days seems to be about death).

Philip Roth: The Ghost Writer

(This is the first book in the Zuckerman series. See also Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson, The Prague Orgy and Exit Ghost.)

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.