Philip Roth, The Ghost Writer

The Ghost WriterThe Ghost Writer by Philip Roth

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Ghost Writer is the good Roth, the safe Roth, wholesome enough to give to children and kittens and ducklings, hence, perhaps, its appearance on my syllabus this semester. (The guy who taught the class before me went straight to Portnoy’s Complaint, but then he’s tenure-track, whereas I am, to say the least, not.) No anti-feminist raving, no chapters (only a sentence) devoted to masturbation, no golden showers, no vulvas-as-Vietnams. Just a parable of authorship in the elliptical and delicate manner of Henry James, as the critical commonplaces (guided by Roth’s own careful allusions) tell us. All these clichés about this 1979 short novel, the first in the Zuckerman roman-fleuve, are even mostly true, at least if you only page through the book. Happily, it isn’t as safe as it sounds.

Our hero, young Nathan Zuckerman, arrives in the winter of 1956 at the rural Berkshires retreat of the great writer E. I. Lonoff, a kind of Bernard Malamud figure, renowned for narratives of obscure Jewish heroes defeated by fate and accident; Zuckerman writes of Lonoff’s “celebrated blend of sympathy and pitilessness (monumentalized as ‘Lonovian’ by Time—after decades of ignoring him completely).” Lonoff’s life of severe routine and duty mirror his literary values, and his life is one of “Purity. Serenity. Security. Seclusion,” prompting Nathan to think, “This is how I will live.”

Even in “safe Roth,” however, there can and will be no purity. For Lonoff and his gentile New-England-native wife Hope are hosting not only Nathan but also a young woman named Amy Bellette, to whom Nathan is instantly drawn and with whom (Nathan later discovers) Lonoff is having an affair. Jamesian irony is ever on the edge of either Molièresque farce or even Dostoevskean scandal as Nathan surmises and eavesdrops his way through the troubled household. Amusing enough, perhaps, especially as filtered through Zuckerman’s retrospective narration, which faithfully recreates the mixture of cynical opportunism and wide-eyed ingenuousness that characterizes the young “Bildungsroman hero,” as he knowingly refers to himself on the first page.

But Nathan’s own situation lends his travails in the Lonoff household a moral and political seriousness: Nathan has escaped to Lonoff after a fight with his parents and the Jewish community of his native Newark. (And Lonoff, by the way, was not Nathan’s first choice; he had previously wished to elect himself the apprentice of Felix Abravanel, a Bellow/Mailer type of high-living celebrity novelist who proved to be too “out to lunch” to take on literary sons. The heart of the story is Nathan’s inexhaustible need, both bathetic and touchingly recognizable, for paternal approval.) Nathan, it transpires, has written a story, based on some recent family history, that his father believes will give ammunition to anti-Semites. Nathan and his father’s conflict unfolds in a masterful tense Ibsenite dialogue (idea for an essay, if this hasn’t been written already: Roth the dramatist) that presents both sides of the argument fairly, especially as it takes account of each man’s genuine conviction and passion:

“You make everybody sound awfully greedy, Nathan.”

“But everybody was.”

“That’s one way of looking at it, of course.”

“That’s the way you looked at it yourself. That’s why you were so upset that they wouldn’t compromise.”

“The point is, there is far more to our family than this.”

Which latter point is true enough. Nathan’s later phone conversation with his mother raises the stakes when she asks him if he is an anti-Semite and accuses him in anguish of adjacency to the Holocaust:

“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.”

Which is true too. It’s a serious question: is any group or any identity defined solely by the trauma that gave rise to its “double consciousness”? If so, where does that leave the individual imagination? If not, how will the group be defended if the need should arise again? Genocide itself is caused by excessive group consciousness, but group consciousness may be the only reasonable way to defend against genocide—unless never unlearning the habit of identitarian thinking just perpetuates the cycle forever, each group taking a turn on the bottom and at the top of the wheel of oppression.

Those who know what became of Roth’s career—and this is a metafiction, toying with readerly knowledge of the celebrity author—will know that Roth chose to pursue his vision largely irrespective of Jewish strictures, however defined, but The Ghost Writer portrays his parents’ concerns and Nathan’s own internal conflict in their proper complexity:

Hadn’t Joyce, hadn’t Flaubert, hadn’t Thomas Wolfe, the romantic genius of my high-school reading list, all been condemned for disloyalty or treachery or immorality by those who saw themselves as slandered in their works?


It wasn’t Flaubert’s father or Joyce’s father who had impugned me for my recklessness—it was my own. Nor was it the Irish he claimed I had maligned and misrepresented, but the Jews. Of which I was one. Of which, only some five thousand days past, there had been millions more.

No, Roth never really dishonors his mother and father, not really—they worked hard to give him a good life—but, keen satirist as he is, he has to dishonor someone lest sloppy thinking or self-congratulation go unchallenged. Enter Judge Wapter, pillar of the Newark Jewish community, whom Nathan’s father petitioned for advice. The privileged Wapter writes a letter to Nathan expressing his concerns about Nathan’s fiction portrayals of Jews. In its middlebrow smug ignorance and somnolent self-righteousness, Wapter’s is one of the more amusing letters in fiction, oddly reminiscent, though the circumstances are obviously quite different, of Mr. Collins’s proposal to Lizzy Bennett:

If you have not yet seen the Broadway production of The Diary of Anne Frank, I strongly advise that you do so. Mrs. Wapter and I were in the audience on opening night; we wish that Nathan Zuckerman could have been with us to benefit from that unforgettable experience.


If you have been living in Nazi Germany in the thirties, would you have written such a story?


Can you honestly say there is anything in your short story that would not warm the heart of a Julius Streicher or a Joseph Goebbels?

How is Nathan to extricate himself from these difficulties? Through the novel’s set piece, an episode entitled “Femme Fatale,” which goes to show that a realist novel can be more inventive than any fantasy. Nathan imagines that Lonoff’s young mistress Amy is in fact Anne Frank—that Frank escaped the camps alive, came to America, became a young writer and student of literature, and at last had to wrestle with the publication of her own adolescent diary and its implications. If Amy is Anne, if Anne is a tormented and ironical writer, and, more ludicrously, if Nathan can marry Anne, then how can he be a self-hating Jew or literary anti-Semite? This is mischief, but very serious mischief, and Roth’s depiction, through Nathan’s narrative, of Amy/Anne’s internal struggle is masterful.

Cynthia Ozick believes Anne Frank an incipiently great writer and is indignant at the world’s reduction of her writing to sentimentalist kitsch (Ozick is particularly disdainful of the Broadway production celebrated by Wapter above, which I recall spending a week acting out in the seventh grade in Catholic school):

Yet the diary’s most celebrated line (infamously celebrated, one might add)—”I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart”—has been torn out of its bed of thorns. […] That single sentence has become Anne Frank’s message, virtually her motto—whether or not such a credo could have survived the camps. But why should this sentence be taken as emblematic, and not, for example, another? “There’s a destructive urge in people, the urge to rage, murder, and kill,” Anne wrote on May 3, 1944, pondering the spread of guilt. These are words that do not soften, ameliorate, or give the lie to the pervasive horror of her time. Nor do they pull the wool over the eyes of history.

Ozick even expresses the heretical wish that the diary had been burned to spare the world the false comfort of whatever bromides may be wrung from it by weak-minded opportunists, beginning with Frank’s own father, and spreading from thence to encompass, and I use this word advisedly, Christendom:

It may be shocking to think this (I am shocked as I think it), but one can imagine a still more salvational outcome: Anne Frank’s diary burned, vanished, lost—saved from a world that made of it all things, some of them true, while floating lightly over the heavier truth of named and inhabited evil.

Nathan rescues Frank differently, and twice. In the “Femme Fatale” chapter itself, he imagines that, preserved from death, she might have turned, in effect, into Ozick: the brightest and most bookish of all students growing into the most rigorous and astringent moral awareness, not itself unmarred by such less obviously creditable motives as sheer hate for the successors of one’s persecutors or an indiscriminate need for love:

[A]ll I wanted was revenge. It wasn’t for the dead—it had nothing to do with bringing back the dead and scourging the living. It wasn’t corpses I was avenging—it was the motherless, fatherless, sisterless, venue-filled, hate-filled, shame-filled, half-flayed seething thing. It was myself. I wanted tears. I wanted their Christian tears to run like Jewish blood, for me. I wanted their pity—and in the most pitiless way. And I wanted love, to be loved mercilessly and endlessly, just the way I’d been debased.

To deny the impurity of motive is always, in Roth, a tremendous failing: to presume absolute morality is itself immoral, as it leads to righteous persecution, pogroms and show trials.

Nathan tries to save Frank a second time, in conversation with Amy at the novel’s end, by recruiting her to modernism:

“[S]he’s like some impassioned little sister of Kafka’s, his lost little daughter—a kinship is even there in the face. […] What he invented, she suffered. Do you remember the first sentence of The Trial? […] ‘Someone must have falsely traduced Anne F., because one morning without having done anything wrong, she was placed under arrest.'”

As literary criticism, this is acute, and it might even satisfy Ozick, because construing Frank as Kafka’s daughter or sister (in fact, three of Kafka’s sisters perished in the camps) would ensure that she was read with sufficient attention to the complexity and irony of her literary vision rather than being boiled down to nostrums about how people are basically good.

The second movement of this four-part invention is called “Nathan Dedalus,” after modernism’s original flight risk—the young Irishman who, pleading non serviam, wished to fly from nation, language, religion, and family, even as his countrymen endorsed a resistant nationalism and its attendant unavoidable stultifications. For Roth and Joyce (and Kafka, and many, many others—I will forego comment on the manifestation of this problem in the controversy du jour occasioned by Thomas Chatterton Williams) are caught in the same paradox: how to do literary justice to the actual moral complexity of one’s family, culture, and nation, especially if these have been traduced, without only repeating the traducers’ slanders? Dante invented this paradox for us moderns when he transposed feud-riven Florence into eternity, but his idea of justice was the eternally right-wing one, we should all get what we deserve, whereas the left-wing idea of justice is we should all get what we need. But left-wing justice is impracticable and right-wing justice undesirable, as I think the 20th century should have made clear.

When writers make irony the structuring principle of their literary compositions, as all the best 20th century authors did, they signal their awareness of the impossibility of justice and the simultaneous necessity of its pursuit, whatever it means to you. Think only of the multiple resonances of “ghost writer”: the ghost (Anne Frank) who writes; the writer (Nathan) of a ghost story; one (Nathan) who writes in another’s (Anne’s) stead; the writer (Lonoff) who is not living. All these meanings jostle and undermine without cancelling one another: this is irony, and it applies as well to every level of the novel, each of whose characters is correct in his or her own terms, though none could be correct absolutely, even as each must continue his or her own quest.

Irony is the gap between mind and world, between what we expect or want and what we get. Irony is a circle, because no matter what we get, we always want more. Irony saves us from our delusions even as it preserves by portraying them, and it honors moreover the human needs that gave rise to them in the first place. Irony brings thought into feeling, and vice versa. Irony reconciles us to not getting what we want while sparing us the trouble caused by hypocritical moralizers who insist we should never have wanted it in the first place. Irony, David Foster Wallace be damned, is literature: without irony, you will have kitsch, propaganda, pornography, children’s instruction, or entertainment, all of them different faces of the didactic—but you will never have literature in the normative sense of the greatest imaginative writing, the writing that, paradoxically, comforts by disenchanting, or rather teaches us to be enchanted with the truth, even if the highest truth is that truth is unknowable and death inevitable. Irony, because it goes in a circle, returns us to the real, where we will in the end, when it comes, be buried.

And The Ghost Writer is literature. But don’t let that, or its reputation for goodness and safety, put you off; you could always just read it for the jokes. Jamesian though it is, it has a deadpan standup jocularity all the same—

Virtuous reader, if you think that after intercourse all animals are sad, try masturbating on the daybed in E. I. Lonoff’s study and see how you feel when it’s over.

—and even, like Portnoy’s Complaint, a punchline: “It’s like being married to Tolstoy,” the unbearable, selfish male writer exclaims of his absconding wife. If that’s not irony, what is?


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