Late to the Party: Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer

A writer reads Philip Roth for the first time

Reading a book after the publication buzz has died down lets you see how it stands up without the protective gauze of “coverage.” Reading a canonical book knowing the reputation(s) it bears, is worthwhile because — even though it has stood the test of time — it is likely out of sync with the worldview of the current day, and is therefore a trickier test of your perspective (George Orwell’s work being a stark exception these days). As in, it’s lucky Philip Roth got in when he did because it seems probable that if he were writing today a lot of his manuscripts would be tossed out by the women — white, specifically, as Marlon James pointed out — who make up the majority of today’s publishing industry. Before this assignment, I had never read Philip Roth.

Before we go any further: this is not a hate essay about how the misogyny in Philip Roth’s novels makes them not-great literature, or makes me feel bad about liking the one I read for this series, The Ghost Writer.

Among the titles in Philip Roth’s canon that I did not choose to read for this assignment are: The Professor of Desire (1977), When She Was Good (1967), The Breast (1972), and The Great American Novel (1973), none of which, allegedly, were titled satirically. Despite having not read these or any of his other novels before, between criticism over the years, the many think pieces about Roth’s retirement in 2012, and having been an English major once upon a time, I knew enough about him to sketch a biography. I knew he was Jewish and from New Jersey. I knew that from roughly 1959 to 2012 he secluded himself in the rural Northeast so that he could do nothing but write at a remove from the world. Roth has said in interviews that in his career of 31 novels and numerous short stories, he more or less wrote the same book over and again. All of this tells me that he sought to write literature that resounds with a particular kind of timelessness, one that comes from turning very deeply inward to craft a singular human story over a long period of time.

And The Ghost Writer mostly reads like that.

When Roth published The Ghost Writer in 1979, he would’ve been between the ages and stages of Nathan Zuckerman, his recurring protagonist who appears in this novel, and E. I. Lonoff, the elder statesman author who has invited Nathan to spend an evening in his countryside home. The evening visit and the morning after comprise the entire novel. Both Zuckerman and Lonoff are Jewish men, concerned with writing the male, post-war Jewish experience. For his part, Zuckerman tells us “I had come to submit myself for candidacy as nothing less than [his] spiritual son.”

“I had written for the whole world to read about Jews fighting over money,” he disdains

Zuckerman, young and zealous, is from a Jewish neighborhood in New Jersey. Only four published stories into his career, his writing is already offending his Jewish family and community so much that his father has gone to the local Rabbi to seek both counsel and mediation. Zuckerman is outraged, indignant. How could his father, a foot doctor not an artist, understand the goals or the achievements of Nate’s art? “I had written for the whole world to read about Jews fighting over money,” he disdains. “It was not for me to leak the news that such a thing could possibly happen. That was worse than informing — that was collaborating.” Zuckerman is bitter but not disheartened because Lonoff, he will understand.

Lonoff lives like a recluse, a monk for the religion of his art, in a small cabin with his wife surrounded on all sides by untouched field, away from the writing and publishing scene of New York. Every minute of his days he is “turning around sentences” with no idea how else to spend his time. The consequence of living like this for so long, his wife Hope (“Hope”!) later tells us, is that he is now the kind of man who “takes three months to get used to a new brand of soap.” But Zuckerman considers Lonoff’s life a paradise, not purgatory. Lonoff as an embodiment of Zuckerman’s possible future is a warning the young man will almost certainly not heed. And it’s unclear if Roth thinks he should. On the pin-board in Lonoff’s office, Zuckerman observes a quote from Henry James’s The Middle Years written on index card: “We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

Having not read Roth before, here is what might be the most late-to-the-party-esque take in this essay. With two writers at the center of the story, both Jewish (one from a neighborhood in New Jersey, one removed from New York), writing about the male, Jewish, postwar experience, the novel’s autobiographical details are shameless and abundant. So much so that it is difficult to parse where Roth ends and his fiction begins — such that I ask whether I’m meant to make that separation at all. “Not living is what he makes his beautiful fiction out of!” cries Lonoff’s wife, Hope, as she rages out of the house, once and for all, at the end of the novel. Are we to imagine this is also Roth? A man who creates reams of stories out of a life in isolation? But an author is not his fiction; to say otherwise is an insult to his imaginative powers. And Hope’s cry comes at the end, but not the very end of the novel. On the last page and at the end of the visit, Lonoff is putting on his shoes to chase after Hope; he turns to Zuckerman and says, “‘I’ll be curious to see how we all turn out some day. It could be an interesting story. You’re not so nice and polite in your fiction,’ he said. ‘You’re a different person.’”

It is difficult to parse where Roth ends and his fiction begins — such that I ask whether I’m meant to make that separation at all.

Roth’s work is a fascinating human and artistic study. He wrote for most of his life, without stopping, about every stage of life as a writer, a man, and a Jew in the postwar decades. Roth the present is in constant conversation with his ghosts past and future; he is eternally the ghost of the present. With a chapter title like “Nathan Dedalus” it’s clear Roth is writing his portrait of the artist as a young — and as an old — man. If one goal of art is, simplistically, to express oneself — to move the self out of the pneuma of thought into tangible form — then Roth has exorcised himself onto pages with a dedication that is rare. I’d only read something like it before in the Elena Ferrante books.

It is difficult to find a meaningful piece of myself in The Ghost Writer because the obstacles are so blatant and so high.

If I was to suggest a shortcoming it would be that art which has come from so deep within should have at least one kernel of human truth that I, too, can hold. It is difficult to find a meaningful piece of myself in The Ghost Writer because the obstacles are so blatant and so high. For starters, I can’t play any of the available female roles, which are as follows:

  • Indistinct Plaything of a Man: “…when I was left alone with those long-necked aerial friends of Betsy’s, who walked with their feet turned charmingly outward and looked (just like Betsy!) so appetizingly wan and light and liftable.”
  • Caricature of Hysteria (and all of the most frustrating things “hysteria” invokes; the Greek stem translates to “womb”): “…the sound of glass breaking and the sight of a disappointed woman, miserably weeping, was not new to me. It was about a month old. On our last morning together, Betsy had broken every dish of the pretty little Bloomingdale’s set…”
  • Victim of Ambiguous-Consent Sex / Rape: “…I confessed that the mutual friend had not been the first to be dragged to the floor while Betsy was safely off dancing her heart out…”; “On my knees, I struggled to unclothe her; not resisting all that strenuously, she on her knees told me what a bastard I was to be doing this to Betsy…I pinned her pelvis to the kitchen linoleum, while she continued, through moist smiling lips, to inform me of my character flaws.”
  • And, lastly, Blank Screen for Projections of Male Desire — actually wait, let’s adjust that to “Smart, Attractive, but also Blank Screen” because Amy Bellette is notably beautiful and does seem rather intelligent: “…it was for him, the great writer, that Amy had chosen to become Anne Frank…to enchant him, to bewitch him, to break through the scrupulosity and the wisdom and the virtue into his imagination…”

That’s right: in that last option, momentarily putting aside the sexism — which is a massive aside — Amy Bellette is conceived by Nathan Zuckerman to be the survived Anne Frank, symbol of the holocaust tragedy, escaped from the camps, hiding her true identity because she is tired of being in the world as, well, the storied, diary-writing Anne Frank. Now, she lusts for the fat, aging Lonoff. It’s like the anti-Semitic version of Anastasia. Elements like these are enough to make me wonder if I’m reading a tasteless satire. But because of everything I said before, I know that I’m not.

The female roles — or rather, confinements — are presented by the narrator, Zuckerman; I can’t get around him to the actual women, and I can’t identify with him because he confounds me and his narcissism shuts me out. The only character I might connect with is E. I. Lonoff and that’s because he finds the New York publishing scene tiring. This does not feel like a special connection.

After their evening, Zuckerman is put up for the night in Lonoff’s office. He tests the writer’s chair and it is surprisingly not ergonomic, bad for the back; he cowers in front of his idol’s typewriter, an Olivetti that looks just like his; he peruses his genius’s private library, replete with Heidegger, Wittgenstein. Yet Zuckerman fails to soak it all up, to get out of his head, to even be in the room. He ends up dwelling on his anger towards his father, indulging in self-pity, and masturbating. It was Wittgenstein who said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Even though Roth has achieved the artistic goal of creating a full expression of his subjectivity, as a piece of fiction, it is exclusionary. I don’t know if that it’s necessary that Bildungsroman works be insular rather than capsular — but in Roth’s case, it is a fact. I read his work the way I look at fossils in a museum: in an encased glass box with a placard that reads: “The Male Jewish Writer’s Postwar Experience.”

The only character I might connect with is E. I. Lonoff and that’s because he finds the New York publishing scene tiring. This does not feel like a special connection.

This is part of why I hadn’t read Roth before. Because when I was in college, I started reading John Updike’s revolting novel Towards the End of Time and became very confused until, in my desperate Google searches for explanation, I found a 1997 review of the book by David Foster Wallace. Along with Updike, Wallace includes Roth and Norman Mailer in a threesome he crowns “the Great Male Narcissists” of the postwar era, and suggests the following as a possible descriptor for any of them: “Just a penis with a thesaurus.” I hadn’t read Roth because in a 2009 n+1 conversation, Emily Gould took Wallace’s coronation a step further and talked about Roth as one of the “Mid-Century Misogynists.” (For what it’s worth, Gould does go on to say that she thoroughly enjoys reading Philip Roth, but the point gets a little lost.) I hadn’t read Roth because he was on a list that I have come to be very disappointed by, written by a woman who’s work I love, to whom I and all female writers owe much: “80 Books No Woman Should Read” by Rebecca Solnit.

I don’t want anyone excluding me from art and/or literature because of my gender. (Solnit’s list contained a small disclaimer about people reading whatever they want, but it was the article’s headline that broke the internet.) The last chapter of The Ghost Writer is titled “Married to Tolstoy.” At least four times, Hope, in a winning polemic against her husband, tells Lonoff he is frightened of losing his boredom. Tolstoy defined boredom as “the desire for desires.” Imagine having no desire but the want of it, and not wanting to be any other way. I submit that curiosity is a form of desire, and if I had no curiosity then perhaps I could not read Philip Roth. This book didn’t tell me anything good about being a woman, but I’m also a human and I’m curious about men. I’m curious about how other humans understand themselves. I’m curious about eras I didn’t live through, and the attitudes of individuals and society during those times. On that level, Roth created something assiduous and wonderful.

I am fortunate that I can read the books of the canon and see them for what they are — interesting works of art, gorgeous and disturbing records of human existence.

Of course, I can say all of this as a 21st century woman. I can enjoy simply going to the museum of literature because I’ve had the benefit of Doris Lessing, Susan Sontag, Louise Erdrich, Elena Ferrante, indeed Rebecca Solnit. In the past few months alone, for my Bildungswoman reading I’ve had the pick of Sarah Gerard, Jamie Attenberg, Julie Buntin, among many, many others.

So yes, I am fortunate that I can read the books of the canon and see them for what they are — interesting works of art, gorgeous and disturbing records of human existence. I can feel excited and grateful that I’m around as the canon is broadening, that I can freely work to ensure the voices within tell all human stories — not just one.