Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer was first published in two parts in The New Yorker in 1979. Later that year it was published in book form by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. It was the first book of his Zuckerman Bound Trilogy, which he completed in 1985. The Ghost Writer first introduced us to Roth’s alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, as a twenty-three year old writer at the start of his career. Nathan has had four short stories published and has been profiled in a magazine as an up-and-coming writer. He claims to be embarrassed by the profile and the accompanying picture of him with his ex-girlfriend’s cat, but his claim seems to be based on what he thinks is expected of him.
Nathan’s autobiographical short stories have upset his family, particularly his father, who believes they show American-Jewish family life in a bad light and confirm the worst stereotypes of Jews. It is 1956 and Nathan is writing in the shadow of the Holocaust. His family is offended by his telling of their internal feuds, portraying them as “conniving Jews,” confirming the worst stereotypes held by Gentiles. They enlist a respected member of their community, a judge no less, for his opinion. Nathan receives a letter from the judge asking him, among other things, “If you had been living in Nazi Germany in the thirties, would you have written such a story?” Strong stuff. Nathan, however, is devoted more than anything to truthfulness and art and refuses to take responsibility for the feelings of his family and to take on the weight of history which they are trying to impose upon him.
Estranged from his father, he seeks out a substitute in one Emanual Lonoff, a successful, middle-aged Jewish-American writer. Citing his published stories and his magazine profile, he writes to Lonoff, inviting himself because he happens to be in the neighborhood staying at a writer’s colony in upstate New York. His girlfriend has left him, his family questioning his morals, he seeks the approval from a spiritual father, a fellow writer. He gets far more than he bargained for.
Lonoff lives a quiet life in The Berkshires with his wife of thirty-five years, Hope. Also visiting on the same weekend as Nathan is is the beautiful but mysterious Amy Bellette, Lonoff’s former student. There is tension in the house. While never explicitly stated, it is more than hinted at that Bellette is a former lover of Lonoff’s. There are no doubts about in long suffering Hope’s mind.
Lonoff receives Nathan warmly, but still holds him at arm’s length. The wisdom and affirmation that Nathan is seeking is meted out in tiny doses. Like the writing that Nathan admires, Lonoff’s words are spare and while as an artist he reveals truths fearlessly, in life he is guarded. He describes his approach to writing:
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.
Given Nathan’s romantic notions at the time about the noble cause of literature and art, that’s a little disappointing. And yet, that’s pretty much what writing is. For Hope, however, this describes her life with Lonoff as one of enforced solitude, and she’s had about enough of it. That, along with the presence of Amy, brings about a crisis in the marriage and a confrontation that Nathan gets to witness.
Nathan, in the meantime, has fallen in love with Miss Ballette, or at least who he imagines her to be, none other than Anne Frank. Her age is right, her look is right, and her background is unknown. If only she would marry him, he could take revenge on his critics who attack his anti-Semitism. Sadly, she is only Amy, not Anne, and well he tells her she looks like Anne Frank, she reacts with indifference.
The life Lonoff lives, devoted to his art, just as Nathan desires for himself, is not without its costs. The costs are paid not just by the writer, but also by the people in his life. In the end, at the end of the tumultuous weekend, Lonoff’s knowing evaluation of Nathan is both praising of his talent but also a warning about the life he is choosing for himself:
“I’ll be curious to see how we all come out someday. It could be an interesting story. You’re not so nice and polite in your fiction. . . . You’re a different person.”
It’s impossible to read The Ghost Writer without thinking of Roth himself. The setting of the story is in the same timeframe as when Roth’s career was beginning, at it was Roth’s unflinching portrayal, the the good and the not so good, of Jewish-American life that brought him both fame and controversy, first with Goodbye, Columbus, and then Portnoy’s Complaint. The Ghost Writer was written on the other side of the fame and controversy and is imbued with the wisdom of a life having been lived. The tone is genuinely wistful and, as a truth teller, Roth is willing to own up to the flaws, vanity, and shallowness of his twenty-three year-old self. Among the larger themes of all of Roth’s work is the two-edged sword of heritage. We are a nation of immigrants and while we attempt to purge ourselves from whatever identity that defines our ancestors, there are also times when the heritage that haunts is also the heritage that comforts us. In The Ghost Writer, Roth shows us the birth of that dichotomy.
The Ghost Writer was selected by the Pulitzer committee for fiction for the prize in 1980, but the Pulitzer committee overrode the decision and instead gave the award to Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. It’s hard to imagine two books more different in style, subject and sheer heft. Thirty years later, it’s hard to say anything about the comparative merits of the two books other than, “Wow, what year that was.”
For more articles in this series, see “The Art of the Novella.”
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