At the beginning of Philip Roth’s 1979 novella The Ghost Writer, the twenty-three-year-old narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, tremulously approaches the secluded New England home of a famous but reclusive Jewish writer, E.I. Lonoff. Of this Lonoff we are told that he has long ago forsaken his urban, immigrant roots—the cultural soil from which, we are meant to understand, his vaguely Bashevis Singeresque fiction sprang—for “a clapboard farmhouse…at the end of an unpaved road twelve hundred feet up in the Berkshires.” Long out of circulation, he is considered comical by New York literary people for having “lived all these years ‘in the country’—that is to say, in the goyish wilderness of birds and trees where America began and long ago had ended.” Still, young Nathan, an aspiring novelist, admires Lonoff extravagantly, not only because of “the tenacity that had kept him writing his own kind of stories all that time,” but because
having been “discovered” and popularized, he refused all awards and degrees, declined membership in all honorary institutions, granted no public interviews, and chose not to be photographed, as though to associate his face with his fiction were a ridiculous irrelevancy.
A young man’s admiration; a young man’s perhaps self-congratulatory idealization of a figure who, it is all too clear, he would like one day to be.
If, thirty years ago, readers felt safe in identifying the ingenuous, ambitious, hugely talented Newark-born Nathan Zuckerman with his creator, anyone familiar with Roth’s recent biography will find it difficult not to identify the author today with Lonoff. Like the fictional writer, Roth is a novelist whose work is profoundly rooted in Jewishness (however much Jewishness may be questioned, berated, and rejected in it); like Lonoff, Roth has ended up living “in the country”—not far from the Berkshires, in fact (whence the elderly, ailing Nathan Zuckerman also eventually repairs, in a much later novel); as with Lonoff, the recent biography suggests an aversion, if not to honors and awards (of which Roth has many), then to the whirl of New York literary life, to the ridiculously irrelevant ephemera of being a major figure in the culture. A recent profile of Roth in The New York Times, timed to coincide with the publication this month of the short novel Everyman, his twenty-seventh book, makes a point of noting that the new book is one of the rare ones in which Roth has permitted an author photograph to appear.
And as with Lonoff, there is a sense of the literary lion become, suddenly, the lion in winter. There is, to my mind, a kind of caesura in the Roth corpus that falls exactly in the middle of the 1990s. The first half of the decade saw the publication of two novels that, between them, embody the major themes of Roth’s work. In 1993 Roth published the dazzling Operation Shylock, a brilliant parable about the meaning of identities Jewish, artistic, and cultural: in it, the narrator …