Fathers and Ghosts

The Ghost Writer

by Philip Roth
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 180 pp., $8.95

In the 768 pages of Edmund Wilson’s Letters on Literature and Politics, 1912-1972, there is a single mention of Philip Roth. Writing to the editors of this journal in 1964, Wilson complained about Roth’s review of James Baldwin’s play, Blues for Mr. Charlie: “Roth’s article seems to me one of those scurrilous pieces of destructive analysis that the New York literati like to write in order to make themselves feel better when some other writer has become popular and is producing work of obvious value.”

Yes. Now vee may perhaps to begin? No. When Roth gets his music right, as he does in The Ghost Writer, he is very good. And when he indulges his impulse to scandalize, as he also does in The Ghost Writer, he is very entertaining. “Of unknown duchesses lewd tales we tell,” Alexander Pope pointed out. But Anne Frank?

The trouble with reviewing The Ghost Writer a few weeks late is that Roth has already explained it for us. He is ever explaining. Like David Susskind, he can’t shut up. The Ghost Writer, he told readers of The New York Times, “is about the surprises that the vocation of writing brings,” just as My Life as a Man “is about the surprises that manhood brings” and The Professor of Desire is “about the surprises that desire brings.”

Elsewhere, in various essays and interviews collected into Reading Myself and Others, he has advised us that When She Was Good was about “the problematical nature of moral authority and of social restraint and regulation,” whereas Portnoy’s Complaint “was concerned with the comic side of the struggle between a hectoring superego and an ambitious id….” On the other hand, perhaps not: Portnoy, he says later on, “is about talking about yourself…. The method is the subject.” Likewise, “The comedy in The Great American Novel exists for the sake of no higher value than comedy itself; the redeeming value is not social or cultural reform, or moral instruction, but comic inventiveness. Destructive, or lawless, playfulness—and for the fun of it” (Roth’s italics).

This isn’t Nabokov’s ice-blue disdain for the academic ninnyhammers who went snorting after his truffles. Roth, instead, worries himself, as though a sick tooth needed tonguing. He is looking over his shoulder because somebody—probably Irving Howe—might be gaining on him: “This me who is me being me and no other!” as Tarnopol explained at the end of My Life as a Man.

Best, then, to try to ignore these verbal tags attached to the toes of the cadavers of bygone books. The art is elsewhere. If Roth was sincere with the readers of The New York Times—“When you publish a book, it’s the world’s book. The world edits it”—then he won’t mind another gloss on the book at least one of us thinks he wrote this time.

Nothing much happens in The Ghost Writer. Forty-three-year-old Nathan Zuckerman—Tarnopol’s alter ego in My Life as a Man—remembers back twenty years ago to a time when, as a…

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