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 very young writer of several published stories, he left an artists’ colony in Vermont to seek the spiritual guidance of the reclusive E.I. Lonoff, a very much older writer, America’s “first Russian writer,” “the Jew who got away.”
As the snow comes down, young Nathan and ironic Lonoff sit by the fire and talk literature. In the kitchen, Mrs. Lonoff, a New England Yankee, does whatever New England Yankee women married to eminent and gloomy Jewish writers do in kitchens. In the study, a beautiful young woman sorts Lonoff’s papers, which are to go to Harvard. Nathan decides that the young woman is Lonoff’s daughter; he also decides to fall in love with her. She is, in fact, Amy Bellette, an unspecified European, a displaced person, perhaps a survivor of the camps, brought by Lonoff to the United States after the war, and one of the best writing students he ever had at a nearby college that is probably Benington.
Amy leaves. The Lonoffs and Nathan have dinner. Mrs. Lonoff has a tantrum, breaks a wine glass, suggests that Lonoff “chuck me out” and live, instead, with Amy: “I cannot bear having a loyal, dignified husband who has no illusions about himself one second more!” She goes to bed. Nathan and Lonoff return to the fire and talk some more literature: Kafka, of course, and Isaac Babel, and Felix Abravanel, another “Jewish-American” writer who, with his many wives and his hunger for publicity, is the very opposite of Lonoff. Lonoff has renounced life for art.
What sort of art? Stories
in which the tantalized hero does not move to act at all—the tiniest impulse toward amplitude or self-surrender, let alone intrigue or adventure, preemptorily extinguished by the ruling triumvirate of Sanity, Responsibility, and Self-Respect, assisted handily by their devoted underlings: the timetable, the rainstorm, the headache, the busy signal, the traffic jam, and, most loyal of all, the last-minute doubt.
More snow falls. Nathan is prevailed on to spend the night in Lonoff’s study, where he masturbates and reads Henry James and contemplates his problem. His problem is that his father, a Newark pharmacist who has always encouraged Nathan in his writing, disapproves of a new story that he feels will confirm “all our good Christian friends” in their anti-Semitism. His father has gone so far as to enlist a Jewish judge in Newark, who once helped Nathan get into college, to dissuade Nathan from his reckless course. The judge and his wife have sent Nathan a questionnaire. Sample question: “Can you honestly say that there is anything in your short story that would not warm the heart of a Julius Streicher or a Joseph Goebbels?” On the whole, Nathan would prefer another father, or, at the very least, the sanction of Lonoff to pursue his art.
Amy returns. Lonoff joins her in her bedroom. Nathan eavesdrops on them by standing on Lonoff’s desk with the volume of Henry James as a footstool. Amy offers Lonoff her body, beginning with the breasts. Lonoff refuses. There is a Jimmy Durante routine that I don’t believe for a minute because it’s not Lonoff; it’s the Philip Roth who professes affection for Henny Youngman and Tiny Tim.
And Nathan fantasizes that Amy is really Anne Frank; that Anne Frank somehow survived and came to the United States and found out she had written a best-selling book turned into a play and realized that if she revealed herself, even to her own father, her witness would be sullied. And he, Nathan, will marry her and introduce her to his relatives, and what will his relatives be able to say about his Jewishness when he is the boy who married Anne Frank?
The following morning…. The following morning is quite wonderful, and I don’t want to give it away. Having begun The Ghost Writer in the manner of Chekhov, Roth finishes it off with a flourish of Tolstoy.
Is Lonoff a combination of Bernard Malamud and I.B. Singer, with the dust of Henry James? Is Abravanel—of whom Lonoff observes, “It’s no picnic up there in the egosphere”—a combination of Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer? Is Nathan really the Philip of twenty years ago, misunderstood in New Jersey because of stories like “Epstein,” “Defender of the Faith,” and “Eli the Fanatic”? Is Quahsay Yaddo? For that matter, was Theodore Solotaroff a model for Paul Herz in Letting Go? Do Henry James and Kafka care?
These are not interesting questions. What matters more is the music. The Ghost Writer is an odd sonata, as if Mahler had tried his hand at a bit of Mozart and just couldn’t resist bringing in one of his inevitable marching bands. Anne Frank, indeed. We will return to her.
But listen. Young Nathan on a winter Sunday walk with his father has been hearing what he doesn’t want to hear. He is anxious to escape. His father tells him: “You are a good and kind and considerate young man. You are not somebody who writes this kind of story and then pretends it’s the truth.” And Nathan replies: “I am the kind of person who writes this kind of story!” His father pleads: “You’re not.” But
I hopped onto the bus, and then behind me the pneumatic door, with its hard rubber edge, swung shut with what I took to be an overly appropriate thump, a symbol of the kind you leave out of fiction…. And what I saw, when I looked out to wave good-bye for the winter, was my smallish, smartly dressed father—turned out for my visit in a new “fingertip” car coat that matched the coffee-toned slacks and the checkered peaked cap, and wearing, of course, the same silver-rimmed spectacles, the same trim little mustache that I had grabbed at from the crib; what I saw was my bewildered father, alone on the darkening street-corner by the park that used to be our paradise, thinking himself and all of Jewry gratuitously disgraced and jeopardized by my inexplicable betrayal.
That’s painful music. So is Lonoff’s wit. So is the wine glass smashed by Lonoff’s despairing wife, whose name is Hope. The movements contrast; the coda is coming. One thinks of Roth at his high-strung typewriter, while the jackets of his books stare down from their frames on the living room wall in Connecticut. He is going great. He’s in perfect control. The “I” for once is looking at other people and allowing them to make the interesting noises. This time, for sure, Irving Howe will have to say he’s sorry.
But impulse sidewhelms him: Anne Frank. He has used her before, in My Life as a Man, as, over and over again, he has used Kafka and psychiatrists and Newark. Still, he hasn’t used her as a sex object, as a wet dream, as a joke on his family. The chutzpa of it, appropriating the Ophelia of the death camps for his dark, libidinal purposes, his angry punch line…. He just can’t help himself. “The delicate boy with the dirty mouth,” as Wilfrid Sheed described him somewhat admiringly, strikes again. In Roth’s Franklin Library Memorial Swimming Pool, Irving Howe has the bends.
A certain courage is required. Take that, Hadassah!
Well. It seems to me that The Ghost Writer is less “about” the surprises that the vocation of writing brings than it is “about” fathers and ghosts. Except for Anne Frank, the ghosts and the fathers are pretty much the same. They include Kafka and Babel, Henry James and James Joyce, Tolstoy and Flaubert, not to mention Singer, Malamud, Mailer, Bellow, Howe, and Newark. In seeking sanction and a role model, Nathan will be disappointed and relieved: free.
Lonoff, as if Henry James could imagine being Jewish, represents “Purity. Serenity. Simplicity. Seclusion.” He also represents, turning around his sentences instead of his life, repression, deferral, anality. He is a sponge dry of possibility. Abravanel,
the writer who found irresistible all vital and dubious types, not excluding the swindlers of both sexes who trampled upon the large hearts of his optimistic, undone heroes; the writer who could locate the hypnotic core in the most devious American self-seeker and lead him to disclose, in spirited locutions all his own, the depths of his conniving soul; the writer whose absorption with “the grand human discord” made his every paragraph a little novel in itself, every page packed tight as Dickens or Dostoevsky with the latest news of manias, temptations, passions, and dreams, with mankind aflame with feeling—well…
according to Nathan, “in the flesh he gave me the impression of being out to lunch.”
Nathan, whether or not he is Philip, is liberated to become whatever he desires: a breast, a penis, or a professor. If any professors are still listening, I would suggest that The Ghost Writer is “about” symbolic parricide.
This, of course, is a fantasy, like Anne Frank. Nevertheless, the method is the subject.
Literature obsesses Roth: the best pages of Reading Myself and Others are devoted to the others; and in his novels he will abandon his music, as Tolstoy abandoned his narrative, to lecture us on Mishima, Gombrowicz, and Genet, in addition to Kafka. So, I am convinced, do his critics obsess him, although he denies it in the pages of The New York Times: they insist that he be Lonoff or Abravanel or Harry Golden. They accuse him of being a Tiny Tim with unwarranted, and perverse, talent.
There’s nothing wrong with an obsession with literature, even if it results in a sagging The Breast. It also results in such stories as ” ‘I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting’; or, Looking at Kafka.” But there is something wrong with an obsession with critics: it brings out the David Susskind in Roth, and messes up the minds of some of his novels. Which was more important to Portnoy, “the settling of scores” or “the pursuit of dreams”?
Howe liked Goodbye, Columbus, with reservations: “a unique voice, a secure rhythm, a distinctive subject…ferociously exact,” causing “a squirm of recognition,” although he didn’t like Roth’s “mimetic revenge,” his scoring of “points,” his exploitation of subjects as “targets.” Much later, of course, Howe would conclude that Roth lacked “literary tact” as well as good faith; that Roth was tendentious, narcissistic, and full of “free-floating contempt and animus,” “unfocused hostility,” and “unexamined depression.”
Norman Podhoretz, back in 1962 when he was not quite as sanguine as he is these days about the perfection of America, complained that Roth endowed “the present condition…with the status of an inexorable fate against which there is very little point in struggling.” According to this version of Podhoretz, “a particular form of economic organization and a particular set of political arrangements” can be, and maybe ought to be, changed.
Alfred Kazin complained of Portnoy that Roth wrote “without the aid of general ideas,” which may be the same thing Howe meant by accusing him of a “thin personal culture,” or Leslie Fiedler meant in saying he was a master of “the novel with minimum inwardness.” Howe and Fiedler were closer to the crux when Howe noticed the way Roth was a bully in his stories and when Fiedler observed that “their terror and irony alike remain a little abstract—fading into illustrations of propositions out of Riesman….”
One of the reasons that The Ghost Writer is so likable is that it is less a prisoner of ideas than any other fiction of Roth’s since Letting Go. Form suggests substance; silence is allowed. One wants to hear more from Hope and Amy; one is obliged to imagine. Roth isn’t proving anything; the multitude that he contains includes a trapdoor. The guillotine will be named later. But he hasn’t gotten out of the library.
I say this with respect. One goes up and down on Roth. Accused of wallowing in the muck with Letting Go, he gives up some amplitude, a greed. Asked to acknowledge historical contexts beyond “the ambitious Id,” he delivers the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the Holocaust. Convicted of assimilation on the evidence of his demonstrable enthusiasm for baseball and movies—see The Great American Novel and remember that he once reviewed films for The New Republic—he omits baseball and movies from subsequent fantasies. He is listening to the wrong people, which means he hasn’t killed his father yet.
According to David Susskind, “The direction my work has taken since Portnoy’s Complaint can in part be accounted for by my increased responsiveness to, and respect for, what is unsocialized in me.” And, he explains, Gabe Wallach, Alexander Portnoy, and David Kepesh are “three stages of a single explosive projectile that is fired into the barrier that forms one boundary of the individual’s identity and experience: that barrier of personal inhibition, ethical conviction, and plain, old monumental fear beyond which lies the moral and psychological unknown.”
Swell. But what we haven’t heard about yet is what, beyond the barrier and the boundary, the Norman O. Brownies are doing with their unknowns. We watch, instead, Roth outbox his shadows, his fathers, the ghosts of the quarterlies and the seminar. Is Morris Dickstein right? Is Roth’s “extremity” something “unearned”? I don’t know, because I’ve been listening to the music. He should, however, abolish the shoulder he’s looking over. The ghosts took Anne Frank to Studio 54. His father will forgive the conventional political intelligence that messed up The Great American Novel and excreted Our Gang.
Listen, fathers and ghosts, Roth cares too much about you, and he’s only in his forties. He’s a kid.
This ends another scurrilous, destructive analysis that the New York literati despise writing about lewd duchesses.
October 25, 1979