Saturday, 3 November 2007

Enter Zuckerman

The Ghost Writer
by Philip Roth

Written in 1979 this is the novel that introduced the character of Nathan Zuckerman, considered by many to be Roth's alter ego. I first started reading Roth at the time of his superb 'American Trilogy' (I Married a Communist, American Pastoral, The Human Stain) all of which are narrated by Zuckerman. My worry was that reading a writer who was considered to be at the peak of his powers would lead to disappointment when I went back through his bibliography. Whilst there is no doubt that Roth has continued to grow as a writer there is so much to admire at various stages of his career and reading this slim volume there is so much to chew on and admire with the arrival of this seminal character in American fiction.

The novel depicts a night spent by the 23 year old Zuckerman at the house of his literary idol E.I.Lonoff (if Zuckerman is Roth then Lonoff is Bernard Malamud. Apparently). Also in the house with Lonoff and his wife Hope is a young student Amy Bellete who bears a striking resemblance to Anne Frank. Zuckerman is after a father figure after relations with his own have been strained by a story he has recently written. But in only 24 hours he gets a lot more than he bargained for. In the first section of the book the men discuss 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.

But the writer's life has left his wife at her wits end and provoked by the continued presence of Amy, Hope Lonoff hurls a wineglass at the wall after dinner and begs to be thrown out. After this scene and forced by the late hour and poor weather to stay the night in Lonoff's study Zuckerman relates to us how he has offended his father with a story drawn from his own family which seems to show Jews as greedy. Later in the novel he will come to realise that to be free to create the art he wishes he may have to sacrifice something. Whilst searching this study he comes accross a quotation form Henry James.

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.

Inspired by this we have the most extraordinary section of the book as Zuckerman imagines a whole new life for the young student upstairs that so resembles Anne Frank. It is this kind of invention that can make Roth so thrilling to read, written with such vigour and bravery. There is still a lot of early Roth humour here as well.

Virtuous reader, if you think that after intercourse all animals are sad, try masturbating on the daybed in E. I. Lonoff's study and see how you feel when it's over.

All in all it is a fascinating introduction to a character who has appeared in 9 books now and I can't wait to see how he has developed for his final appearance in Exit Ghost.


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