A large part of the reason for the continuing democratic vigour of the American novel is that the great wave of Modernism was no more than a ripple by the time it reached New England’s shores. American writers simply did not have the time or energy to spare for all that self-scrutiny and existential doubt, that Eliotian difficulty. There was a job to be done, in that the young nation was still engaged in forging itself – as, indeed, it still is – and novelists saw themselves as the chief chroniclers of that process, in full awareness of the ambiguity of the verb ‘to forge’. As Norman Mailer used vociferously to demand, who will analyse the analysts, if not the artist?
Philip Roth, like John Updike, is a survivor from the glory days of the heavyweights, the Hemingways and the Faulkners and the Bellows. His first book, the story collection Goodbye, Columbus, published in 1959, won the National Book Award, a notable achievement for a tyro in his twenties. The two novels that followed, Letting Go and When She Was Good, cemented his critical reputation, but it was not until the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969 – at the close of the Age of Aquarius, did we but know it – that he attained the worldwide renown, or infamy, as some might say, which he continues to enjoy and, if we are to believe The Anatomy Lesson and The Counterlife, to chafe under.
Portnoy’s Complaint was the kind of outrageous success that America specialises in conferring now and then on a writer. The novels featuring Roth’s alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman (a decidedly unsweet fellow despite his name), make mordant and painful comedy out of the experience of literary fame. Zuckerman’s scandalous novel Carnovsky, which like its model Portnoy’s Complaint has broken the literary bank, brings him millions of readers and zillions of dollars, causes people to shout admiringly or scream abuse at him in the street, and provokes his staid brother Henry to accuse him of having ruined their parents’ lives by holding them up to public ridicule in the novel’s thinly disguised portraits of them and their world. In vain Zuckerman protests the innocence of his artistic intentions: ‘Life and art are distinct, thought Zuckerman; what could be clearer? Yet the distinction is wholly elusive. That writing is an act of imagination seems to perplex and infuriate everyone.’
The consequences of Portnoy’s success – from accusations of anti-semitism to endless talkshow jokes – seem to have shocked its author, leading partly, perhaps, to the nervous breakdown which, if the peculiar Operation Shylock (1993) is to be credited, he suffered in the late 1980s. Yet fame was the spur for almost all the work of his middle period, including what is unquestionably his masterpiece, and certainly his most intricate and subtle creation, The Counterlife, published in 1986. The book is, among many other things, an extended, furious, self-lacerating and, despite the indecorousness of the language (Roth the novelist can sound like a man at the next table in a smart restaurant who suddenly starts shouting obscenities), old-fashioned meditation on what it takes, in blood, sweat and tears, to be an artist. As Zuckerman/Roth – let us call him/them from now on Z/R – acknowledges, the blood, sweat etc are all too often other people’s. Here is the long-suffering Henry Zuckerman meditating on his brother’s fictional betrayals of his family: ‘All the blood relatives of an articulate artist are in a very strange bind, not only because they find that they are “material”, but because their own material is always articulated for them by someone else who, in his voracious, voyeuristic using-up of all their lives, gets there first but doesn’t always get it right.’
Z/R himself is no less sparing of the artist. In one of the alternative versions of Zuckerman’s and his brother’s lives in The Counterlife – the novel is very intricate – Henry encounters at his brother’s funeral a mysterious, bearded man who eulogises the dead novelist with characteristically lip-smacking Rothian vehemence:
Here is a writer who broke taboos, fucked around, indiscreet, stepped outside that stuff deliberately … This unsatisfiable, suspect, quarrelsome novelist, this ego driven to its furthest extremes … This insidious, unregenerate defiler, this irritant in the Jewish bloodstream, making people uncomfortable and angry by looking with a mirror up his own asshole, really despised by a lot of smart people, offensive to every possible lobby.
Is it surprising that a novelist who would write of a novelist, even a fictional one, in these terms should be liable to nervous collapse?
At the end of the novel, when another alternative life has come to grief, literally and metaphorically, Zuckerman writes a long letter – Roth is an unashamedly traditional novelist, despite the postmodern devices he occasionally toys with – to his recently, and suddenly, estranged English wife, who is pregnant with their child but whose undenied anti-semitism, as Zuckerman sees it, makes it impossible for him to remain with her. This letter, which opens with an image of Balzac calling out for his characters from his deathbed, is at once a confession and a vindication of Z/R’s, or perhaps in this case just R’s, sense of himself as a man and, more important, as an artist, in all his negative capability:
All I can tell you with certainty is that I … have no self, and that I am unwilling or unable to perpetrate upon myself the joke of a self… . What I have instead is a variety of impersonations I can do, and not only of myself – a troupe of players that I have internalised, a permanent company of actors that I can call upon when a self is required, an ever-evolving stock of pieces and parts that forms my repertoire. But I certainly have no self independent of my imposturing, artistic efforts to have one. Nor would I want one. I am a theatre and nothing more than a theatre.
The Counterlife is the most ‘European’ of Roth’s novels, and the tone of this passage will strike readers of Thomas Mann or Franz Kafka as familiar, perhaps even jadedly so. Yet the intensity of the commitment to Keatsian negative capability is remarkable in a writer so insistently loyal to the American novel’s covenant with quotidian, lived life. It is no small part of Roth’s achievement as a writer that he can make such a declaration as the one above and seem not to be in any way indulging in dandified literary navel-gazing. Zuckerman’s lack of an essential self matters, to him, and to us, in the everyday world in which we spend far more time living than reading.
Roth’s work since The Counterlife has shown a marked artistic decline. Too often in more recent books, such as Sabbath’s Theatre and The Dying Animal, what used to be passion has become mere stridency. Roth’s discovery of Death, which in the later work has largely replaced Sex as the driving obsession, has been in ways bad for him; it has made him by turns excitable and sullen, as young boys are during puberty. The novels of the middle period had a measured grace, despite all the shouting, that in the 1990s was sacrificed in favour of a relentless eschatological rage or, in the case of American Pastoral and The Plot against America, a muted, post-Orwellian dystopianism. Certainly Sabbath’s Theatre and The Dying Animal display unflagging energy. Anthony Burgess reports somewhere a schoolmate’s recommendation to him of the plays of Shakespeare – ‘It’s all fighting and fucking tarts!’ – and the same might be said, with less enthusiasm, of Roth in extremis.
These are not the kinds of thing one cares to say of a writer as richly talented as Roth, and not many, it seems, are willing to say them. Roth is one of those writers whom book reviewers, and even some critics, continue doggedly to puff up, like stockholders shutting their ears to a profits warning, and sure enough, the rave notices and the literary prizes have continued to tumble in. Who would grudge them? The work of his middle years was frequently magnificent, as anyone will acknowledge who even dips into the Library of America’s new single-volume edition of four of the Zuckerman books: whether God should bless America is problematic, as Americans would say, but He should surely bless its Library.Something happened, however, some slackening occurred, when Roth stopped writing directly about himself – himself as a literary and not as an autobiographical subject, that is. Of Exit Ghost, then, the latest and, we are told, last Zuckerman novel, much was expected.
The novel is a sequel to The Ghost Writer, published in 1979, in which we first encountered Nathan Zuckerman, remembering, in his mid-forties, the self that he had been some twenty years earlier, a newly published short-story writer, ‘like many a Bildungsroman hero before me, already contemplating my own massive Bildungsroman’, arriving in a December dusk at a farmhouse in the Berkshires, the home of his idol, the Jewish-American writer E.I. Lonoff. This character, based on Henry Roth (no relation, so far as one knows), author of the long-neglected novel of New York Jewish ghetto life, Call It Sleep (1934), had ‘married the scion of an old New England family and 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’. Young Zuckerman has made this Winterreise in the hope of receiving the blessing of the elderly and reclusive master. The snowbound weekend that he spends amid the Lonoff ménage teaches him many things, but few that he would have expected.
‘Zuckerman,’ Z/R writes in Zuckerman Unbound, ‘was no enemy of laughs, as the fans would attest.’ However, like all great comic writers, Roth gives the appearance of not finding his own humour humorous, which of course adds greatly to our mirth. The Ghost Writer is funny in that studied, sly and hapless way of which middle-period Roth was such an adept. The tone of his shtick in the previous Zuckerman books was that of one of the more lugubrious, latter-day stand-up comedians, such as Bill Murray or Jerry Seinfeld, or even Robert De Niro’s funny-unfunny, mother-haunted Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy. Lonoff himself is a wonderfully comic creation, morose and unforthcoming yet vividly alive on the page. At the close of the book his long-suffering wife walks out (‘I’m going to Boston! I’m going to Europe! It’s too late to touch me now!’), leaving her infuriatingly dedicated hunger-artist of a husband in the care of Amy Bellette, the young woman who has been acting as secretary, muse and, most likely, mistress to the great man. The scene is an opportunity for Roth to indulge in one of his virtuoso passages of end-of-tether comic invective:
Let her serve as the backdrop for your thoughts for 35 years. Let her see how noble and heroic you are by the 27th draft. Let her cook you wonderful meals and light candles for your dinner. Let her get everything ready to make you happy and then see the look on your stone face when you come in at night and sit down at the table. A surprise for dinner? Oh, my girl, that is merely his due for a miserable day of bad writing.
Z/R’s seriousness about the art of writing, and his reverence for writers, including himself, is one of his most marked and endearing traits. As with Beckett, as with Kafka, so with Z/R: everything is only something when it is transmuted into words. ‘The burden isn’t that everything has to be a book,’ he writes in The Anatomy Lesson. ‘It’s that everything can be a book. And doesn’t count as life until it is.’ As Exit Ghost opens, Zuckerman is returning to New York, for treatment for prostate cancer, after spending 11 years alone as an artist-anchorite ‘in a small house on a dirt road in the deep country’, without a phone or a computer or a DVD player, just, as ever, writing, writing, writing. Now, back in the clang and snarl of the city once again, he feels himself to be ‘a revenant, a man who’d cut himself off from sustained human contact and its possibilities yielding to the illusion of starting again’. Now he quickly has three encounters which bring him bang up against life again, life in all its disorder, silliness and tragic grandeur.
First, in the cancer hospital, he chances upon Amy Bellette, now an old woman dying of a brain tumour. Then he answers an advertisement in the personals column of the New York Review of Books, placed by a young couple straight out of a Woody Allen movie, who want to swap their house and flee post-9/11 New York for the comparative safety of the countryside; on impulse, Zuckerman offers them his house, on condition that they move out straight away. And finally, after re-establishing contact with Amy Bellette, he finds himself entangled with Richard Kliman, a ruthless young scholar who is writing E.I. Lonoff’s biography, in which he will reveal the scandal buried far in his subject’s past which he believes is the key to Lonoff’s work. Which reminds us of the incestuous relationship with his sister that Henry Roth admitted to in his old age. Exit Ghost is a short book with a lot of plot.
Zuckerman, impotent and incontinent due to the cancer, falls hopelessly and helplessly in love with the beautiful young woman, Jamie Logan, who wants to leave her New York apartment. For Z/R, the Eternal Feminine is a force as potentially redemptive as it was for Faust, and the account of Zuckerman’s impossible pursuit of Jamie is genuinely moving, as well as subversively funny. It reminds us, as it is surely meant to, of young Nathan’s brief infatuation with Jamie’s almost-homonym, Amy Bellette, at the Lonoff house in the mountains all those years before.
It has always been Z/R’s intention to shock and outrage as many sections of society as possible, and in The Ghost Writer he wrought a mischievous revenge on those in the Jewish community who had execrated him after Portnoy, by having young Nathan fantasise that Amy is in fact that quintessential Holocaust icon, Anne Frank, secretly escaped from the Nazis and living incognito in rural New England. Kliman the would-be biographer tries to win Zuckerman’s support by comparing him to his idol, speaking of ‘Lonoff’s final struggle with his impurity. His long-delayed effort to let in the repellent. You know all about that. Let the repellent in! That’s your achievement, Mr Zuckerman.’ As it is, so Z/R seems to suggest, Philip Roth’s achievement also.
Exit Ghost is a curiously unsatisfying novel. It is a ‘late work’ in the sense in which Edward Said writes of Ibsen’s last plays, which ‘suggest an angry and disturbed artist for whom the medium of drama provides an occasion to stir up more anxiety, tamper irrevocably with the possibility of closure, and leave the audience more perplexed and unsettled than before’. Though Z/R is still, like Lonoff, a master of ‘his distinctly laconic brand of vernacular fluency’, in this book he displays the ageing artist’s impatience with mere form, mere style. Towards the end Z/R launches on an extended and entirely irrelevant paean to the memory of George Plimpton, something which, loving though it is, would surely have embarrassed Plimpton himself, and which skews artistically the closing pages. There are also long passages in which Z/R abandons narrative prose and writes dramatic mini-dialogues, which serve mainly to irritate the reader, or at any rate this reader.
Despite its manifest flaws, however, this ‘desperate story of unreasonable wishes’ has an urgency to it, a sense of desperate measures precipitately entered on, that make it, at the least, an exciting read. In a final dialogue Jamie Logan asks Z/R what it is he has given up his life for, to which he answers, ‘I didn’t know I was giving it up. I did what I did, and I didn’t know,’ which is his distinctly laconic version of Henry James’s ‘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.’ The price of the artistic life is high, for the artist and for those drawn into the madness of his lifelong project, yet it is a price willingly paid. In Exit Ghost Z/R poses himself an essential question and answers it with only the lightest of hesitations:
But isn’t one’s pain quotient shocking enough without fictional amplification, without giving things an intensity that is ephemeral in life and sometimes even unseen? Not for some. For some very, very few that amplification, evolving uncertainly out of nothing, constitutes their only assurance, and the unlived, the surmise, fully drawn in print on paper, is the life whose meaning comes to matter most.