Philip Roth’s House of Fiction

Michael Mason

  • The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth
    Cape, 180 pp, £4.95

The Ghost Writer is Philip Roth’s best novel yet. Certainly it is his most ingenious. But this familiar way of putting things may contain a mistake, a mistake which is part of the subject-matter of Roth’s book. ‘Best novel yet’ implies a future of prosperous activity which may be barmecidal. The novelist-hero of Henry James’s story ‘The Middle Years’ is amused by the view that his latest novel is ‘the best thing he has done yet’: it ‘made such a grand avenue of the future’. This story is alluded to in detail in The Ghost Writer and is structurally as well as thematically related to it. James’s title is lightly parodic. It is meant to bring into question the habit of mind which goes on perceiving each of a novelist’s mature productions as belonging to an interim or provisional stage of his career. James’s hero dies soon after the publication of ‘the best thing he has done yet’. His middle years abruptly become his last period.

It is exactly 20 years since Roth published his first novel, Goodbye Columbus. He has written eight others since. Admirers will want at least as many more, but in the new novel he seems to be suggesting that he has already offered them the makings of a whole career. He may even be giving an intimation of reduced activity in the future, of a last period already reached. The trouble with trying to think of Roth’s production so far as a whole achievement is that it has been unusually varied, kicking off in almost as many directions as there have been novels. Hence there is nothing that can accurately be called the Roth style, or even the Roth way of organising a book. Portnoy’s Complaint is probably widely thought of as representative in its subject-matter, but mucous membrane has been the staple of only three, at most, of Roth’s novels. He has often concentrated on Jewish Americans – but so have the members of a whole school of post-war American novelists.

Now, with The Ghost Writer, Roth has set off on yet another tack. In particular there is a strictness and complexity in its arrangement which is new. The novel is short and its primary subject-matter tightly constrained, but from this a series of pendants or branches springs with remarkable fluency and suggestiveness. Only a few hours elapse in the narrative. Nathan Zuckerman, the young author of some well-received short stories, spends an evening, night and morning at the New England home of a reclusive elder writer he esteems, E.I. Lonoff. The dates and other details of Nathan’s career tally with Roth’s own. Lonoff’s speciality has been meticulous, wry, anti-heroic tales of Jewish American life – and, because the whole story is a reminiscence, we can be told that his ‘dourest’ writing and his ‘brief period of literary glory’ will occur a few years after Nathan’s visit. This aside, with its evident relation to the Henry James story which is to form a larger pendant, is an early example of the novel’s special disposition of material.

There are also two women at the farm: Amy Bellette, a creative-writing student of Lonoff’s, whom Nathan overhears in the night trying to seduce or re-seduce the writer, and Lonoff’s self-effacing, depressed, bitter wife, who twice makes a scene in front of the young guest. The surface quality, partly naked and partly inscrutable, of such a domestic mess as it presents itself to an outsider is very truly registered. And there is excellent comedy in Nathan’s response to all this – with his awed shyness of Lonoff, his literary big-headedness and then the almost hysterical embarrassment at being a witness of ‘scenes’. The Richard Benjamin of Goodbye Columbus could walk straight into the part.

There are no other notable actions. The rest of the novel’s interest lies in the ramifying material. There is the Henry James story, which Nathan reads during the night. He is also very preoccupied about a recent rupture with his father, of which he gives a comic and poignant description together with a summary of the short story of Nathan’s which has caused the quarrel. There is something a bit uncanny about the depth – story within a story – to which the reader gets embedded at this point in a plain digression from the main narrative. But this is nothing to the uncanniness Roth achieves in his second excursion through Nathan’s thoughts.

In Chapter Three, Nathan imagines a biography for Amy Bellette. At first it’s deliberately not made clear if this imagining is an event in the time-scheme of the narrative at all; later it appears that it happens in the night after he has overheard Amy begging Lonoff to kiss her breasts. Nathan’s fantasy about Amy is that she is herself a fantasist, and that she imagines herself to be none other than Anne Frank (in the interlocking fashion of the novel, Anne Frank has earlier been extolled by Nathan’s father as the ideal Jewish author). The reader is extraordinarily disconcerted when the narrative returns to the real Amy the next morning. It’s very hard to make the effort to remember that Amy has fantasised her identity with Anne Frank and that this fantasy is in turn an invention of Nathan’s – as if Roth wished to show that the human mind cannot keep on top of fictions if they multiply sufficiently. This novel about fiction-writers stops referring to them, and takes time off to give the reader a demonstration of fictionality in a powerful and disorienting way.

The complexity of this short, curiously-organised book can be estimated by thinking of the various ways in which its title might be applied. Among the ‘ghost writers’ are Anne Frank; Lonoff (who is dead by the time Nathan writes his reminiscence, who even alive is allegedly ‘rejecting life’, and has only once been photographed in public); the various authors, such as James, who haunt the text; Nathan, because he is ‘ghosting’ these and other writers he admires (including even Anne Frank, for Nathan wishes to write about the atmosphere of ‘exclusion and enclosure’ in Jewish America); and Amy, who as a writer is a phantasm of Nathan’s making.

This is admittedly a very bookish book. James’s ‘The Middle Years’ lies behind it not only as a study of the notion of a literary career but also as an arrangement of personnel: there are two men in it (one the novelist, one his admirer) and two women whose emotional claims become distracting. Chapter Two of The Ghost Writer is called ‘Nathan Dedalus’, and is full of connections with Joyce. It contains the summary of the short story that has offended Nathan’s father, which seems to be a very Dubliners-like study of petty ambition among Nathan’s own relatives. There is also, in Joycean fashion, a list, and a carefully transcribed letter from a Jewish judge, which is damagingly pompous but not straightforwardly or implausibly so. And of course these allusions by imitation make the chapter additionally Joycean.

For me, this is an acceptable bookishness, more so than the bookishness of the novel’s characters and attitudes. Nathan, Lonoff, and, it seems, their creator, are undiscriminatingly idolatrous of all literary forbears: Kafka, Gogol, James, Dostoevsky, Thomas Mann, Chekhov etc. There is something very American in this comprehensive deference to literary celebrity. It’s true that all these writers deserve great respect, but a bit too good to be true that nobody, in Roth’s world, is ill-judging enough to conceive a dislike for one of them. The British fashion has been different. Many of our novelists have articulated pet, no doubt indefensible, dislikes for certain other writers. Roth knows his Joyce, but it is hard to imagine him echoing Joyce’s disdain for Dickens. Important novels by Fielding, Jane Austen and Thackeray were produced in reaction to kinds of fiction the authors found risible or disagreeable. There is no American novel of importance which has been propelled by the urge to parody. Reaction can be one way in which novelists find their bearings; conversely, this may partly explain why Philip Roth never seems to have found his.

The connections with Joyce can raise another point of difference between British and American literary culture. Nathan Zuckerman is meant to be like Stephen Dedalus, but the symmetry of Roth/Jewish Newark and Joyce/Catholic Dublin is highly approximate. When Joyce returned as a writer to the Irish background he had so severely repudiated it was without partisanship – or as nearly so as a man can achieve. With Roth, and others, criticisms of Jewish American culture are not supposed to betoken the writer’s weakened solidarity with that culture. Indeed, they have the effect of drawing attention to this solidarity and, in the accompanying motifs of guilt, reaffirming it. Anxieties about rejected or replaced fathers, and about the licitness of intimacy with the father, are, of course, present in Joyce, but in The Ghost Writer they are raw and insistent. Even the father of Anne Frank figures in Nathan’s thoughts as a focus of pain.

On this side of the Atlantic, the Judaic consciousness is so attenuated that a Briton may easily not know whether he or she, let alone an acquaintance, has Jewish ancestry. Uncertainty about such facts is often greeted with incredulity by Americans. This sounds like a reason for smugness about prejudice in Britain, which it is not. But it can be baffling for a Briton that Jewish Americans who seem to suffer from no economic or political stigma, and have relinquished all the social and religious tokens of Judaism, should remain intensely conscious of their origins. In literary terms, the British reader must perhaps always admit to puzzlement that the single, or major, point of consistency in a writer such as Philip Roth, at least in his early and middle years, has been the Jewish American setting of his novels.