THE GHOST WRITER BY PHILIP ROTH

A friend of mine has recently broken up with his girlfriend, and I was telling him yesterday that it’s, y’know, not always a bad thing, that sometimes two people are simply not suited to each other. Those are  hardly profound words, I know, but they started me thinking about an ex of mine. The girl and I, it’s fair to say, near-hated each other. I like to think neither of us were/are bad people; it was just that there was something about our personalities that did not mesh, that meant that we could barely look at each other without wanting to poke the other person’s eyes out with the blunt end of an axe. It was an Isreali-Palestinian type of deal.

Anyway, one of our worst arguments was about whether it was a harmless impulse to want to meet famous people, or people of whom you are a fan. I said no; she said yes. To my mind, that impulse shows a lack of imagination, or ambition; it’s a weird kind of subjugation. I should make it clear that we were not discussing people networking or making contacts, e.g. people who want to meet a famous musician because they themselves want to break into the business, but rather the desire to meet someone purely because of who they are and what they have created/achieved. It doesn’t make any sense to me. I want no part of it. Not even Proust? she asked. No, not even Proust. What would I say? So, he wrote a great book. Big deal. He was probably as boring and conceited and immature as the rest of us. Talk to Proust! I hardly ever talk to my own mother.

The Ghost Writer begins with a young Nathan Zuckerman arriving at the house of his hero, the writer E.I. Lonoff. To some extent he belongs to that category of people who want to use a famous person in order to get ahead, because, while being a fan of Lonoff, what he appears to be seeking is a mentor. Zuckerman is a short-story writer, has had one or two things praised and published and he sees in Lonoff an opportunity to further his career. Indeed, it seems as though Lonoff wasn’t even his first choice for the role, having first approached Felix Abravanel, another renowned author, but found the vital, vibrant Felix too interested in his own personality, his own still-flourishing life, to find satisfaction in helping a boy at the start of his.

On this level the book reminded me very much of Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow, a writer who was, ironically enough, one of Roth’s own heroes. Lonoff like Humbold is essentially an old man, slightly embittered maybe [more so Humboldt], but certainly weary and dourly charismatic. In both books this older, wiser, more experienced man dispenses wisdom [life and literary] to his young charge. However, as the story progresses, as we get to know more about Nathan, and Lonoff and his wife and his student Amy, we come to realise that Roth’s novel is far more than merely a rewrite of Bellow’s, that is has great depth and richness. Indeed, it is a more profound read than Humboldt’s Gift itself.

It is perhaps half way into the book that Nathan tells a story about a story [The Ghost Writer was written during Roth’s meta phase] he wrote and mailed to his father. This story told about a dramatic family argument over a legacy. When Nathan’s father reads the story he is upset by it, as he sees in it anti-semitic clichés i.e. a bunch of Jews fighting over money. Nathan and his father fall out over the story, and by the time he visits Lonoff still haven’t patched things up.

“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. And if I knock off from this routine for as long as a day, I’m frantic with boredom and a sense of waste.”

So, in one sense Zuckerman is not only looking for a mentor, but also a new father, someone who will praise and, more importantly, understand him. Yet, that isn’t what grabbed me. More engaging were the questions raised by Roth, such as what does it mean to be Jewish? and what responsibility does a Jewish person have towards his people? The father thinks that Nathan ought to realise that by showing Jewish people as money-grubbers he is doing a disservice to his race, that he is propagating a harmful stereotype. Nathan, on the other hand, thinks that he was merely telling the truth, or being true to his story, and that is all that matters. He doesn’t want to shoulder any kind of responsibility for the Jewish people, he merely wants to be himself. In fact, one could say that only in being himself, only when race is not an issue, and someone isn’t a Jewish writer, but just a writer, with all the freedom that that entails, will racism no longer be an issue. I found this part of the novel fascinating.

The Ghost Writer is a slim novel, but it doesn’t feel that way at all. This is all weighty stuff, deep and meaningful stuff. And it’s not all the book has to offer. I want to be careful of spoilers, but there is simply no way to discuss what I want to discuss without letting the cat out of the bag. In any case, I feel as though very few people will come to the book not knowing about Amy, and her secret, because every review I have ever seen mentions it. Amy is a friend of sorts of Lonoff’s; or he is perhaps more a surrogate father [yes, we’re back to fathers again]. She is of foreign origin, but was helped, by the writer, to come to America via England. She is a source of conflict between Lonoff and his wife, and masturbatory material for Nathan, but none of this is what is interesting about her. What is interesting about Amy is that she is, or might be, or is imagined by Nathan to be, Anne Frank, an Anne Frank who survived the concentration camps and has lived to be twenty six.

Now, you might be rolling your eyes at this point, and certainly I did a couple of times while reading her story. However, once again, it raises some absorbing questions, like ‘what would it mean if Anne Frank had survived?’ The entire Anne Frank industry [and it is an industry] revolves around, and needs, her death. Frank, and Roth does discuss this, symbolises the persecution of the Jews during the Holocaust and, to an extent, Jewish persecution throughout the ages. No death, no symbol. Without Frank’s death there is no likeable, precocious, articulate young girl upon whom the world can dump its sympathies; no familiar, engaging, and pretty face for gentiles to stare at while feeling good about themselves for being upset about her plight and the plight, historically, of Jews-at-large. Without Frank’s death there would not be a symbol of Jewish normalcy, a Jew that gentiles can relate to.

Yet, by having Frank survive, Roth makes a point made by many scholars: she was just one girl and should not be allowed to stand for, to symbolise, the atrocities of the Holocaust. Roth then takes this idea even further, because Nathan starts to fantasise about marrying Frank. He thinks: How could they [my family] accuse me of betraying my race, of fumbling my responsibility as a Jew if I marry this girl-symbol, the ultimate heroic Jewess! It’s both very funny and very moving.

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This is not, however, merely a novel of ideas. Roth’s writing is at its most controlled, its warmest here. He is, I think people sometimes forget, a wonderful stylist. The Ghost Writer is also one of his least controversial novels. Sure, the two female characters don’t exactly wield the kind of power that Zuckerman, Lonoff and his father do, and neither are particularly sympathetic, but there is surprisingly little here for feminists to [sometimes justifiably] get pissed off about. After finishing the book I came to realise that this is my kind of Roth: the nostalgic, sentimental, quietly, but powerfully intelligent Roth.

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