THE GHOST WRITER introduces Nathan Zuckerman in the 1950s; a budding writer infatuated with the Great Books, discovering the contradictory claims of literature and experience while an overnight guest in the secluded New England farmhouse of his literary idol, E. I. Lonoff. At Lonoff's, Zuckerman meets Amy Bellette, a haunting young woman of indeterminate foreign background who turns out to be a former student of Lonoff's and who may also have been his mistress. Zuckerman, with his active, youthful imagination, wonders if she could be the paradigmatic victim of Nazi persecution. If she were, it might change his life-The first volume of the trilogy and epilogue Zuckerman Bound, THE GHOST WRITER is about the tensions between literature and life, artistic truthfulness and conventional decency - and about those implacable practitioners who live with the consequences of sacrificing one for the other.
Ghost Writer is a novella about authors, the process of creative writing, and the nature, meaning, and techniques of fiction itself.
The overall plot of Ghost Writer is simple, but it masks layers of thematic complexity. The story concerns accomplished, successful 43-year-old author Nathan Zuckerman, reminiscing about his first meeting as a 23-year-old aspiring author with his idol, the famous, but reclusive writer E. I. (Manny) Lonoff. Zuckerman manages to get an invitation to the author’s home in the Berkshire countryside. There he meets Lonoff, his wife, Hope, and Lonoff’s beautiful young assistant, Amy Bellette. It is obvious from the conversations he hears directly, as well as those he overhears in private, that bald, hefty 60-plus-year-old Lonoff appears to be having some type of strange love affair with his beautiful college-age assistant, and that his wife is well aware of this fact. Zuckerman is strongly attracted to Amy and has wild fantasies about her past as a Jewish war orphan, as well as about her current relationship with Lonoff. During his visit, a winter storm arrives making travel difficult. Lonoff politely invites the young writer to spend the night on the day bed in his study. Zuckerman accepts, but is too excited to sleep. During his long night alone in Lonoff’s study, we enter Zuckerman’s mind as he speculates, fantasizes, and toys with all the random resonant chords of memory that float up to his consciousness, and spin out of his fertile mind as fully perfected stories.
Over the course of the evening and the next morning, Zuckerman begins to see that his idol is not a very good human being. Lonoff may be a great writer, but he has completely sacrificed his life, and the lives of those near and dear to him, for the sake of his art. He is monomaniacally self-absorbed—a man who lives entirely through his art.
Zuckerman also learns that Amy Bellette actually believes that she is Anne Frank hiding from the world under a false name because, if the world knew that she was alive, the impact and validity of her literary art would be put in question. Thus, even though she is obviously under some type of crazed self-delusion, Amy is also another artist sacrificing her life for her art. On Lonoff’s desk is a quote from yet another literary giant of self-sacrifice, 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.”
Toward the end of the novella, Hope Lonoff packs her bags and walks out on her husband of 35 years. She is fed up with the fact that her husband is having an affair with his young assistant. Roth creates a priceless scene of total rage. The voice is spot-on perfect! And, for one who failed to read Roth for more than 30 years precisely because I felt he had no message that a feminist like myself might want to hear, I was amazed to read breath-taking accuracy in Hope Lonoff’s raging dialog. This dialog has my vote for being one of the best tongue-lashings in contemporary fiction from a wife against a cheating husband. While exiting their home with her bags packed, she faces Lonoff, Amy, and Zuckerman and rages: “she thinks it will all be the religion of art up here. Oh! Will it ever! Let her try to please you, Manny! Let her serve as the backdrop for your thoughts for thirty-five years. Let her see how noble and heroic you are by the twenty-seventh draft… Yes, have her run hot baths for your poor back twice a day and then go a week without being talked to—let alone being touched in bed…I’m going to Boston. I’m going to Europe. It’s too late to touch me now. I’m taking a trip around the world and never coming back. And you!...You won’t go anywhere, you won’t see anything, you won’t even go out to dinner...There is his religion of art, my young successor—rejecting life! Not living is what he makes his beautiful fiction out of, and you will now be the person who he is not living with.”
So, not only is this novel about the art and the process of fiction, it is also a work about one very important day in the life of a budding young creative writer—the day he meets, and subsequently rejects his literary idol, and in the process, comes into his own literary manhood. No longer an insecure, budding author needing a mentor, he leaves Lonoff’s house a self-secure adult—a man certain of his successful life ahead as a creative writer, and equally confident that he will be able to achieve this goal while still maintaining a whole life. Unlike Lonoff, Zuckerman will be a writer that will still be connected to the world, and therefore in a better position to translate that connectivity into artful prose.
There are many parallels between Ghost Writer and Exit Ghost. If you haven’t read the last book in the Zuckerman series, Exit Ghost, I do not want to spoil it by telling you how the themes and characters in Ghost Writer reappear, but trust me, the effect is intellectually dazzling! In the end, the Zuckerman series comes full circle…as only great fiction can.
I heartily recommend reading these two books. I read them out of order; personally, I don’t think it matters in which order they are read. And, yes, for the curious out there, I certainly do plan to read the rest of the books in this series…but not all at once. With this author, I would rather savor each book with a half a dozen or more lighter books by other writers in between. I do that with all the authors I love best. It makes coming back to the best all that more satisfying.
The premise was interesting to me, as a Roth fan, because it was clear that both main characters were based on different versions of him. One, Nathan Zuckerman, was a young writer from Chicago whose begun to get some recognition. He goes to visit his literary idol, E.I. Lonoff, who was supposedly based off of Barnard Malamud (author of The Fixer) but reading it with my knowledge of Roth, Lonoff has a million similarities to the way that Roth lives and writes now.
There was also an interesting sub-plot, where a young woman became convinced that she was Anne Frank and that she had actually escaped her attic.
I loved this book a million times over and wanted to start reading it again as soon as I'd finished it.
The problem I have with Philip Roth, the next writer on our pre-2009 Nobel review agenda is which of the 15 or so critically acclaimed books of his to review? He has won 20+ literary awards and 11 of his novels have won specific awards.
The Ghost Writer was suggested to me as the next novel to read after his gem of a first novella, Goodbye Columbus. TGW is the first novel of the Zuckerman Bound Collection - which also includes Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson and The Prague Orgy - sharing the alter ego Jewish American writer, Nathan Zuckerman as the narrator.
In the first of the novel’s four sections, entitled Maestro, Nathan Zuckerman narrates his own Portrait of the Artist as a Young man as he reflects back 20 some years in time to the opening setting when as a new literary light he meets his saint, EL Lonoff, after receiving an invitation to the reclusive old writer’s Berkshire farmhouse. The model for Lonoff is reportedly Bernard Malamud, whom Roth met on several occasions and was an avowed admirer of. The master and (hopeful) apprentice carefully sound each other out, one with not much at stake other than a wasted evening, the other with his whole life’s calling hanging on every word. The exchange between the two is Jamesian. Significantly a topic the two discuss is the James short story ‘The Middle Years’ which reflects a similar artist relation to his work dynamic as our narrative. We witness three ‘portraits of the artist’ being painted simultaneously: Lonoff’s by Zuckerman’s imagined-Lonoff’s as well as his own. Lonoff emerges as being a Father figure for the narrator. Roth, painting with all three hands, works in two additional intertwined stories: Zuckerman’s recently strained relation with his own father, and the appearance of Lonoff’s young secretary Amy, who of course, is also a young writer-in-waiting.
As we navigate away from our plot summary – for one, most other book blogs take care of those duties, and two, I find it boring and three, any more details and it will destroy The Ghost Writer for you if you have not read it….
TGW themes and modal devices.
A self consciously staged Bildungsroman, the novel more specifically examines of the writer’s process of development. Besides literary influences, the ineluctable influence on an artist by his milieu. Roth’s Zuckerman does not deny his Jewish American heritage, but in comparing the older Jewish Lonoff to Zuckerman, Roth compares two counterpointed relations of the two artist’s to their work. Zuckerman’s approach to his writing is termed by Lonoff as ‘turbulent’ he is willing to use his personal as well as his families’ ethnic engendered struggles and past actual incidents in his work even if it means damaging his relationships with his family and his own heritage. The almost ascetic self-restrained Lonoff would not go there, his fiction is disengaged from the messiness of his own personal affairs.
The nature of artistic identity. (the post modern part)… Roth’s Zuckerman dramatizes his own conflict of identity as a writer– the predicament he finds himself in with his father’s and the jewish communities’ response to his short story manuscript, Higher Education- by converting it into the ‘provisional’ narrative of the novel’s third section, Femme Fatale…In the novel, two identities, fictional guises coexist, each having claims to the ‘artist’s identity’. What Zuckerman finally does in his transformation, in sheltering an identity within a second one, is what Lonoff does in reality-moving away from his subject, figuratively as well as literally. How distance between the artistic self and its work is created, the form this takes is the difference really between Modernism -Lonoff, and the post modern strategy of Zuckerman..
What I took Away
Its seems one can’t mention Roth without gushing about his prose ( gems like : “In whose sea did Andrea bob now?”) or his ability to modulate the narrative in which ever way he chooses. In looking at my array of six adjectives to summarize a novel, I could not use ‘powerful’ to describe the tension created by the novels conflicts…though there are the poignant moments, overall it is on the cerebral/literary side of the spectrum. But I would not be embarrassed to resort to beat-to-death-book-blurb: ’brilliant’.
As the above text exemplifies, the reviewer foregrounds his authorial identity as the writer of his own incoherent review, violating distinctions between blog text and reality…
Karma Chameleon (JM Coetzee)
Visiting his reclusive idol in the Berkshires, Nathan has a chance to evaluate his life and work and finds himself turning his problems into metafiction. I found this book funny in parts and very well-written. I give it a B+!
Zuckerman, just starting out and unsure of himself, treasures and endlessly revisits every word of praise. They spend the afternoon discussing other Jewish writers, and literature and art. It becomes apparent that Lonoff's wife is frustrated by their life, and is threatened by a young woman writer who is staying with them. Zuckerman, in turn, is enchanted by the young woman, Amy Bellette. She has a bizarre twist in her background, and creates a triangle, and quadrangle, of tension that only Lonoff, with his writing as his lodestar, navigates with equanimity. I found the bizarre twist somewhat off-putting, taking me out of the story I was wrapped up in. But others might react differently. It has a connection to one of Zuckerman's in-process stories we learn about, which he has based on actual events in his family. His family (after he shows the story to his father) has denounced it as anti-Jewish and as confirming stereotypes about Jews. A family acquaintance sends him a sadly funny questionnaire intended to help him realize how awful to Jews the story is. Should he publish it or not is one of the thought-provoking questions raised in this spare novel.
Having put himself on a high wire in writing about writers, Roth's own writing is clean and at times breath-taking. "There was still more wind than snow, but in Lonoff’s orchard the light had all but seeped away, and the sound of what was on its way was menacing. Two dozen wild old apple trees stood as first barrier between the bleak unpaved road and the farmhouse. Next came a thick green growth of rhododendron, then a wide stone wall fallen in like a worn molar at the center, then some fifty feet of snow-crusted lawn, and finally, drawn up close to the house and protectively overhanging the shingles, three maples that looked from their size to be as old as New England. In back, the house gave way to unprotected fields, drifted over since the first December blizzards. From there the wooded hills began their impressive rise, undulating forest swells that just kept climbing into the next state." I'm glad I read this very short novel for the American Author Challenge, and it might be a good entry read for those who haven't read this author but are curious. Four stars.
Not as manic or outlandishly funny as some of the later episodes, but it's all bubbling under the surface here. Smart and extremely readable, and remarkably sympathetic to all characters involved without being worthy, when the topics under discussion could have made for a terribly dry and sentimental, or even arrogant novel in the hands of someone else. Fantastic, even better than I remembered.
This is a minor work: not so much a novel as a series of three linked novellas (plus a short coda). The third of the novellas -- in which the tyro novelist Nathan Zuckerman convinces himself that a young woman for whom he's developed the hots is in fact a survived Anne Frank, or perhaps just someone who believes so much that she's Anne Frank as to make herself so -- is by far the most impressive of the three. The book struck a definite chord with me since I've recently been working painfully slowly on a novella about ghostwriters.
I have the feeling I will have to read it again to understand it.