Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Ghost Writer

In recent days I have been rebuked from all sides. On one hand I am too severe, holding a reductive and even dismissive view of the value of literature and literary study; on the other, I am too indulgent, giving in to the same basic background of general belletristic humanism covering the same set of books. For this Commonplace Blog’s landmark one hundredth post, then, I have decided to return for a deep drink at one of my purest fontes. I need to remind myself how I came to develop such objectionable beliefs about literature and criticism.

The Ghost Writer (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1979) was Philip Roth’s tenth novel. The first of his “Zuckerman books,” although an early draft of Nathan Zuckerman had been introduced eight years before in a story in Philip Rahv’s short-lived Modern Occasions, the short 180-page novel turned his career around. At the age of forty-six, Roth experienced a creative reawakening. His previous four novels, including the oddball fantasies The Breast and Our Gang, had shown a novelist with little idea what to do with his enormous literary gifts. In the character of Nathan Zuckerman, who doubled as his narrator, Roth discovered a solution to a literary problem that had bedeviled him since early in his career—namely, how to make use of those insights that only a writer would have.

The Ghost Writer is a lesson in literary paternity. The novel’s progress is deceptively simple. The time is 1956. Nathan Zuckerman, a 23-year-old postulate to the life of art, arrives for an overnight visit with Emanuel Lonoff, a story writer who resembles Malamud (bald, discovered late in life, a specialist in bachelors and other solitaries, married to a non-Jew). The action takes place entirely within the scope of Nathan’s sixteen-hour stay. The plot parallels Henry James’s late story “The Middle Years,” from which Lonoff has extracted an artistic credo (“Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art”), taped on the wall of his study, and which Nathan hungrily reads and summarizes before the visit is through.

The other houseguest is Amy Bellette, a 26-year-old former student of the famous writer. She is attractive (Lonoff describes her as being “from the country of fetching”). And since she looks somewhat like Anne Frank, Nathan spins out the fantasy that she actually is Anne Frank, having miraculously escaped the Nazis’ claw; he tries to imagine the reason why Anne would be hiding her real identity. If she were Anne in actual flesh, and if she would only agree to marry him, she would solve all his problems—she would be “the unchallengeable answer” to Jewish criticism.

Nathan is at an important crossroads in his own literary career. His family complains that his fiction is irresponsible toward them and the Jewish people. They have turned to Judge Leopold Wapter, a locally prominent Newark Jew, for advice. In a letter giving his “candid opinion” of a story by Nathan, the judge writes: “I do believe that, like all men, the artist has a responsibility to his fellow man, to the society in which he lives, and to the cause of truth and justice.” He encloses a questionnaire written for Nathan by his wife, opening with the challenge, “If you had been living in Nazi Germany in the thirties, would you have written such a story?” The Wapters are exactly the sort of authority figures, the conventional and middlebrow spokesmen for a moral view of literature, whose counsel a young writer is bound to reject. The 22-year-old Nathan feels that he stands above such petty concerns:

Hadn’t Joyce, hadn’t Flaubert, hadn’t Thomas Wolfe, the romantic genius of my high-school reading list, all been condemned for disloyalty or treachery or immorality [that is, for lack of responsibility] by those who saw themselves as slandered in their works? As even the judge knew, literary history was in part the history of novelists infuriating fellow countrymen, family, and friends.Nathan, in other words, puts in a claim to special status. His biological father protests that “People don’t read art—they read about people.” But Nathan longs to practice the “religion of art.” That’s why he has sought out Lonoff, making a pilgrimage to one of the religion’s shrines. As he looks around Lonoff’s house, he thinks: “Purity. Serenity. Simplicity. Seclusion. All one’s concentration and flamboyance and originality reserved for the grueling, exalted, transcendent calling. I looked around and thought, This is how I will live.”

Lonoff himself, however, has no such romantic illusions about the religion of art: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. . . .If Lonoff is without illusions, his wife Hope is even less so. For thirty-five years she has lived with Lonoff’s silence and impatience and bad moods. Now she is ready to give up on the marriage.

Nathan is on hand to witness the marital crisis. Although outwardly their life is placid and enviable—isolated in the Berkshires, far from literary politics—the Lonoffs are approaching the breaking point. The proximate cause is Amy. She works for the Widener Library, and has reputedly come to convince the writer to deposit his papers and manuscripts there, but the truth is that she and Lonoff are (or were) lovers. While it is not clear whether Lonoff’s wife knows this for a fact, Amy’s presence in the house creates a tension that eventually shatters Hope. She makes a scene at the dinner table, threatening to leave Lonoff and yield her place to Amy. For Nathan, who wanted to become Lonoff’s “spiritual son,” this is more of an introduction into the family than he could have bargained for.

Yet here we come to the real issue. Is Hope disgusted with the literary life she has led with Lonoff, or is she deeply wounded—does she feel rejected—by Lonoff’s desire for Amy?

That night Nathan overhears a scene in the bedroom above him. Amy begs Lonoff to run away with her to Florence and start a new life. When he refuses, she opens her robe and asks, “Oh, Manny, would it kill you just to kiss my breasts?” Lonoff will not, however, and Nathan is amazed at his superhuman control.

Why not? Why doesn’t Lonoff take Amy and run away with her? Hope gives her blessing, after all. And he confesses to Nathan that he wishes he could. He is tired of Hope; he is in love with Amy. Why doesn’t he do what both women seem to want?

The answer is pretty simple, although it will not please those who elevate erotic passion and the religion of art, which spring from the same source, above everything else. Lonoff stays with Hope out of a sense of responsibility. Not mere conjugal duty, although it is that too (“you don’t chuck a woman out after thirty-five years because you’d prefer to see a new face over your fruit juice”). More than that, Lonoff has a sense of responsibility to life that is revealed by his whole approach to art.

Just minutes after admitting to Nathan that he dreams about running away with Amy, Lonoff gets up and shows him how to use the record player. He explains the entire mechanism in close detail. Nathan reflects:And this, I realized, is the excrutiating scrupulosity, the same maddening, meticulous attention to every last detail, that makes you great, that keeps you going and got you through and now is dragging you down. Standing with E. I. Lonoff over the disobedient arm of his record player, I understood the celebrated phenomenon for the first time: a man, his destiny, and his work—all one. What a terrible triumph!And what a young man’s remark! Nathan believes there is something sacramental about the life of art—that literature is a matter of “wizardry,” to use his word. It troubles him to find that, instead of being a wizard leading the “pure, serene, simple, and secluded” life of art, Lonoff is merely a 58-year-old man who fiddles obsessively with words and stereo equipment—a “passionate corrector,” to borrow James’s phrase.

So in chapter 3 (“Femme Fatale”) Nathan sets out Oedipally to overcome—to outperform—his literary pater. He “evolves a fiction” in which he imagines that Amy Bellette is Anne Frank, filling in her “middle years” between the Holocaust and creative-writing classes in postwar America. As his Amy/Anne tries to decide whether to come out of anonymity, she too grapples with the question of the artist’s responsibility:To keep her existence a secret from her father so as to help improve mankind . . . no, not at this late date. The improvement of the living was their business, not hers; they could improve themselves, if they should ever be so disposed; and if not, not. Her responsibility was to the dead, if to anyone—to her sister, to her mother, to all the slaughtered schoolchildren who had been her friends. There was her diary’s purpose, there was her ordained mission: to restore in print their status as flesh and blood. . . .Since she is his creature, however, the imagined Amy/Anne is captive to the same emotional conditions as Nathan. “Responsibility to the dead?” she demands. “Rhetoric for the pious! There was nothing to give the dead—they were dead. . . . ‘No atonement is required,’ said Amy to Anne.” And said Amy/Anne to Nathan, who is also searching for a way out of having to atone for hurting and angering his natural father.

Thus Amy/Anne’s conclusion is very close to Nathan’s own:[A]ll I wanted was revenge. It wasn’t for the dead—it had nothing to do with bringing back the dead or scourging the living. It wasn’t corpses I was avenging—it was the motherless, fatherless, sisterless, venge-filled, hate-filled, shame-filled, half-flayed, seething thing. It was myself. I wanted tears, I wanted their Christian tears to run like Jewish blood, for me. I wanted their pity—and in the most pitiless way.Anne Frank is, after all, “the greatest Jewish writer since Kafka”—perhaps the greatest Jewish writer of all time! And isn’t this just exactly the mantle that Nathan Zuckerman aspires to inherit? Isn’t this why, like Jacob in the tent of Isaac, he hovers around E. I. Lonoff and Felix Abravanel (modeled upon Bellow), hoping for a literary blessing? He evolves a fictional Amy/Anne so as to take revenge upon his critics and tormentors, and to earn their pity. “[F]iction,” as he puts it, is “the unchallengable answer to their questionnaire that I proposed to offer the Wapters.” Fiction: an evasion of responsibility by ducking into the sacred precincts of art.

Except, of course, as she reminds him, the girl he imagines is not Anne Frank. Her real name is Amy Bellette. Perhaps Amy Belles Lettres? That is, Amy Literature? In the language of current literary theory, Amy is “overdetermined.” Or, in plainer words, Nathan makes too much out of her. Even when he imagines the “real” Amy, she too is an aspiring writer. He narcissistically assumes, in short, that the basis of her attachment to Lonoff is the same as his—that of a postulate of art.

The truth seems to be less romantic. Amy is an attractive younger woman who has had an affair with her teacher, a famous and powerful older man. At least those are the terms in which Lonoff himself might describe things. “Stop dreaming,” he says when Amy fantasizes a life for them in Florence. “Melodrama, Amy,” he says when she uncovers herself for him. “Decide not to lose hold,” he says—“and then don’t.” Lonoff has a positive repugnance for exaggeration; his moral view, like his writing, is strict and to the point and even parsimonious. But it is also honest. Honest: and imbued with a genuine sense of responsibility.

For in the end Lonoff will not leave Hope. And he will not because he feels a sense of responsibility to her. Responsibility and affection. “Oh, Hopie,” he says tenderly when she threatens to leave. Hope will have none of it: “There is his religion of art, my young successor,” she shouts at Amy: “rejecting life! Not living is what he makes his beautiful fiction out of!” There is another sense of “rejecting life.” If Amy and Florence represent life to him—a “second chance,” to use the phrase for what Dencombe seeks in James’s “Middle Years”—then by rejecting Amy he rejects life. But he does so because he shares the wisdom that Dencombe has also come to:A second chance--that’s the delusion. There never was to be but one. 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.These are the words from James’s story that Lonoff has taped on the wall of his study. And they are central to any interpretation of The Ghost Writer; they are almost Roth’s motto. What they seem to be saying is this. The artist’s responsibility (his “task”) is to the very things he doubts the most—that is, his deepest commitments; the people he loves, to whom he “gives what he has.” What Nathan wants to call “the religion of art” James (and Lonoff) prefer to call “the madness of art.” Why? Because the artist is first of all a flesh-and-blood person, and above all else a person exists in service to others. Only in as far as it serves others, doing what it can—only in its ethical dimension, in short—can his work justify itself. The rest of it—the wizardry, the revenge, the claim to special status outside the human nexus—is “madness.”

Nathan’s real father, that stern and moralistic critic, turns out to be right. People don’t read art. They read about people. And judge them as such. The lesson of Nathan’s visit with Lonoff is that the writer owes more to people than to art. Lonoff himself says as much to Nathan on the novel’s last page: “I’ll be curious to see how we all come out someday. It could be an interesting story. You’re not so nice and polite in your fiction. . . . You’re a different person.” “Am I?” Nathan asks. “I should hope so,” Lonoff concludes—hoping that, as a writer, Nathan grows up, assumes responsibility, and learns that his “task” to get his people to “come out someday”—to come out right, true to themselves. If nothing else, the almost primal literary visit with Lonoff teaches Nathan that the true interest of fiction lies, not in the sacred hush of art and its special claims, but in the intricate and tortured interrelationships between people. People who do what they can for one another—in passion and doubt.


Anonymous said...

I'd ask if this post was a joke, except that your reading of this (comic) novel implies you have no sense of humor.

Is it de rigueur in literature classrooms to interpret all literature from the point of view of the ostensibly dominant culture? Is it amusing to flout an author's wishes to the extent of pretending his novels are written from the point of view of the butts of his attacks? Is this some weird extension of Sander Gilman's theories?

D. G. Myers said...

The brilliance of The Ghost Writer is that it puts his literary credo between the cheeks of Roth’s butts.

Anonymous said...

Very, very good.