John Sloan's Reviews

The Ghost Writer. Philip Roth.

The Ghost Writer. Philip Roth. MacGraw-Hill Ryerson, Toronto. 1979. Hachette Digital retrieved for Kindle. F; 9/14

Many people think this is Roth’s best fiction, and it’s very good. It lurches a bit thanks to some of his controversial trademarks, but also shows his wonderful skill and ability to surprise enough that I knew I was in the hands of a real maestro. It’s strangely short (180 pages I think), and seemed to end abruptly although that’s just a stupid limitation of electronic reading. Of course with a paper book you can see and feel how many pages remain and get yourself ready for the finale.

Clearly autobiographical Zuckerman is recalled by his older self having visited in his early 20s a famous and wonderfully successful fictional fiction writer in winter at his apparently perfect New England home retreat. Our Zuckerman has enjoyed some success, but is anxious to the point of self-fulfilling fear about his behaviour. He sees Amy, a quiet adherently attractive young associate or student of the older man moving familiarly around the house, and then she leaves. Zuckerman is invited to stay the night, which occurs after an emotional argument between the author Lonoff and his wife Hope at dinner. Amy returns, and Zuckerman overhears her begging Lonoff to have sex, and run off, with her.  Our hero indulges a sexual and literary-creative fantasy about Amy as being the real Anne Frank, survived and living secretly in the reflected glow of the successful diaries. Zuckerman’s imagination also casts Lonoff as a father figure, reflecting on his own father’s disappointment with his fiction which appears to show Jews as grasping and self-centered.

PLOT ALERT In the morning Hope’s anger at Lonoff explodes in front of Zuckerman and Amy in a description of his obsessiveness, distance, sexual neglect, and intolerance. Hope makes to leave and insists that Amy stay with Lonoff and put up with him in the future as Hope has in the past. Amy drives and Hope walks off into the snow and Lonoff goes after Hope presumably to try to bring her home END PLOT ALERT.

The main events are psychological and felt to me a bit like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (the 1966 Burton and Taylor film version, the only one I’ve seen) as fascinating conflicts erupt among apparently well-respected academic artistic people initially behaving themselves, and we see all sorts of unexpected peculiarities of work, romantic and sexual relationships, personalities etc. The Albee play did antedate this novel by 15 years or so, but to me the similarities don’t suggest imitation, just shared high-voltage dramatic creativity.

We don’t escape Philip Rothisms: Judaism and Jewishness and family relations within that culture, father and son issues, and in-the-face sexuality including masturbation. I think using sexual bluntness is similar to what other authors were doing at the time Roth was writing, which would have seemed more avant-garde and I guess appropriate 35 years ago than it does now, to me anyway.

But there is also a thrilling grasp and rendering of creativity and its relationship to being alive. About one of Lonoff’s heroes:

(He) does not move to act at all — the tiniest impulse toward amplitude or self-surrender, let alone intrigue or adventure, peremptorily extinguished by the ruling triumvirate of Sanity, Responsibility, and Self-Respect, assisted handily by their devoted underlings: the timetable, the rainstorm, the headache, the busy signal, the traffic jam, and most loyal of all, the last-minute doubt.

Life. There it is. Our most precious and polished dreams and instincts pitted against inner and outer brutes of exigency. That plus a fascinating psychological plot worked out in “a day in the life” made this one memorable for me. 9.0/9.1.