Philip Roth — The Ghost Writer

February 25, 2009 at 10:35 am 2 comments

No one writes books about Philip Roth quite as well as Philip Roth. Sometimes I feel as though I know more about what it’s like to be a male Jewish writer from Newark than I know about what it’s like to be me. The Ghost Writer (1979) is one of Roth’s many semi-autobiographical fictions, and the first to feature enduring Roth alterego Nathan Zuckerman.


… I was twenty-three, writing and publishing my first short stories, and like many a Bildungsroman hero before me, already contemplating my own massive Bildungsroman

Zuckerman, an up-and-coming literary star of the 1950s, stays one night in the remote home of his reclusive literary idol, E. I. Lonoff. He’s joined by Lonoff’s emotionally frayed wife, Hope, and his beautiful young possible-mistress, Amy Bellette.

Lonoff is an aging man weighed down by the burden of his art, and the ruin a lifetime of “turning sentences around” has inflicted on his marriage. Zuckerman is a young man weighed down by the burden of Jewish identity. His father has turned on him, accusing him of betraying the Jews by portraying them in a negative light. Roth suffered similar criticism after the publication of Goodbye, Columbus (1959).

During the night, strange things happen. Lonoff has a spectacular clash with Hope and a mysterious erotic encounter with Amy. Nathan, an accidental spectator to Lonoff’s bizarre private life, mulls over how to win back his father’s support.

Outrageously, he starts to harbour the delusion that Amy is Anne Frank, living in America under an assumed name. This, he thinks, will solve his problem: if he marries Anne Frank, people won’t be able to call him a bad Jew any more.

The Ghost Writer is a wry and touching portrayal of the pitfalls of literary life. An old writer who seems to have everything turns out to be trapped and miserable. A young writer who seems to have everything turns out to be cracking under the weight of expectation.

It’s a slim novel telling a simple tale, and as such lacks the monumental significance of Roth’s later masterworks. But in its own discreet way, it’s every bit as touched by greatness. I think of Roth’s writing hand as some kind of wild animal, loosely tethered to the genius in his head. Like all Roth’s best work, The Ghost Writer is scabrous, irreverent, wacky and witty. Unlike most of Roth’s best work, you can read it in a spare afternoon.


Entry filed under: Book Reviews, Roth Philip. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Zaribeni  |  February 25, 2009 at 7:45 pm

    Nice post! Keep it real.I have looked over your blog a few times and I love it.

  • 2. Mike  |  March 1, 2009 at 12:05 pm

    Just passing by.Btw, your website have great content!

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