Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

In Retrospect: Wyatt Mason on Philip Roth’s “The Ghost Writer”

By Wyatt Mason

The following essay on Philip Roth's 1979 NBCC finalist The Ghost Writer, from Nona Balakian Citation winning critic Wyatt Mason, is part of the Critical Mass In Retrospect series, in which critics reevaluate NBCC award winners and finalists.

With all twenty-eight of Philip Roth’s books in print, a reader not yet initiated into the pleasures of reading his fiction is faced with the tricky task of determining where to begin. Despite a reputation for monomaniacal attention to fixed themes—sex; women; writers; writing; Jews; Israel—Roth has exhibited such formal variety from book to book that where you choose to jump in can create very different impressions of Roth’s novelistic nature: it would be difficult to gather three more different novels by a single author than “Letting Go,” “The Breast,” and “The Counterlife.”

Although one might resort to—and could do very much worse than—setting aside a month and reading through all of Roth’s books in chronological order, few readers would have the space in their schedules even if they had the disposition. In the interest of serving a time lean on time, I submit that the best first book of Roth’s to read (or reread) is his tenth, short, and perfect novel, The Ghost Writer.

The protagonist of The Ghost Writer is Nathan Zuckerman, a 23-year-old writer with a few stories in print but, as yet, no book. The action of this novel, which takes the form of a memoir written decades later by the mature Zuckerman, follows his youthful self to the hilltop home of his literary idol, E.I. Lonoff. Lonoff is a writer of stories, stories of a particular bent that attract the young, and Jewish, Zuckerman: “The only photograph anyone in the reading public had ever seen was the watery sepia portrait which had appeared in 1927 on an inside jacket flap of It’s Your Funeral: the handsome young artist with the lyrical almond eyes and the dark prow of a paramour’s pompadour and the kissable, expressive underlip. […] Other than the full, glossy eyebrows and the vaguely heavenward tilt of the willful chin, there was really nothing at all to identify him, at fifty-six, with the photo of the passionate, forlorn, shy Valentino who, in the decade lorded over by the young Hemingway and Fitzgerald, had written a collection of short stories about wandering Jews unlike anything written before by any Jew who had wandered into America.”

Zuckerman’s sense of the older writer’s zealous devotion to his art imbues even the young man’s way of characterizing Lonoff’s footwear, which, in his worshipful eyes, become “well-brushed ministerial black shoes.” Zuckerman sees portent and lesson in everything during his visit, reading in quotidian actions by this older man a larger sense of the precision required when living for the making of art. Lonoff’s setting a log on the fire, say, becomes, in Zuckerman’s eyes, a primer on scruple: “Then he placed the fire screen back into position as precisely as though it were being fitted into a groove in the hearth.” Lonoff’s explicit take on his own activities is not entirely at odds with Zuckerman’s own sense of such devotion to detail. As the older writer explains: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. Sundays I have breakfast late and read the papers with Hope. Then we go for a walk in the hills, and I’m haunted by the loss of all that good time. I wake up Sunday mornings and I’m nearly crazy at the prospect of all those unusable hours. I’m restless, I’m bad-tempered, but she’s a human being too you see, so I go. To avoid trouble she makes me leave my watch at home. The result is that I look at my wrist instead. We’re walking, she’s talking, then I look at my wrist—and that generally does it, if my foul mood hasn’t already. She throes in the sponge and we come home. And at home what is there to distinguish Sunday from Thursday? I sit back down at my little Olivetti and start looking at sentences and turning them around. And I ask myself, Why is there no way but this for me to fill my hours?”

The Olivetti, for those in the audience born after 1980, is a typewriter; Hope, in addition to what every husband might find when looking into the eyes of his spouse, is Lonoff’s wife. The routine Lonoff speaks of, one might guess (and not be wrong), is not entirely pleasant for the wife left at its whims.

And so, young Zuckerman, visiting old Lonoff in The Ghost Writer, will see the costs that accrue to people who buy into the life of serious writing—whether writer or spouse. That account, conveniently, appropriately, dramatically, comes due during Zuckerman’s visit, the transaction involving a charming young woman a little older that Zuckerman who has been an assistant to Lonoff, Amy Bellette. To say much more about the nature of what transpires isn’t needed: you know already, it’s one of the older stories. But what you cannot know if you haven’t read The Ghost Writer is how unexpectedly Roth transforms the probable into the unlikely, such that the unlikely becomes a primer on the problem inherent to all stories we tell ourselves and others: there is no end to what can be true.

The novel’s third section, “Femme Fatale,” offers any reader or re-reader the clearest possible explanation not only for why The Ghost Writer is a perfect novel, but also why Philip Roth has laid claim to public imagination for fifty years: not that he writes about sex, or self, or any particular subject, but because he has the capacity, though story, to transform what we understand reality—that increasingly circumscribed noun—to be.

And, of course, Roth transforms the world into language. In an era when every new writer armed with adverbs is called a magician of prose, it is perhaps useful to be reminded, on every page in The Ghost Writer, what real magic does: “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. My guess was that it would take even the fiercest Hun the better part of a winter to cross the glacial waterfalls and wind-blasted woods of those mountain wilds before he was able to reach the open edge of Lonoff’s hayfields, rush the rear storm door of the house, crash through into the study, and, with spiked bludgeon wheeling high in the air above the little Olivetti, cry out in a roaring voice to the writer tapping out his twenty-seventy draft, 'You must change your life!'”