The Ghost Writer– Philip Roth


Where we can find an example of post modern inter-textual strategies as a common device used in  the reviews found in the World  Lit Blog, Traces is in the review of the Philip Roth/Nathan Zuckerman novel, The Ghost Writer. The reviewer (in his embedded textual self) explores the understanding of digital identity through impersonation of a reviewer for Traces, a Journal of windsweptfiction:

Ghost Written….

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)


1 Comment

Filed under Philip Roth

One response to “The Ghost Writer– Philip Roth

  1. This is the novel that got me into my love affair with Roth. “Brilliant!”

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