Philip Roth, in this first of the Nathan Zuckerman novels, published in 1979, introduces Nathan as a twenty-three-year-old graduate of the University of Chicago who has had four short stories published and is looking for a mentor. Having contacted famed writer E. I. Lonoff, a writer living in rural New England with his wife of 35 years, he has accepted Lonoff's invitation to visit, but a snowstorm arises and Zuckerman finds himself spending the night with Lonoff and his wife. His observations about the life of Lonoff leads him to imagine many stories--about Lonoff's past, his possible relationship with a young former student, and about his life in the countryside. In addition, Zuckerman also reminisces about his own past, his relationships with his family, his feelings toward his own writing, his possible obligations to Jewish history, and the imagined past of Amy, Lonoff's former student, who resembles Anne Frank.
Though Zuckerman is full of hopes for a broader relationship with Lonoff, he soon discovers that his idol is a petulant and insecure man who has used and, in some cases, emotionally abused, those around him, all in the name of "art." Spending a sleepless winter night on the couch in Lonoff's den, Zuckerman investigates Lonoff's library, especially Lonoff's collection of the writings of Henry James, whom Lonoff admires so much, tries to write a letter to his estranged father (who is appalled by one of Nathan's recent short stories, which, he feels, feeds anti-Semitic prejudice), and ponders the relationship between genuine creativity, editing and revision, and the possible responsibilities of a writer beyond his own creative impulse.
A story about the writing of stories, this novella explores the fictional lives writers create from their own lives and the sacrifices they make. As Lonoff's wife says of Lonoff, "Not living is what he makes his beautiful fiction out of." Lonoff himself says, "I turn sentences around...That's my life." And Henry James says in a motto Lonoff has framed in his den, "We give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and passion is our task." When Zuckerman leaves Lonoff's house the next morning, he no longer sees Lonoff as an idol, but Zuckerman is still committed to his destiny as a writer, anxious to go to a writers' retreat to work on some new stories. Thoughtful, imaginative, and great fun to read, The Ghost Writer is one of Roth's most tightly organized and revelatory works, essential reading for anyone interested in the creative process. Mary Whipple
I recently read "Exit Ghost," the last book in the Zuckerman series, and vowed I would read the first book in the series, "Ghost Writer," because I wanted to uncover whatever parallels I might find that would further my enjoyment and understanding. Let me say from the beginning that I thoroughly enjoyed both books. There is hardly a page of Roth's writing that doesn't amuse, fascinate, enthrall, or generally cause my brain to flare up with pure intellectual delight. Roth is surely a national literary treasure.
"Ghost Writer" is a novella about authors, the process of creative writing, and the nature, meaning, and techniques of fiction itself.
The overall plot of "Ghost Writer" is simple, but it masks layers of thematic complexity. The story concerns accomplished, successful 43-year-old author Nathan Zuckerman, reminiscing about his first meeting as a 23-year-old aspiring author with his idol, the famous, but reclusive writer E. I. (Manny) Lonoff. Zuckerman manages to get an invitation to the author's home in the Berkshire countryside. There he meets Lonoff, his wife, Hope, and Lonoff's beautiful young assistant, Amy Bellette. It is obvious from the conversations he hears directly, as well as those he overhears in private, that bald, hefty 60-plus-year-old Lonoff appears to be having some type of strange love affair with his beautiful college-age assistant, and that his wife is well aware of this fact. Zuckerman is strongly attracted to Amy and has wild fantasies about her past as a Jewish war orphan, as well as about her current relationship with Lonoff. During his visit, a winter storm arrives making travel difficult. Lonoff politely invites the young writer to spend the night on the day bed in his study. Zuckerman accepts, but is too excited to sleep. During his long night alone in Lonoff's study, we enter Zuckerman's mind as he speculates, fantasizes, and toys with all the random resonant chords of memory that float up to his consciousness, and spin out of his fertile mind as fully perfected stories.
Over the course of the evening and the next morning, Zuckerman begins to see that his idol is not a very good human being. Lonoff may be a great writer, but he has completely sacrificed his life, and the lives of those near and dear to him, for the sake of his art. He is monomaniacally self-absorbed--a man who lives entirely through his art.
Zuckerman also learns that Amy Bellette actually believes that she is Anne Frank hiding from the world under a false name because, if the world knew that she was alive, the impact and validity of her literary art would be put in question. Thus, even though she is obviously under some type of crazed self-delusion, Amy is also another artist sacrificing her life for her art. On Lonoff's desk is a quote from yet another literary giant of self-sacrifice, Henry James: "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."
Toward the end of the novella, Hope Lonoff packs her bags and walks out on her husband of 35 years. She is fed up with the fact that her husband is having an affair with his young assistant. Roth creates a priceless scene of total rage. The voice is spot-on perfect! And, for one who failed to read Roth for more than 30 years precisely because I felt he had no message that a feminist like myself might want to hear, I was amazed to read breath-taking accuracy in Hope Lonoff's raging dialog. This dialog has my vote for being one of the best tongue-lashings in contemporary fiction from a wife against a cheating husband. While exiting their home with her bags packed, she faces Lonoff, Amy, and Zuckerman and rages: "she thinks it will all be the religion of art up here. Oh! Will it ever! Let her try to please you, Manny! Let her serve as the backdrop for your thoughts for thirty-five years. Let her see how noble and heroic you are by the twenty-seventh draft... Yes, have her run hot baths for your poor back twice a day and then go a week without being talked to--let alone being touched in bed...I'm going to Boston. I'm going to Europe. It's too late to touch me now. I'm taking a trip around the world and never coming back. And you!...You won't go anywhere, you won't see anything, you won't even go out to dinner...There is his religion of art, my young successor--rejecting life! Not living is what he makes his beautiful fiction out of, and you will now be the person who he is not living with."
So, not only is this novel about the art and the process of fiction, it is also a work about one very important day in the life of a budding young creative writer--the day he meets, and subsequently rejects his literary idol, and in the process, comes into his own literary manhood. No longer an insecure, budding author needing a mentor, he leaves Lonoff's house a self-secure adult--a man certain of his successful life ahead as a creative writer, and equally confident that he will be able to achieve this goal while still maintaining a whole life. Unlike Lonoff, Zuckerman will be a writer that will still be connected to the world, and therefore in a better position to translate that connectivity into artful prose.
There are many parallels between "Ghost Writer" and "Exit Ghost." If you haven't read the last book in the Zuckerman series, "Exit Ghost," I do not want to spoil it by telling you how the themes and characters in "Ghost Writer" reappear, but trust me, the effect is intellectually dazzling! In the end, the Zuckerman series comes full circle...as only great fiction can.
I heartily recommend reading these two books. I read them out of order; personally, I don't think it matters in which order they are read. And, yes, for the curious out there, I certainly do plan to read the rest of the books in this series...but not all at once. With this author, I would rather savor each book with a half a dozen or more lighter books by other writers in between. I do that with all the authors I love best. It makes coming back to the best all that more satisfying.
on November 20, 1999
In "The Ghost Writer", Philip Roth explores the tension between literature and life through the eyes of Nathan Zuckerman, who looks back to his younger days when as a budding writer, he meets for the first time his literary idol, E.I.Lonoff, his wife Hope and a young girl (Amy Bellette) who appears to be Lonoff's house guest. With great skill and imagination, Roth draws us into the intriguing debate on the responsibility of an artist towards society. Is Nathan morally on safe grounds to publish a novel about the life of his family when he knows that the dirty linen he exposes will cause offence to his relatives and his community ? Is Lonoff (a literary giant though he is) deserving of Nathan's worship when he is willing to spend his entire life "writing and rearranging sentences" but shamelessly neglects his long suffering wife and children ? Are the artist's rights in the name of truth and art ultimately a selfish privilege which asks that we blind ourselves to the larger costs, whatever they are ? These are difficult issues concerning the "madness of art" which Roth handles subtly and without seeming pedentic or preachy. The last section of the novel is an absolute gem. It develops unexpectedly into a teaser which sets up a head-on collision between art and life and leaves the reader wondering about the true identity of Amy. Roth has written a highly intelligent novel that will surely stand the test of time. Highly recommended.
on May 22, 2006
A work of art. I devoured this little book that speaks straight to the matter of what it means to be a writer, a person with the creative spark. All the characters are interesting and also mysterious. You only touch at their souls.
I was indescribably moved by the Anne Frank section, which is imaginative and sad because she is a figure that speaks to the Jewish people but also to the part in each of us that can feel anger and compassion. Nathan's act of reimagining the Amy character IS bizarre but. . .brilliant.
This is only my second Roth book and I have so many questions. Very inspiring and lovely writing.
This is a beautifully written novel. At its heart is the relation between a young aspiring short- story writer , Roth's alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, and the veteran master Lonoff, modeled on Bernard Malamud.
The descriptions of Lonoff at home and at work, of his family relations are insightful and well- drawn. The weak part of the novel in my opinion is when Roth makes an imaginary flight and makes Lonoff's houseguest, helper, possible lover into Anne Frank.
I believe the great strength of the work is in Roth's understanding and even parodying himself as young writer- and writing sympathetically if not uncritically about Lonoff- Malamud.
In this fictional account Roth close to thirty years ago protected Malamud and had him restrain himself before the tempting advances of his young assistant. In the biography of Malamud by his daughter which appeared in 2006 it is now revealed that there was in fact no such restraint and Malamud conducted a many - year affair with a former student.
Yet my sense is that what is of real value in this work is Roth's chilling description of the artist and writer Lonoff , and the price his family and everyone else has to pay for his devotion. Just to make it all more interesting there is also thrown in a novelist named Abarbanel who is Lonoff's opposite, a kind of adventurer and prolific creator of wild and big stories. My guess is that this literary figure is modeled after Saul Bellow another , as it were, mentor of Roth's.
Lonoff acts not only as a kind of spiritual literary father to Zuckerman, he also gives him advice which is critical to his literary development. He essentially tells him to go with what he is, with his own voice, with his own ' turbulence' i.e. Lonoff understands that Zuckerman is a different kind of creature and creator than himself.
Again Roth's writing in this work is balanced and beautiful. This is a most highly recommended piece of work.
on November 3, 2000
Before I review the book, let me say that buying this one volume is sort of a waste: three of the Zuckerman novels have been collected in Zuckerman Bound (along with an epilogue) and the paperback is fairly easy to find in most used book stores.
That being said, The Ghost Writer is by far my favorite part of the trilogy. Not only is it a flawlessly written book, it contains perhaps the most astounding imaginative leap in all of Roth's fiction (I don't want to give it away: read the Femme Fatale chapter). And honestly, I prefer the lovely Jamesian prose of this slender volume to the frenetic comedy of some of his other books. The Ghost Writer is much less funny that those books, but it has wonderfully realized characters (something the other books in the trilogy lack, in my opinion) and an author who is fully in control; every part of the story is exactly where it needs to be - when Roth cuts back to Nathan's parents, or tells Amy's story, he never seems to be trying too hard.
Everything falls perfectly into place (even the open-ended conclusion seems to be the only way the story can end) and moves with a steady, controlled momentum. I'm not sure if I would call it Roth's masterpiece (I haven't read all of his books) but it's certainly my favorite of his early work. Read it - it barely takes a few hours, and will never be forgotten.
I must confess - when I began reading this book, I was immediately taken aback from the depressive mood expressed through the character of the loner. Then, after awhile, the intensity of the emotions, the narrative style, the vivid and unmistakable human nature took charge and I was left with utmost admiration - admiration for the life the book took on and the life it gave me.
Like Patrimony, Ghost Writer delves deeper into the metamorphosis of human behavior over the course of a life time. Readers become aware (almost immediately) of the sadness of making the wrong choices, of getting sick, of dying. At the same time, reading in between the lines is a prerequisite for Mr. Roth. Take for example the wild affair the narrator has with the Scandinavian model. The force of words, the carefully constructed content of what transpired between those two is so powerful, that it almost certainly would arouse any reader.
I have really only one remark. Mr. Roth, you are one of my favorite writers and I thank you for taking the time to create such passionate and deeply moving literature as the one I found in Ghost Writer.
This book is highly recommended to all lovers of contemporary American literature.
-by Simon Cleveland
on April 17, 2002
Philip Roth, more than any other author living today, has the power to take your breath away with a single sentence, sometimes a single word. There is an intelligence and beauty to his prose that is, at times, simply stunning. The Ghost Writer is no exception. In it, Roth begins with a relatively simple plot - the young Nate Zuckerman, an aspiring writer, spends an evening with the renowned author E.I. Lonoff, in hopes of adopting the latter as a literary mentor. From there, and in only 180 pages, Roth embarks on a tour de force that explores the nature of a writer's responsibility to society. The three main characters in the novel are all authors, and Roth masterfully juxtaposes their differing approaches to their work. Zuckerman resents his family's insistence that he not publish a story that they feel negatively portrays Jewish stereotypes (and his own family members, no less). Feeling no moral responsibility in a larger context, his views are juxtaposed against a famous writer who feels his life's work has had no profound impact and has been little more than a meaningless intellectual exercise. And both of them pale in comparison to the social ramifications of the writings of Ann Frank, who plays a prominent role as a character. In this way, Roth confirms the importance and value of literature as a social and political force. And who better to make this argument than one of the most important and influential prose writers of the 20th century?
The Ghost Writer is a slim book of impressive complexity. In it we are introduced to Nathan Zuckerman, a Roth alter ego who is temporarily living with E.I. Lonoff, a distinguished writer who he reveres, along with Lonoff's wife and assistant Amy up in the Berkshires. Zuckerman, of course, is questioning the purpose of his Jewish identity, which has gotten him into hot water back at home in New Jersey, and is trying to find his own voice (literary and otherwise) in the world around him. The novel's thin plot is ostensibly about him coming of age in this secluded environment, and wanting to become a son to Lonoff and a lover to Amy, who just might be the internationally mourned Holocaust victim Anne Frank herself.
Roth's prose here is up there with him best- his confidence of tone in writing pessimism, humor, hope, ambivalence, and despair all mixed up together is staggering. He can sweep you from the streets of Newark to the wooded mountains of upstate New York and through the freezing barracks of Bergen Belsen as only a master can. Also masterful is the multiplicity of themes here. This is a book about creating fiction from the reality, inspiration from lust, and how our past hangups create our present. For me personally the book is about escapism, how each character is constantly fighting for leave the burden of their pasts in order to answer their literary higher calling, with Anne Frank (the eponymous Ghost Writer herself perhaps?), a worldwide symbol of guilt and sadness, bewitchingly holding everyone back until a final act of independence. I greatly look forward to Roth's other Zuckerman books.
on April 26, 2007
I was not completely taken in by Philip Roth's writing, until I read "The Ghost Writer", the first novel in the cycle about Nathan Zuckerman.
Nathan Zuckerman, one of the numerous Roth's literary alter egos (and probably the most important one), in the 1950's, 23 years old and freshly graduated from the University of Chicago, infatuated with novel writing, with several, apparently good, short stories published in the literary magazines, is looking for a role model. He arrives in the Berkshires, where, in seclusion, lives the great writer E. I. Lonoff (modeled on Bernard Malamud). The discussion with Lonoff is an inspiration for the young Nathan, who absorbs everything that goes on in the writer's house and all the tension between the people present: Lonoff, Lonoff's wife, a scion of a good Massachusetts family, and Amy Bellette, a mysterious, immigrant student of unknown past, who is staying in the Lonoff home doing some research.
Because of the snowstorm, Lonoff invites Zuckerman to stay overnight, which Nathan readily accepts. In Lonoff's study, too excited to sleep, he guiltily thinks about his family, hurt by his autobiographical novel; he ponders on his Jewishness, thinking of Anne Frank versus the Jewish community in New Jersey, where he (like Roth) grew up; he peeks into the room where the writer and Amy have a discussion. His imagination gives way and Nathan starts his creative vision, involving all his thoughts and leading to the unexpected conclusions.
I was haunted by this short fiction work and, for the first time, Roth absolutely captivated me with his great ability to write about the creative process in the young writer's mind. Of course, there are all the themes always present in Roth's prose, like the satirical view of the American Jews and the male obsession with sexuality. The novel is very melancholic from the beginning, set in a lonely house in the snow-covered Berkshires. Nathan's character is also very complex, he is essentially very conceited and at the same time unsure of himself; guiltless and full of guilt; funny and repulsive, misogynistic and longing for a real relationship with a woman (in other words, an alive man). The short time Nathan spends at Lonoff's home, and the condensed description of the events there, are the source and starting point of other stories, growing from them like branches. The novel, short as it is, is a full, complete work, perfect in its form and content.