The Ghost Writer
The Ghost Writer introduces Nathan Zuckerman in the 1950s, a budding writer infatuated with the Great Books, discovering the contradictory claims of literature and experience while an overnight guest in the secluded New England farmhouse of his idol, E. I. Lonoff.
At Lonoff’s, Zuckerman meets Amy Bellette, a haunting young woman of indeterminate foreign background who turns out to be a former student of Lonoff’s and who may also have been his mistress. Zuckerman, with his active, youthful imagination, wonders if she could be the paradigmatic victim of Nazi persecution. If she were, it might change his life.
The first volume of the trilogy and epilogue Zuckerman Bound, The Ghost Writer is about the tensions between literature and life, artistic truthfulness and conventional decency—and about those implacable practitioners who live with the consequences of sacrificing one for the other.
A middle-aged writer recalls his younger self. At 23, Nathan Zuckerman has had four stories published and a small, flattering Saturday Review up-and-coming-author profile (complete with a photo of him playing with his ex-girlfriend’s cat), which he purports to scorn. As genuine and polite as he seems, Zuckerman has already hurt his family with his autobiographical art and ruined his relationship with adultery and honesty. Visiting his reclusive idol (famed for his “blend of sympathy and pitilessness”) in the Berkshires, the writer watches himself watching himself and attempts to confront his work and life. Instead he finds himself turning reality into metafiction. A quote he happens upon from Henry James only complicates matters further: “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.” Events, however, have their revenge, weaving more out of control than even he can anticipate or ask for. Philip Roth is the master of the uncomfortable, and his alter ego a connoisseur of self-involvement, self-loathing, and self-examination. (“Virtuous reader, if you think that after intercourse all animals are sad, try masturbating on the daybed in E. I. Lonoff’s study and see how you feel when it’s over.”)