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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Ghost Writer

Philip Roth

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To purchase The Ghost Writer

Title: The Ghost Writer
Author: Philip Roth
Genre: Novel
Written: 1979
Length: 180 pages
Availability: The Ghost Writer - US
in Zuckerman Bound - US
The Ghost Writer - UK
The Ghost Writer - Canada
The Ghost Writer - India
L'écrivain des ombres - France
Der Ghost Writer - Deutschland
Lo scrittore fantasma - Italia
in Zuckerman encadenado - España
  • The first volume in the Zuckerman Bound-trilogy

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Our Assessment:

B+ : enjoyable mix of stories

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
London Rev. of Books . 6/12/1979 Michael Mason
The NY Rev. of Books . 25/10/1979 John Leonard
The NY Times Book Rev. A- 20/4/1979 Robert Towers
Sunday Times . 25/11/1979 Bernard Levin
TLS . 7/12/1979 Lorna Sage

  Review Consensus:

  Generally won over, though various reservations

  From the Reviews:
  • "Nothing much happens in The Ghost Writer. (...) The following morning .... The following morning is quite wonderful, and I donít want to give it away. Having begun The Ghost Writer in the manner of Chekhov, Roth finishes it off with a flourish of Tolstoy. (...) The Ghost Writer is an odd sonata, as if Mahler had tried his hand at a bit of Mozart and just couldnít resist bringing in one of his inevitable marching bands. (...) ne of the reasons The Ghost Writer is so likable is that it is less a prisoner of ideas than any other fiction of Rothís since Letting Go. Form suggests substance; silence is allowed." - John Leonard, The New York Review of Books

  • "The Ghost Writer is one of Philip Roth's best short fictions, but, like so much that he has written, the rich promise of its style and inventiveness is in part betrayed by miscalculations of tone and structure, by a cleverness that sometimes bites its own tail. One could look upon The Ghost Writer as a long short story stretched further by the insertion of chunks of material that do not absolutely belong; alternatively, one can see it as a truncated novel in which certain elements of great potential importance remain undeveloped and unassimilated. Enjoying (and admiring) Roth as I do, I wish the book had been half again as long." - Robert Towers, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The Ghost Writer is spare, firm, and never less than entertaining, and on balance I do not wish that its author had never been born, though I wish he would stick to masturbating. (...) It is the madness of art and what it has done to Lonoff that gives the books its point and some quality beyond entertainment value." - Bernard Levin, Sunday Times

  • "It's a lucid, elegant fable, teetering on the edge of fable. (...) The writing is never less than pleasurable, and is often strikingly, locally persuasive. However, the superimposition of self-consciousness on self-revelation has a smug feel to it." - Lorna Sage, The Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Ghost Writer is the first of the Philip Roth-alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman novels, the story set when the writer is still very much just budding, with a mere four published stories to his name (as well as a Saturday Review mention among 'A Dozen to Keep Your Eye On'). Zuckerman writes this account more than two decades after the fact, but the novel essentially takes place entirely in that past, in December of 1956, when he was just twenty-three, with only the slightest hints of some of the after.
       That winter Zuckerman: "had been welcomed as a communicant at the Quahsay colony, the rural artists' retreat" -- a first opportunity to devote himself entirely to his writing for any significant stretch of time, without other obligations or distractions. An author he admires greatly, E.I.Lonoff, lives nearby, and Zuckerman gets himself invited to the grand old man's house. A disagreement with his own father, about a story he had written, and how he portrayed Jews in it, has left Zuckerman; "seeking patriarchal validation elsewhere" -- and Lonoff would seem to fit the bill perfectly. He's led a fairly secluded life, away from the New York literary establishment that Zuckerman is just dipping his toes in, and Lonoff's quiet career-path, which has now reached considerable heights -- he's quite satisfied now with his: "seven books on the paperback racks" and "publishers in twenty countries" (and a "quietly declined" National Book Award) --, and work appeals to Zuckerman as well. The young Zuckerman, still unsure of the kind of writer he can become, is looking for direction, and Lonoff seems potentially good role-model material.
       One of the questions in the book is whether Lonoff is in fact an appropriate role-model: the author's sedentary, out-of-the-limelight life -- with a wife named Hope ! to whom he's been married for thirty-five years -- has some appeal to young Zuckerman, but he learns even just from less than twenty-four hours spent in their company that this isn't quite the domestic bliss it might, at first glance, appears to be.
       There's Lonoff's writing, too, his wife summarizing a lifestyle where nearly everything seems frozen in place, with no room for (or openness to) the slightest change:

There is his religion of art [...]: rejecting life ! Not living is what he makes beautiful fiction out of !
       Roth -- and Zuckerman, even at that age -- of course make their fiction very much out of life, with even this account overflowing with personal detail and experience, down to Zuckerman's part-time magazine-selling job and recent break-up with his girlfriend. (Relationships, of almost any sort, do not come off well in this novel; each man, and woman, is more or less an island -- despite all the lust and deep attachments.) Much of Zuckerman's account feels confessional, too, rather than simply a recounting of specific events: if Lonoff works almost entirely from the mind's eye, Zuckerman is all hands-on (and, yes, there's an apparently obligatory masturbation-scene, too).
       The disagreement Zuckerman had with his father extends to family, community -- and tribe. Zuckerman's father even turned to and roped in a Judge Wapter, a man admired by the family and community who had been helpful when Zuckerman was applying to college, to get his son to re-think his position on the story. His father and the judge both argue that Zuckerman's portrayal of Jews in his story is problematic, because gentiles will read it only one way, with all their prejudices confirmed. (The judge even sends Zuckerman a letter, with ten provocative questions for the young author, concluding with nothing less than: "Can you honestly say that there is nothing in your short story that would not warm the heart of a Julius Streicher or Joseph Goebbels ?".) Zuckerman, meanwhile, argues for the ideals of art and truth over these objections. He had based the story on actual family experiences, complicating the matter: when his father argues: "People don't read art -- they read about people. And they judge them as such", it hits particularly close to home, after all.
       Zuckerman can't completely escape this conflict when he's visiting Lonoff -- it obviously weighs on his mind, and his parents continue to badger him, even at his retreat, and of course it is also a fundamental question the young writer must face about his work. At Lonoff's, over the course of an afternoon, dinner, and then the night he spends at the writer's house, other issues however also crowd for attention. There's the whole meeting-the-master, and Zuckerman's awed reaction, but then also the glimpses of a strained domesticity. Lonoff dreams of life in a villa outside Florence, for example, -- with a woman: "She would be thirty-five and she would make life beautiful for me". Suggesting that however respected and successful he now is, he hasn't lived quite the life he wished for, and that life with his wife, the mother of his children, and as a college professor, isn't quite so idyllic.
       A further complicating factor is the presence of a former student of Lonoff's, the beautiful mysterious, foreigner, Amy Bellette, only a few years older than Zuckerman. As Zuckerman learns, Amy also has some daddy-issues -- calling Lonoff 'Dad-da', curling on his lap, and with life-in-Florence-dreams of her own:
We could make each other so happy, I wouldn't be your little girl over there. I would when we played, but otherwise I'd be your wife.
       Lonoff brought Amy to the States, and an air of mystery remains around her. There's enough of the romantic and fantasist to Zuckerman for him to spin out a wild fantasy about her, and even the next morning he finds: "I was continually drawn back into the fiction I had evolved about her and the Lonoffs". And quite the fiction it is, imagining nothing less than that she is, in fact, Anne Frank. It's a fascinatingly spun-out section of the novel, the writer's (and young man's) fantasy creating a (life-)story -- and a figure to toy further with in his imagination, whether as prospective wife (he loves the idea of introducing her to his family) or as "E.I.Lonoff's femme fatale".
       Zuckerman spends the night at the Lonoff's, and the next morning is to head back to his writing-retreat, while Amy is to head back to Cambridge -- but what starts as a comfortable domestic scene over breakfast quickly falls apart. The others are all pulled away, out into the cold, but Lonoff recognizes that Zuckerman isn't a man of action, not for this scene, and points him to his desk:
"And you must have things to write down. There's paper on my desk."
     "Paper for what ?"
     "Your feverish notes."
       Lonoff is more an astute observer than Zuckerman at times seems to realize, too, and sees more of the future writer in Zuckerman than the young wannabe author understands himself:
     "I'll be curious to see how we all come out someday. It could be an interesting story. You're not so nice and polite in your fiction," he said. "You're a different person."
       Among the few things we know that happened after this fateful twenty-four hours is that Lonoff died five years later ("in 1961 of a bone-marrow disease") and his career was soon in eclipse; we also know that it took more than two decades until Zuckerman wrote about this experience. His father had warned: "People don't read art -- they read about people. And they judge them as such", and in treating the master, and his wife, and the mysterious Amy (whom Zuckerman will glimpse again, many years later, in Exit Ghost (2007)), Zuckerman treads, in a way (by holding off for so long), more cautiously than he had with the story that had so upset his father. But he is certainly not 'nice and polite' -- though the brutal honesty extends to his depiction of himself.
       The Ghost Writer is a curious mix of stories, a four-step more than four-act novel, going in surprisingly many directions. It doesn't feel fully fleshed-out -- a slightly hastily threading together of separate, more fully formed stories and ideas -- but is still quite satisfying, and certainly enjoyable. As a first step for the Zuckerman-narrator/character, with many installments to follow, it's a fine foundation and start.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 December 2017

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The Ghost Writer: Reviews: Philip Roth: Other books by Philip Roth under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author Philip Roth (1933-2018) wrote many highly acclaimed works and won numerous literary prizes.

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© 2017-2024 the complete review

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