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The Theatre of the Self

part 2

For a consideration of the related themes of fiction and identity, it is best to start with the first novel in the Zuckerman series, The Ghost Writer. This novel is an almost Jamesian tale about a young Jewish writer, Nathan Zuckerman, on a visit to an admired older author, E.I. Lonoff. Zuckerman hopes that Lonoff will somehow confirm him in his decision to uncompromisingly put all his energy at the service of his artistic calling – contrary to the wishes of his father, who demands an artistic compromise from his son over a short story that he thinks should not be published. Zuckerman is in search for an alternative paternal validation from Lonoff, who is to provide him with a more confident sense of selfhood both as an individual and as an artist.

To get a sense of how intimately the two themes of literature and selfhood are intertwined in this novel, it is necessary to take a close look at Nathan’s quarrel with his father. As much as his admiration for Lonoff’s work, it is this quarrel, which has greatly upset Nathan, that occasions his visit to Lonoff’s lonely farmhouse. Like the novel itself, this conflict seems initially only to have a literary import: Victor Zuckerman is angry over his son’s latest, as yet unpublished short story “Higher Education.” But the quarrel soon takes on a more personal tone on the one hand, while on the other suggesting broader implications that exceed the boundaries of the merely local and the merely familial. It has significance on various levels. In one sense, for instance, it is “autobiographical” – that is to say, it is a dramatization of Roth’s own quarrel, not with his father but with certain parts of the Jewish community in America, over his debut, Goodbye, Columbus (1959). But although the autobiographical dimension is certainly more than merely incidental, it is not what I want to consider here. The three dimensions of the quarrel that do concern me might be termed the aesthetic, the moral, and the personal or emotional.

To begin with the aesthetic dimension is to begin with the quarrel’s most general, almost “universal” level of significance. Being a conflict over a work of art, the quarrel takes on a certain classic stature – it becomes part of an age-old debate over the nature of mimesis, and the supposed immorality of fiction. There is a steady stream of objections to art dating back as far as Plato’s distrust of tragic poetry and Moses’ ban on images. The terms of the debate have inevitably shifted somewhat in the course of the centuries, but, crudely simplified, it can be said that artists are traditionally indicted on two counts. Firstly, their representation of reality can be considered too truthful, too painfully honest: things are being said that should have been left unspoken. Secondly, and contrarily, art can be accused of being radically dishonest, distorted, perversely one-sided: the artist is concealing the truth, hiding reality behind the veil of his artifice. In both cases, the quarrel is over mimesis; and although the two criticisms seem diametrically opposed, they are yet commonly combined in attacks on works of art accused of being distortive exactly because they are too keenly perceptive of reality.

This paradoxical combination is also at the heart of Victor Zuckerman’s reproaches to his son. Nathan’s excessive honesty seems to be at stake from the very beginning of the quarrel, when his father begins by saying “[w]ell, Nathan, ... you certainly didn’t leave anything out, did you?” (The Ghost Writer 62). But the terms immediately shift. When Nathan defends himself by saying “[t]hings had to be left out – it’s only fifty pages,” his father answers: “I mean you didn’t leave anything disgusting out” (The Ghost Writer 62). Nathan has not just been too honest, then, he has also been selectively perceptive, focusing too exclusively on the sordid details of the family feud described in his story. That his father’s objections are to Nathan’s mind rather confused becomes clearer in their exchange about cousin Sidney, who figures as a major character in Nathan’s story. His father says that Nathan is entirely mistaken about the “heroic” aspects of his cousin:

    “Sidney,” he said furiously, “never threw any redneck off any ship! Sidney threw the bull, Nathan! Sidney was a petty hoodlum who cared about nobody and nothing in this world but the good of Sidney!”
    “And who actually existed, Dad – and no better than I depict him!”
    “Better? He was worse! How rotten he was you don’t begin to know. I could tell you stories about that bastard that would make your hair stand on end.”
    “Then were are we? If he was worse – Oh, look, we’re not getting anywhere.”
(The Ghost Writer 67-68)

As a literary critic, of course, Nathan’s father has little authority, and the reader is hardly swayed, I should think, by his arguments on this score. Inasmuch as the quarrel enacts the old conflict between artists and society, he “stands for” society. And although we are part of society ourselves, in our capacity as sympathetic readers we yet tend to side with the artists. On the whole, we tend not to hold them responsible for all the reactions their work may provoke – Lonoff, for instance, is not responsible for the anti-Semitic mail he receives, just as Salman Rushdie is not really to blame for the calumniations heaped on his head. It seems to me, in any case, that it makes little sense to want to read and enjoy fiction if one does not hold that the artist has certain liberties of representation precisely at points where other people are fettered by the constraints of everyday morality.

But besides observing that Zuckerman senior does not seem to have a good insight in the nature of fiction, we may go further and pinpoint more exactly the faults of the “poetics” he implicitly seems to propagate. This seems to be a poetics of escapism. Nathan never explicitly uses this word, but insofar as he deigns to defend himself against his father’s accusations, this is the line he takes. The stories his father would like to see him write would be false and distortive – would be, in short, escapist fictions, in which Jews are only portrayed in a positive, inoffensive light. The father’s tactics against the threat of anti-Semitism are thus rather primitive, consisting of the replacement of one kind of escapist “fiction” – anti-Semitism – by another – a false depiction of an idealized Jewish community.

That this is Nathan’s line of defence appears only implicitly, as in the remark quoted above, that his cousin Sidney “actually existed, Dad – and no better than I depict him!” He clinches the point more neatly, if more obliquely, when he talks to his mother over the phone from the Quahsay writer’s colony to which he has fled to avoid further confrontations with his father. His mother calls to implore him to contact his father, but when in the course of their talk she has occasion to refer to the holocaust and to the possibility of violence threatening Jews, he flies off the handle, and shouts: “Ma, you want to see the physical violence done to the Jews of Newark, go to the office of the plastic surgeon where the girls get their noses fixed. That’s where the Jewish blood flows in Essex County, that’s where the blow is delivered – with a mallet! To their bones – and to their pride!” (The Ghost Writer 77). Although at first sight this seems to have nothing to do with literary art, yet Nathan accuses “the girls” of a similar escapism that his father falls prey to. Here, too, “aesthetics” – in this case plastic surgery – are undesirably mixed in with questionable social or “political” motives. All too often, Nathan suggests, “a prettier nose” actually amounts to “a less obviously Jewish nose.”3 The same desire to keep a low profile towards the Gentiles is evident in Victor Zuckerman’s remarks about “Higher Education.” Only by crushing reality’s bones, however, can such pleasant fictions be entertained. The father’s tastes suggest what might be called a poetics of unreality.

If the father’s aesthetic judgements are not calculated to win our hearts, he fares still worse where his moral authority is concerned. It is not that Victor does not pose valid questions, particularly with regard to Nathan’s authority to write about Jews, or the Zuckerman family. This is a legitimate question, and it will recur again and again in the Zuckerman books, even up until The Counterlife, where Zuckerman’s brother Henry complains about “his version, his interpretation, his picture refuting and impugning everyone else’s and swarming over everything! And where was his authority? Where?” (The Counterlife 235). But although it is legitimate to raise the issue of authority, few readers will want to agree with the father’s hasty settling of it. What is particularly disagreeable is the way Nathan’s father runs “to his moral mentor” (7), judge Wapter, a prominent figure in the Jewish community. At that point the father loses, for both Nathan and the reader, his own authority.4 The Wapters send Nathan a presumptuous letter, advising him strongly to consider his responsibilities as a son both of his father and of the Jewish community, and they attach ten preposterous “questions for nathan zuckerman,” culminating in the outrageous tenth question: “Can you honestly say that there is anything in your short story that would not warm the heart of a Julius Streicher or a Joseph Goebbels?” (The Ghost Writer 75). This missive definitively settles the question of which of the two parties in the quarrel we agree with – just as they settle the question for Nathan of whether he is going to heed his father’s warnings. For where, after all, is their authority to compare Zuckerman to people like Streicher and Goebbels?

But when we come to the third dimension of the quarrel, where it is the emotional authority of the father’s claim on Nathan that is concerned, matters become less clear-cut. Rightly so, of course, for Nathan would otherwise have had too easy a victory; after all, Roth is in all fairness obliged, as he himself admits, to “give the other guy the best lines” when he uses his fiction to polemicize.5 Thus, Victor Zuckerman may not in the end receive our full-hearted agreement, but he does have a case. Or if he does not, at least what he says rings true, sounds authentic, his concern is sincere and deserves to be heard and responded to with seriousness. It is at the level where the contestants do not represent anything but themselves, the “literal” level of the directly personal, familial quarrel, that the father’s anger has its biggest impact on Nathan.

The father receives the reader’s sympathy partly because Nathan is shown to be unsure of himself. The moment his father takes him aside, Nathan knows what is coming, and asks himself: “Why hadn’t I waited to see if I could even get it published, and then shown him the story already in print? Or would that only have made it worse?” (The Ghost Writer 62). Secondly, the father does sound authoritative when, for instance, they discuss their cousin Sidney. He probably does know Sidney better than Nathan, and even if the latter’s portrayal of Sidney is not flawed in a strictly technical, artistic sense, it may still fail to do justice to “the real Sidney.” Finally, Nathan’s vulnerability is also underlined in another way: the discussion with his father over his story takes place during a walk in the same park his father used to take him to when he was a child. Not surprisingly, the quarrel thus becomes punctuated by nostalgic memories of childhood. Probably that is why he is so taciturn, unwilling to enter the discussion: these are obviously not some ordinary literary critic’s objections he has to deal with; it is a far more important, more personal matter. Nathan consequently gets more upset than he would perhaps become about a strictly technical, literary question, and eager to get away from his father’s nagging. He hops onto the first bus that comes along, setting out as planned to the Quahsay writer’s colony, to devote himself to his craft. It is exactly the emotional turmoil that the quarrel has thrown him in that finally leads to Zuckerman’s extravagant fantasies in chapters three and four of The Ghost Writer, where he outrageously hypothesizes an American post-war life for Anne Frank, and even goes so far as to envisage her possible marriage to himself to strengthen his credentials as a Jewish writer, to counter his father and judge Wapter’s accusations of betrayal.

Nathan’s eagerness to get on the bus without having satisfactorily discussed matters, however, results in an inevitable and irreversible hardening of positions. The reason why Nathan is so affected is that he is faced with the dilemma of self-definition. This becomes clear in the final exchange between the two, just before Nathan leaves for Quahsay. In a nutshell it gives the central subject of all the Zuckerman novels, the identity problem that ensues from the choice Nathan has to make. “This story isn’t us, and what is worse, it isn’t even you,” his father says, and he goes on:

    “You are a loving boy. I watched you like a hawk all day. I’ve watched you all your life. You are a good and kind and considerate young man. You are not somebody who writes this kind of story and then pretends it’s the truth.”
    “But I did write it.” The light changed, the New York bus started toward us across the intersection – and he threw his arms onto my shoulders. Making me all the more belligerent. “I am the kind of person who writes this kind of story!”
    “You’re not,” he pleaded, shaking me just a little.
(The Ghost Writer 69)

His father shakes Nathan in more than only a physical sense, of course. Maybe he shakes him only a little, but in crucial matters the least instability cause collapse. And this matter is crucial because at issue is, quite fundamentally, what Nathan is. This is not simply a question of finding out a pre-existent “hidden essence”: far harder, it is about a conscious choice, about what Nathan decides to become. The final “I am” is partly impulsive, spurred by his father’s – as he feels it – pushiness. But the choice Nathan faces is real. Deciding to go on with publication, deciding, simply, to become a novelist who will listen to the demands of his Muse first, and to the imprecations of his family only in the second place – this decision will entail a redefinition of self that is to prove far from unproblematic. It is this question that will dominate all the Zuckerman novels to come – the question of how Zuckerman is to define himself and his position in society, as well as vis à vis his family and the Jewish community at large.

One more thing that can be traced back to his father’s impassioned plea is the yearning for seriousness that is the driving force of much of the trilogy: “Look, Nathan, let me have my say. ... If you were going to turn out to be nobody, I wouldn’t be taking this seriously. But I do take you seriously – and you have to take yourself seriously, and what you are doing” (The Ghost Writer 66). But Zuckerman and seriousness, thereby hangs a trilogy. We will see him struggling to reconcile the demands of high seriousness on the one hand and the high fun of his humorous books on the other throughout the next novels. In Zuckerman Unbound he is called a “sucker for seriousness.”6 But he is a sucker for it in the way Tantalus was for his apple: it is always just out of his reach. Nevertheless, his father’s insistence on seriousness is branded in his memory.

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3: I do not know whether this kind of plastic surgery actually was an integral feature of the assimilation of the fifties (although of course American teenagers in general have a reputation for going to the plastic surgeon as to a hairdresser). But Nathan’s remark does tally with similar teasing jokes made by the protagonist of Roth’s own “Goodbye, Columbus” to his girlfriend. The suggestion is not necessarily that the girls have a conscious intention not to be taken for Jews – their adherence to the reigning aesthetic ideals may simply entail an increased sensitivity to stereotypic images of what Jews are supposed to look like. (Back.)

4: Victor Zuckerman’s recourse to a “higher authority” echoes a passage in Roth’s essay/story “Looking at Kafka”: “If there is not one father standing in Kafka’s way, there is another – and another behind him. Dora’s father, writes Max Brod in his biography of Kafka, ‘set off with [Kafka’s] letter to consult the man he honored most, whose authority counted more than anything else for him, the “Gerer Rebbe.” The rabbi read the letter, put it to one side, and said nothing more than the single syllable, “No”’” (Reading Myself and Others 309). This essay also foreshadows The Ghost Writer in another respect, namely in inventing a counterlife for Kafka in America much the way Zuckerman does for Anne Frank. (Back.)

5: In an interview with The London Sunday Times, the interviewer remarks, à propos of The Anatomy Lesson, that the literary critic Milton Appel in that book comes out of the argument with Zuckerman “rather well – better than Zuckerman, in fact.” Roth replies: “Of course you give the other guy the best lines. Otherwise it’s a mug’s game” (Reading Myself and Others 131). (Back.)

6: In the first chapter, Zuckerman is accosted on the street by Alvin Pepler, a would-be writer who wants to engage him in a discussion about agents and editors. Pepler says: “That’s why I asked you about an agent, an editor – somebody fresh who wouldn’t be prejudiced right off. Who would understand that this is serious.” And the text goes on: “Zuckerman, sucker though he was for seriousness, was still not going to be drawn into a discussion about agents and editors. If ever there was a reason for an American writer to seek asylum in Red China, it would be to put ten thousand miles between himself and those discussions” (Zuckerman Unbound 149). (Back.)

More about Roth:
Roths 'Late Years'
Over Exit Ghost

MA thesis
Vrije Universiteit
January 1994

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part 2
part 3
part 4
part 5
part 6
part 7
part 8
part 9