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The Theatre of the Self

Art and Selfhood
in Philip Roth's Zuckerman Novels

“With respect to all forms of text-oriented literary criticism and theory that have been developed so far, it can be said that in the course of a literary essay, terms generally prove to undergo numerous shifts of meaning, and critics prove to entertain specific postulates about the reading process, to use reasoning by analogy, and to group phenomena in distinct categories in arbitrary ways. Hardly any questions are ever being asked about the meaning of the terms employed or about the conditions in which they could be applied to the research object without ambiguity.”1
Hugo Verdaasdonk

“I believe that literary criticism has about it neither rigour nor proof. Where it is honest, it is passionate, private experience seeking to persuade.”
George Steiner

“Literary criticism is often very inneresting.”
Delmore Schwartz

part 1

This is an essay about those of Philip Roth’s books that are known as the Zuckerman novels: The Ghost Writer (1979), Zuckerman Unbound (1981), The Anatomy Lesson (1983) – together collected as Zuckerman Bound (1985) – and The Counterlife (1986).2 These are called the Zuckerman novels because they all deal with Roth’s fictional alter ego, the novelist Nathan Zuckerman. Through this character, Roth explores general issues like the relation of art to life and the question of identity in a concrete way by giving an account of Zuckerman’s struggle to devote his life to his art. In this account, Roth stresses the interdependency of the two issues of selfhood and art, which will hence determine the focus of my paper. I intend to provide a discussion of the argument of these novels rather than, for instance, a stylistic or narratological analysis. The identity crisis of Nathan Zuckerman – as a writer, a son, a Jew, a lover, an alleged anti-Semite, a doctor, a pornographer king, and so forth – will be a first focus. The relation of his fiction to his personal reality, or the role of his art in his life, will be a second. As a synthesis, I will eventually end with a discussion of how the novels can be said to make a statement about the role of fictionalization in the constitution of the self in general, as evidenced in the case of Zuckerman in particular.

In the first part of my essay, I will discuss how the young Zuckerman’s art leads him into trouble in The Ghost Writer. A consideration of the young novelist’s quarrel with his father over a short story, and of his relations with his girlfriend and with an admired older author, will show that the questions of life and art, of selfhood and artisthood, are far from separate issues. A fair amount of space will be taken up by this discussion of The Ghost Writer, because although it is the shortest, it is also the most concentrated of all the Zuckerman novels, and already contains most of the terms in which the argument of the subsequent novels will be cast.

After having next briefly considered the importance to the Zuckerman novels of the theme of reading and writing, the second half of the essay will then be devoted to one particular motif that best captures Zuckerman’s combined crisis in both his personal and his professional life. This is the motif of play-acting and theatricality. It is as a conflict between authenticity and counterfeit, between sincerity and play-acting, that the conflicts between reality and fiction, between truth and (novelistic) lies, between life and art, are most effectively dramatized and summed up in the novels. As though composing a series of musical variations on a theme, Roth has kept juggling the terms of all these antitheses, with the notion of play-acting as a constant ground note. Tracing this motif from The Ghost Writer through Zuckerman Unbound and The Anatomy Lesson up to The Counterlife, therefore, provides an excellent way into the novels’ thematic argument.

As I see it, this argument moves from an initial seeming condemnation of play-acting in The Ghost Writer to a manifest celebration of it in The Counterlife. From an apparent stress on the insincerities or ambiguities of theatrical performance, the novels move towards an affirmation of the values of play-acting as paradigmatic of creative fictionalization, of the meaning-generating, world-constructing abilities of the human imagination. It is in The Counterlife that this resolution to the problems outlined in the earlier novels is elaborated most extensively. It involves, moreover, certain views on Jewish identity, indeed, on the very nature of the notion of identity and on the production of meaning, that are very intimately connected to the notion of a “theatrical existence,” and that I will therefore also briefly try to outline at the end of my essay.

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1: “In alle vormen van tekstgerichte literatuurbeschouwing die tot dusverre zijn ontwikkeld blijken termen in de loop van een literatuurbeschouwelijk betoog tal van betekenisverschuivingen te ondergaan, specifiek postulaten over het leesproces te worden gehuldigd, analogie-redeneringen te worden toegepast, en verschijnselen op arbitraire wijze in onderscheiden klassen te worden ingedeeld. Vragen over de betekenis van de gebruikte termen en over de voorwaarden waaronder zij eenduidig met het object van onderzoek verbonden kunnen worden blijven vrijwel achterwege.” The English translation is mine. (Back.)

2: All quotations from works of Roth will be accompanied by parenthetical title and page references. I have quoted from the following editions of the novels: The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, and The Anatomy Lesson all from the one-volume Zuckerman Bound (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1989); The Counterlife (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988). In addition, I will refer to Roth’s collection of essays, Reading Myself and Others (2nd, expanded edition, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985 [1975]), and to his autobiographical book Patrimony (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991). (Back.)

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

MA thesis
Vrije Universiteit
January 1994

part 1
part 2
part 3
part 4
part 5
part 6
part 7
part 8
part 9