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John Donne
Edmund Spenser
Philip Roth
Cynthia Ozick
Henry James

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The Theatre of the Self

part 4

Nathan’s visit to Lonoff, then, does not resolve his identity problem either. But what the preceding discussion has, I hope, suggested, is that his profession is to play a large role in his struggle to define who he is as an individual and as a writer. Art and life are indeed deeply connected, and not only in the sense that the label “artist” is to provide Nathan both with a livelihood and a sense of identity. What Nathan finally has to achieve is a more workable balance between the two poles that are symbolized by the unnecessary cruelty he practised on Betsy in what he told her, on the one hand, and the sentimental escapism of the account of their relationship he gives to the Lonoffs on the other. Reading and writing prove to be relevant to more than just books, and in more than just a metaphorical sense. The way in which Zuckerman fails to create a happy life for himself as he creates a bestseller is one of the things the Zuckerman novels are concerned with. As I will try to show further on, it is through fiction and writing that Zuckerman will become less and less certain about himself, just as it will eventually be by fiction and fiction writing that he will regain confidence. As Peter Tarnopol, the protagonist of Roth’s My Life as a Man (1974) and himself the author of two “autobiographical” short stories about another Nathan Zuckerman, puts it: “literature got me into this, and literature is gonna have to get me out.”12

A relevant notion in this connection is the idea (a postmodern commonplace by now) that we “write” and “read” our lives, both in making them cohere in our recollections and in making decisions about our future actions. In both, “reading” and “writing” are not opposed but inextricably interwoven – we “rewrite” our memories in “reading” them, and we “read” our present predicaments to decide how to “write” our own futures. This idea is certainly relevant to Roth’s fiction. Before I go on to discuss further the problem of selfhood and how it is dramatized in the novels, therefore, it will be instructive briefly to consider various instances of writing and reading as a theme in Roth’s fiction.

How important even the unmetaphorical, mere physical acts of writing and reading can be becomes obvious early on in The Ghost Writer, as soon as Lonoff has retired to bed. Left alone in the admired author’s study, Zuckerman first draws up a list of all the books he feels compelled to read only because Lonoff has read them (“halfway down the page I already seemed to have sentenced myself to a lifetime at hard labor”), and immediately starts off by twice reading Henry James’ “The Middle Years,” “as though preparing to be examined on it in the morning” (The Ghost Writer 56). Then also, we learn that “[o]n a clear sheet of paper I finally wrote down what [Lonoff had] said so as to see exactly what he’d meant. All he’d meant” (The Ghost Writer 57). This suggests that the meaning – the full meaning – is never apparent at first sight, that it requires writing and reading, recording and interpretation to bring it out. And it also hints at ways in which writing and reading are essentially similar, rather than opposed, as we usually think.

In both his essays and his novels, several instances can be found where Roth shows his awareness of the near-identity of reading and writing in a general sense. Usually, one can detect it in some kind of “double-barrelled” phrase, as for instance when he calls The Castle “Kafka’s novel about the difficulties of getting through” (Reading Myself and Others x). This aptly expresses the double frustration of communication that is the subject of The Castle. On the one hand, its protagonist K. cannot get his message across, cannot “get through” to the Castle; and on the other hand, he is at a loss how to interpret the scant signals emitted by the Castle, is unable to “get through” to their real meaning. Both on the sending and the receiving end, communication is hampered.

A similar conflation of the two opposed acts of reading and writing, sending and receiving, uttering and interpreting is made in The Ghost Writer in connection with Lonoff. We learn that he has to underline key sentences of what he reads, even if it is the most trivial magazine article, so as to let it “get through” to him. “Of course, I have always read books with pen in hand,” he says, “but now I find that if I don’t, even while reading magazines, my attention is not on what’s in front of me” (The Ghost Writer 17). Hence Zuckerman’s later reference to Lonoff’s “reading pen” (34), the pen Lonoff uses for underscoring. The phrase reads like a truthful paradox, if read not as “a pen used while reading to underscore key sentences” but as “a pen that reads,” or “a pen used for reading.” The phrase thus hints at the fact that actually each writing pen is a “reading pen” – that is to say, that each writer’s writing is always also a reading, a rewriting of what has been written before.

The observation may seem trivial and irrelevant to its context, yet it proves actually to be quite crucial to The Ghost Writer. After all, Zuckerman’s artistic calling is shown to be very much connected with his sense of a place in the tradition, with Henry James and Isaac Babel (and E.I. Lonoff) as main points of orientation; and we also find quite a lot of actual rewriting in the novel itself. The clearest example is the rewriting of the biography and the diary of Anne Frank. The scandalous invention of an American “afterlife” for Anne is of course most salient, but in the process of re-imagining her life the diary is quite extensively retold as well. And in his retelling, Zuckerman interpretively stresses certain features that reveal his own preoccupations, such as Anne’s ambitions to become a writer, and her conflict with and letter to her father (which, reinforced by other references to Kafka, is also made into an implicit allusion to the famous Brief and den Vater). Also, on a different level, the retelling clearly reflects Roth’s interests and habits of mind. Thus, he characteristically pounces on the “doubling” of the sisters Margot and Anne, in terms of a strict, religious Jewishness versus a more worldly attitude – a dichotomy that is not by far as pronounced, if even present at all, in the actual Diary.

But The Ghost Writer suggests other ways than just intertextuality in which writing is at the same time a form of reading. A lot of reading also goes into self-criticism, in writing and rewriting drafts – typically, in the case of Lonoff, about twenty-seven of them. Lonoff loudly complains about this painstaking process, saying that all he ever does in life is “turn sentences around.” And this phrase, too, reinforces my point about the importance of interpretation in Roth’s work. For surely this is a reference to “the famous Talmudic saying, ‘Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it.’”13 This adds colour, of course, to the ironic portrayal of Lonoff as a rabbinical figure – the lofty countervoice of art is implicitly pitted against the religious admonishments of the Judaic tradition. But the allusion is more than an ironic jibe at the age-old tradition of biblical text commentary. Rather, it serves to “borrow” that tradition’s seriousness, to argue against the supposed frivolity of the artist’s desire to “get it right.” To the mere pleasure of reading and interpreting literature is now added the urgent seriousness of biblical exegesis.

Another instance where the affinity of literary and theological interpretation is suggested is in the conflict between Nathan and his father. “Higher Education” centres on a conflict of interpretation – the conflict, specifically, over two words, over “how exhaustive Meema Chaya had meant to be in her will with the ringing words ‘higher education’” (The Ghost Writer 60). Because this interpretive conflict has only pecuniary motives, rather than religious ones, it is quite a savage travesty of biblical exegesis; Victor Zuckerman is not aware of this, but this parody is even a greater chutzpa than Nathan’s showing the family at its worst. And this kind of interpretive uncertainty and conflict with respect to relatively simple phrases or phenomena is characteristic of all the novels in the trilogy. Just as the story “Higher Education” centres on the conflict over the interpretation of two words, The Ghost Writer itself in turn centres on the conflict over the fifteen thousand words of that story. In the next novel, Zuckerman Unbound, there is a similar interpretive problem with the father’s dying breath – with which he possibly curses his eldest son. The father’s dying word is given to us not as objective, descriptive fact, but – like almost everything in the Zuckerman novels – filtered through Zuckerman’s consciousness and other characters’ interpretations. He may have said “bastard” – indeed, this is the most likely reading – but it may also have been “faster,” or “vaster,” or “better,” or “batter.” Next, in The Anatomy Lesson, interpretation focuses on Zuckerman’s excruciating and mysterious neck pain, possibly a result of his father’s possible final curse. “They just kept coming, these diagnoses. Everybody had a slant. The illness with a thousand meanings. They would read the pain as his fifth book” (The Anatomy Lesson 354). But Zuckerman is by now so fed up with the whole doubt-ridden process of interpretation that he adamantly refuses to ascribe any meaning whatsoever to his ailment; throwing a volume of poetry across the room in the opening scene, he mentally exclaims: “Absolutely not! He refused to make of his collar, or of the affliction it was designed to assuage, a metaphor for anything grandiose” (The Anatomy Lesson 299).14

In all three novels, then, exegesis of single words or phenomena is in question – single facts eliciting multiple interpretations. It is in this that Roth’s writing perhaps manifests itself most clearly as rooted in a Jewish tradition: in his fascination with, as Robert Alter calls it, “the notion of textuality as a vehicle of truth.”15 The importance attached by Roth to interpretation is not, however, the result of a deeply felt religious concern, as it is in the Judaic tradition. On the contrary, in Roth’s work the principle of the primacy of interpretation is thoroughly secularized. More than that, it is conceived as a mode of life, rooted in life, and is applied to the world as much as to texts. The above-quoted example from The Anatomy Lesson illustrates this nicely: it is not only words that can be scrutinized and prodded with an interpretive stick, but real-world, actual physical phenomena like a pain as well. Zuckerman’s refusal to read a meaning in his pain is, of course, a denial of the very possibility that “literature got him into this and literature is gonna have to get him out.” But the point of the pain is exactly that it can indeed be read as Zuckerman’s fifth book, although it can be “read” differently too. As I started out by saying, the point is that imaginative creation and interpretation are not just matters of the writer’s study.

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12: The phrase seems to be a favourite of Roth’s. The title of a chapter in My Life as a Man, it is re-used to head a section of The Philip Roth Reader (1980) as well. The section contains, incidentally, the second chapter of The Ghost Writer, from which I will quote below. (Back.)

13: Quoted in Norman Finkelstein, The Ritual of New Creation (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992) 46. The saying must indeed be famous, for Robert Alter also cites it: “‘Turn it over, and turn it over again, for everything is in it,’ according to Ben Bag-Bag’s famous formulation in the Mishnah Avot’ (Necessary Angels: Tradition and Modernity in Kafka, Benjamin, and Scholem [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP; Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1991] 72). Even though Roth says he knows very little about Judaism, surely he will not be ignorant of this phrase. (Back.)

14: The refusal is stubbornly carried on by Roth outside the novel:
“[Interviewer:]But because the pain isn’t diagnosed, because it’s a mystery pain, we might tend to view it as symbolic pain, as pain visited upon him by the Appels, by the less than first-rate women, by the state of Zuckerman’s career, and so on.
     “Symbolic pain? Could be for all I know. But in a real shoulder. What hurts is a real neck and shoulder. The trouble with pains is they don’t feel symbolic, except maybe to critics.
     “Of course Zuckerman ends the book in an advanced state of metaphor, with his mouth wired shut by surgery.
     “He breaks his jaw falling on a tombstone in a Jewish cemetery, after overdosing on painkillers and booze. What’s so metaphorical about that? Happens all the time.” (“Interview with The London Sunday Times,” in Reading Myself and Others, 132, 133). (Back.)

15: Robert Alter, Necessary Angels, xiii. For the connection between an interpretive bent and Jewishness, cf. also Harold Bloom: “You don’t have to be Jewish to be a compulsive interpreter, but, of course, it helps.” Bloom writes this after having suggested that for Kafka and Freud “finally their Jewishness consists in their intense obsession with interpretation, as such. All Jewish writing tends to be outrageously interpretive ...” (Preface, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi [New York: Schocken, 1989] xxii‑xxiii). (Back.)

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

MA thesis
Vrije Universiteit
January 1994

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