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John Donne
Edmund Spenser
Philip Roth
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The Theatre of the Self

part 5

The importance of interpretation outside books probably applies most urgently to the self. Interpretation is, in fact, a dire necessity for the modern self – necessary if one is to know the world and to learn one’s place in it. This is a result of the crisis of identity caused by the “death of God” and the resultant crisis of authority16– ironically so, because on the one hand the heavily interpretive Judaic tradition is partly responsible for Roth’s interest in interpretation, while on the other hand interpretation is a need created by his very disaffection from that tradition and his revolt against its authority. But however that may be, it is the interconnectedness of Roth’s interest in interpretation and the problem of the definition of the self that I want to stress here. This interconnectedness is implicitly hinted at in the following quotation from an interview with Roth by Hermione Lee for the Paris Review:

The Jewish quality of books like mine doesn’t really reside in their subject matter. Talking about Jewishness hardly interests me at all. It’s a kind of sensibility that makes, say, The Anatomy Lesson Jewish, if anything does; the nervousness, the excitability, the arguing, the dramatizing, the indignation, the obsessiveness, the touchiness, the play-acting – above all the talking. The talking and the shouting. Jews will go on, you know. It isn’t what it’s talking about that makes a book Jewish – it’s that the book won’t shut up. The book won’t leave you alone. Won’t let up. Gets too close. “Listen, listen – that’s only the half of it!”
(Reading Myself and Others 162‑3)

The reason for the shouting and talking has to do, exactly, with the ever-present possibility of new interpretations. There is always talk because of an essential open-endedness, because issues can never be closed off. There is always something more, there is always another side, another half to tell. And this open-endedness is here directly related to the definition of the self, of course – more specifically, to the definition of a Jewish “kind of sensibility.” Roth’s concept of the self is closely bound up with this definition of Jewishness. As I will argue further on, Roth conceives of the self exactly as a troupe of multiple selves, all clamouring for attention, all crying out “listen, listen – that’s only the half of it!”

Central to this concept of the self is the notion of “play-acting” that Roth here mentions. The idea of play-acting and the theatricality of the self plays a major role in the Zuckerman novels, and it is this motif that I want to trace in the rest of this essay. The notion of theatricality is very important in the novels because it involves a conflict between authenticity and make-believe, between sincerity and play-acting, that is central to the trilogy’s themes. It is in this motif, in fact, that the two themes of the search for selfhood and the problems of artisthood converge: how does the “lie” of a theatrical performance relate to the “lies” of the novelist’s fictions? The motif refers to the theatrical aspects of everyday life in general, while at the same time containing an artistic dimension that makes it especially relevant to the novel’s explorations of the artist theme.

In the conflict between authenticity and play-acting, the negative value of the inauthentic is, quite expectably, frequently associated with all forms of play-acting, and this is exactly what will lead to Zuckerman’s identity crisis. This is already the case in The Ghost Writer, where the actual crisis is as yet only adumbrated, but where all the elements that will contribute to it are present. Before I go on to trace the motif of play-acting through the subsequent Zuckerman novels, therefore, a brief consideration of the motif’s role in this first novel is in order. It will give some idea of the arguments that are at stake in this issue.

Although play-acting is an important motif in all the Zuckerman novels, it may seem at first sight to be of limited relevance in The Ghost Writer, being restricted to such “local effects” as a stray reference to the actress wife of Felix Abravanel, the worldly, fashionable author who is the exact opposite of the reclusive Lonoff, or casual allusions like a reference to the snow outside Lonoff’s house falling as in “a silent-film studio” (The Ghost Writer 39). More central is the role played in the novel by the stage version of Anne Frank’s diary.17 Every reader will agree that the most astonishing aspect of the novel lies in Roth’s daring to imagine scenes like the one in which the “real” Anne Frank is watching a Broadway performance of the play about her life – and thoroughly disliking the audience’s tears. There is a strong suggestion that even if Amy Bellette were only pretending to be Anne Frank, she might still be performing a sincerer act than the Broadway actress impersonating Anne on stage. But – to paraphrase E.I. Lonoff quoting Jimmy Durante – it seems that Broadway can’t do widout her anymore, though she can don well do widout Broadway.

But the relevance of the theatrical motif is not limited to these instances. Its more central importance emerges in connection with the opposition between E.I. Lonoff and his “double” and opposite, Felix Abravanel. Noticing only such literal references as the one to Abravanel’s ex-wife’s profession would gloss over the important elements of show in the description of himself, of whom “the overall impression was of somebody’s stand-in” (The Ghost Writer 43). Performance, outward show is clearly an important part of Abravanel’s make-up – there always hovers an aura of showbizz around him, with his actress wives and celebrity-reporter-mistress. It is what makes him so unapproachable to the young Nathan, despite his seeming approachability. It is also, therefore, what finally drives Nathan into the arms of Lonoff, seemingly inaccessible but actually welcoming.18

There is a clear opposition between Abravanel the showbizz man, his self hidden behind his “oceanic charm,” and Lonoff the sincere ascetic, incapable of dazzling deception, his self laid bare for all to see. The dominant picture of the latter is that of an enemy of histrionics, much in the same way as he is, as I argued above, an enemy to his wife’s giving her version of the story of their married life. He has at one point to concede Hope’s success in rendering an account of being married to Lonoff: “That is enough. Quite thorough, very accurate, and enough” (The Ghost Writer 124). But on the whole, as we have already seen, he does not approve of her “act”: “Hope, this is play-acting. And pure indulgence” (The Ghost Writer 123). What is more remarkable, however, is that he voices such disparagements not only to Hope, but also to her rival, Amy Bellette, in the scene overheard by Nathan, just after Lonoff has given his Durante imitations:

The floor creaked where her two feet had suddenly landed. So she had been on his lap! “Look!”
    “Cover yourself.”
    “My corpse.”
    Scuffling on the floorboards. The heavy tread of Lonoff on the move.
    “Good night.”
    “Look at it.”
    “Melodrama, Amy. Cover up.”
    “You prefer tragedy?”
    “Don’t wallow. You’re not convincing. Decide not to lose hold – and then don’t.”
                 (The Ghost Writer 86)

If we would read a little perversely, we could almost say that Lonoff seems to judge Hope and Amy’s behaviour merely in aesthetic terms (“you’re not convincing”) – that their bad play-acting jars on his aesthetic sensibilities rather than on his sense of propriety or on his emotions. Such an observation is not entirely off the mark. Actually, what Lonoff does is not so much impugn the two women’s “artistic ability” as their authenticity; their scenes seem to Lonoff so theatrical that he cannot take them entirely seriously – their play-acting supposedly drowns their authentic feelings in a sea of empty histrionic gestures and cheap emotions.

Thus, in The Ghost Writer a negative valuation of the theatre may seem to prevail. But that impression is deceptive; in fact, Lonoff’s disapproval is not unambiguously endorsed by Roth. First of all, the antithesis between Lonoff and Abravanel is susceptible to reversal: although Lonoff loudly proclaims that he “has no self,” he has ego enough to be flattered by the attentions of his youthful admirer – something for which Abravanel does not really have time. Abravanel’s self, on the other hand, may not be quite as boundless as one usually expects from such a media figure. “In the flesh,” Nathan says, “he gave the impression of being out to lunch.” Not his ego is boundless, but the outward show that is meant to hide it, his charm “like a moat so oceanic that you could not even see the great turreted and buttressed thing it had been dug to protect. You couldn’t even find the drawbridge” (The Ghost Writer 42). The well-hidden, turreted thing might not be quite as “great, turreted and buttressed” as the moat that protects it seems to suggest. As for Lonoff, moreover, perhaps his role of priestly ascetic is only an act too. That he can depart from it becomes clear when in the conversation with Zuckerman he takes an “unforeseen plunge into street talk” (The Ghost Writer 51): “a blunt, colloquial, pointedly ungrandiloquent Lonoff seemed to take turns with a finicky floorwalker Lonoff as official representative to the unwritten world” (The Ghost Writer 49). And the picture of a histrionic Lonoff is completed when Nathan hears him taking a little holiday from being the stultified literary monk by “doing” the great Durante.

Secondly, as regards Lonoff’s view of the “scenes” with Hope and Amy, it is only on his own definition that the women’s behaviour is “melodramatic,” overdone: from their perspective, no doubt, he is unnaturally sustaining his act of self-renunciation, and they are only trying to break through it, and are themselves not play-acting but revealing their innermost (hysteric) selves. I will not say that this is how these scenes have to be read: for various reasons the text is more in collusion with the perspective of Lonoff. But it should be noted that this collusion has an ironic twist, and that it leaves room for other viewpoints, other terms to describe its subjects – there is always a margin for crying out “wait, wait, but that’s only the half of it!”

I say this not in order to construct a supersubtle reading, but because it is exactly the positive aspects of “play-acting” that will gradually receive more emphasis in the subsequent novels. This development is prepared for in The Ghost Writer. What the whole of the Zuckerman saga forcibly suggests is that there can be no escaping play-acting, that there is no clear opposition between play-acting on the one hand and authentic selfhood on the other. Rather than authenticity, it is sincerity that matters, and play-acting is not opposed to sincerity: instead, the opposition becomes one between sincere and insincere (play‑)acting. It is in play-acting that Zuckerman will finally have to resolve the conflicts of selfhood that he struggles with in the novels. To paraphrase Peter Tarnopol once more, if it is play-acting that gets Zuckerman into the identity crisis he is to suffer from, it is also play-acting that is going to have to get him out. In order to chart this development, I intend to discuss the most significant occurrences of the theatrical motif in the Zuckerman novels in the rest of this essay.

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16: The absence of a God creates what in politics is called a “power vacuum”: there is no longer a central authority from which the law can be derived. This is a central question in all of Roth’s work; as he puts it himself in an interview about The Great American Novel: “From whom shall one receive the Commandments? The Patimkins? Lucy Nelson? Trick E. Dixon?” (Reading Myself and Others 84). And it is precisely this absence of an ultimate authority that creates the need for interpretation. If one can no longer decide on the right way to act by consulting the Law, one will have to start interpreting not just the text of the law, but other texts – and not only texts, but the world. (Back.)

17: The play is important also for allowing Roth to strengthen the “thematic architecture” of the entire trilogy: both in Zuckerman Unbound and The Prague Orgy there are further references to it. (Back.)

18: The fact that Lonoff is really second choice is concealed, yet it is undeniably implied: “[S]ome three years earlier, after several hours in the presence of Felix Abravanel, I had been no less overcome. But if I did not fall at his feet straightaway, it was because [...] with Abravanel such boundless adoration [...] was doomed to go unrequited” (The Ghost Writer, 41). And he concludes his story about Abravanel thus: “All of this was why, from Quahsay, I had mailed my four published stories to Lonoff. Felix Abravanel was clearly not in the market for a twenty-three-year-old son” (The Ghost Writer, 48). (Back.)

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

MA thesis
Vrije Universiteit
January 1994

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part 6
part 7
part 8
part 9