At the age of forty-six, Philip Roth has relented. He has written a short and touching novel, The Ghost Writer,1 which is remarkably free of the zeal for settling scores that soured so much of his work. In place of the animosity he lavished on nouveau-riche vulgarians in Goodbye, Columbus, on repressive Jewish mothers in Portnoy’s Complaint, and destructive Gentile wives in My Life As a Man, Roth has drawn the characters in The Ghost Writer with delicacy, compassion, and a tender respect for their honorable intentions.
It is true that Roth had already become noticeably less malicious in The Professor of Desire (1977), the account of poor David Kepesh’s life before his grotesque metamorphosis in The Breast (1972). After the repugnant and pitiless inanity of that fable, Roth’s return to David Kepesh had barely a hint of his earlier Schadenfreude, as though a change of heart made him want to start all over again. Roth’s fondness for using the same name and situation in several supposedly unrelated novels crops up once again in The Ghost Writer. The narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, a troubled young Jewish writer from Newark, has appeared before, in My Life As a Man, where he was the protagonist of two stories, printed entire, by Peter Tarnapol, a novelist tormented by his crazy wife. But as one might expect, Zuckerman present is not quite the same man as Zuckerman past. For one thing, Roth has endowed him with cultural sophistication and a fervent sense of literary vocation that were scarcely evident the first time. More important, he is obsessed not with the post-mortem of a hellish marriage, as he was in Tarnapol’s stories, but with the classic tension that plagues writers—the discordant demands of art and life.
Life has recently been battering Nathan’s conscience because his father, after reading a long story his son has written about an ancient family scandal, has accused him of betraying the Jews by disclosing such vulgarity and greed to a hostile world (“not for the goyim”). The arguments and raised voices have only made things worse, and Nathan has been unable to think of a way to soothe his father’s bruised feelings while retaining his own literary integrity. How can he persuade his father—and the unctuous Judge Wapter to whom Dr. Zuckerman, a chiropodist, has turned for help—that the offending story is an artistic transfiguration of life that cannot be judged simply as raw experience?
As we gradually learn, Nathan is still distressed by the rift with his father when he arrives, at the beginning of The Ghost Writer, at an isolated Berkshire farmhouse to visit the great American Jewish novelist, E. I. Lonoff. To be granted an audience by the legendary recluse is a rare privilege, and Nathan has come as an excited pilgrim to pay homage to and seek encouragement from this “ideal father” who is “an artist instead of a foot doctor.” It is a situation rich in Jamesian echoes of the tales and novellas about the literary life, such as “The Lesson of the Master” and “The Figure in the Carpet,” which Henry James was writing in the 1880’s and 90’s. The very opening of The Ghost Writer (“It was the last daylight hour of a December afternoon more than twenty years ago . . . when I arrived at his hideaway to meet the great man”) is immediately reminiscent, though far more spare, of the first sentence of “The Author of Beltraffio”: “Much as I wished to see him . . . I was nervous and timid about meeting him—conscious of youth and ignorance, convinced that he was tormented by strangers . . . and not exempt from the suspicion that he had the irritability as well as the brilliancy of genius.” In the course of the novel, Roth amplifies and orchestrates these echoes so cleverly that James himself becomes a ghostly collaborator rather than a bookish allusion.
Lonoff and James, together, are the magisterial instructive presence for the young acolyte, but the novel abounds with other literary ghosts: Kafka, Chekhov, Babel, Flaubert, and, perhaps the ghostliest of all in Roth’s view, himself when young. And this suggests what the title, with its sly play on words, means: that the imagination and craft of a writer are nourished so directly by the masters of the past that they become, in no invidious sense, his “ghost writers.”
Roth seems eager to demonstrate, as he was in The Professor of Desire, his incorrigible literariness, as though this will flout those critics who have called him vulgar. He is so drunk on reading that he even devotes part of the novel to a careful summary of James’s “The Middle Years.” And he is charmingly ironic about Zuckerman’s boyish delight in showing off his familiarity with the classic texts—a straight-A student never at a loss for the right quotation. Enraptured by his intimacy with greatness—“Zuckerman discussing Kafka with Lonoff!”—he can envision no more perfect way to live than Lonoff’s monkish dedication: “Purity. Serenity. Simplicity. Seclusion. All one’s concentration and flamboyance and originality reserved for the grueling, exalted, transcendent calling.” And then he remembers his father, getting red in the face because Nathan has not answered Judge Wapter’s poisonous letter. How can Nathan Zuckerman deliver himself to the transcendent calling of art when he is being torn apart by the guilt and rages of life?
In the course of his visit—a blizzard forces him to spend the night—Nathan’s hero worship is shaken by Lonoff’s wife, who informs him of the steep price she and the children have paid for her husband’s bondage to art. Sleepless and agitated after the household goes to bed, Nathan eavesdrops shamelessly on Lonoff’s Olympian resistance to another visitor, Amy Bellette, a former student who wants him to leave his wife and run away with her to Italy. When he is first introduced to this beautiful and gifted young woman, with large dark eyes and a high forehead and a mysterious refugee past, Nathan is struck by her resemblance to Anne Frank, and in the hallucinatory watches of the night, she is transformed into the perfect means of conciliating his father. Suppose Anne Frank did not die in Belsen, suppose she came to America and studied with E. I. Lonoff and, years later, married the brilliant Jewish novelist Nathan Zuckerman, whom she met at Lonoff’s house? “Oh, marry me, Anne Frank,” Nathan pleads, “exonerate me before my outraged elders. . . . Who dares to accuse of such unthinking crimes the husband of Anne Frank?”
Roth spins this fantasy of absolution into a tantalizing web that trembles on the edge of plausibility. (In My Life as a Man, Peter Tarnapol had already written the preliminary exercise, The Diary of Anne Frank’s Contemporary, and in an earlier story Roth rescued Kafka from his European fate, bringing him to Newark as a lonely refugee Hebrew teacher. Nothing is ever used just once.) It is a virtuoso performance, at once bittersweet and outrageous, since we know that history tells a different story. But the querulous reviewers who have chided Roth for his “lapse of taste” have missed the point. Nathan knows he cannot satisfy his father and remain the tough, aggressively honest writer he wants to be. The alternative to marrying Anne Frank in order to exonerate himself in the eyes of his father is to burn the scandalous story, and that is unthinkable. As the imperatives of guilt and ambition tempt Nathan’s inflamed imagination into unimaginable extravagance, that very extravagance allows him in his fantasy to “trump” life and vindicate art. He is indeed outrageous, but it is not a matter of taste.
For all its self-mocking sassiness, The Ghost Writer is Roth’s salute to his youthful courage in defying Jewish family pieties and committing himself to what James’s dying novelist, in “The Middle Years,” calls “the madness of art.” Though Roth has defended himself strenuously throughout his career against the rabbis and the Wapters who accused him of abetting anti-Semitism, he has now brought the acrimonious debate into his fiction and, holding all the aces, he triumphs once again. (That one did not have to think like the Wapters to recoil from Roth’s contempt for so many of his Jewish characters is not mentioned.) In their separate ways, Lonoff and James and the ghostly vision of Anne Frank embolden the young writer to trust the tale, and thus set him free.
But free to do what? There is no question that Philip Roth is a very good writer, never more appealing, witty, unguarded, than in The Ghost Writer. It is the best thing he has done, a bright evocation of youth and age and the literary ardor and egotism that bind them. But if in the end the book also seems rather thin, it is because it promises an intellectual and moral range which it does not wholly attain. Roth seems reluctant to engage himself fully with the demanding question he asks in many different ways throughout the novel: must life be sacrificed to art, in the uncompromising manner of a Lonoff? After all, Nathan Zuckerman does not bring Anne Frank home as his bride; when morning comes, nothing has been settled.
The dilemma deserves more patient scrutiny than it receives in Hope Lonoff’s impassioned outburst, in the closing scene, against her husband’s “religion of art.” Her indictment is like the curtain speech in a “well-made” play—an eloquent and conveniently tidy summation of all that has gone before. “Nothing can be touched,” she cries, “nothing can be changed, everybody must be quiet, the children must shut up. . . . Not living is what he makes his beautiful fiction out of!” It is a stirring speech, for her grievances are not petty. But it is hard to know how Zuckerman (and Roth) respond to her denunciation. In his haste to wrap up the package with this rousing finale, Roth skirts the messy, inelegant complications within the enigmas that have brushed across his consciousness. He has not yet assimilated the lessons of the masters as well as he would like us to believe.
Neither Philip Roth nor James Baldwin set out to be an “ethnic” writer, but both were forced into pigeonholes by the anger their work aroused among their own kind. The ironic difference is that while Roth was accused of relying on stereotypes that aggravated anti-Semitism, Baldwin was flayed by the black nationalists for disavowing the stereotypes that dominated conventional Negro fiction.
In his famous essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” published in Partisan Review in 1949, when he was only twenty-four, Baldwin announced his determination to reject the pattern of protest that a Negro writer in America was expected to follow. Instead of depicting the black man as “merely a member of a Society or a Group” who has been condemned by the white oppressors to poverty and ignorance, Baldwin chose to understand him as “something resolutely indefinable, unpredictable.” A novel like Richard Wright’s Native Son, he argued, was crippled by its hatred and fear; its failure stemmed from “its rejection of life, the human being . . . in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.”
In that bold refusal to be manacled to the racial shibboleths of the “protest novel,” Baldwin even felt free, during his expatriate years in France, to write a novel about white homosexuals, Giovanni’s Room, in the first person, if only to prove that he could do without the black-and-white chessboard on which black fiction played out its predictable despair. Yet Giovanni’s Room was an act of bravura, not an interesting novel. Baldwin’s true and magnificent voice could be heard in his essays and in autobiographical stories like “Notes of a Native Son,” his poignant memoir of the summer of 1943, when his father died during a bloody riot in Harlem. Even after he returned to America in the early 60’s, in eager response to the civil-rights movement and the rise of black nationalism, he seemed, in the lamentative reflections about race of The Fire Next Time, to speak out of the privacy of his mind and heart rather than as the “voice of his people.” Although it prophesied a terrifying apocalypse, the essay was distinguished by its lucid dignity. It was, however, the last time he would keep his distance from the anger and hatred he had warned against in his precocious attack on the protest novel.
Despite his effort to establish his black identity, the extremist blacks would not forgive Baldwin his past. Toward the end of the 60’s, Eldridge Cleaver included a vicious attack on Baldwin in Soul on Ice, the autobiography-cum-manifesto he had written in prison. With righteous ferocity he raked Baldwin over the coals not only for his homosexuality but for his “total hatred of the blacks,” his literary posture, his fraternization with white liberal intellectuals, his arrogant indifference to the “political, economic, and social reference” that in Cleaver’s view was the glory of Richard Wright. As for Baldwin’s characters, Cleaver added in his coup de grâce, they “seem to be fucking and sucking in a vacuum.” Stalinist criticism, it appeared, had found new life in obscenity.
In the face of Cleaver’s castigation and the savage—and envious—diatribes of other black nationalists, Baldwin’s stubborn independence caved in. It was hard to believe that the paranoid hysteria of No Name in the Streets (1972)—a curious requiem for Martin Luther King, Jr., in which Baldwin renounced King’s credo of nonviolence and celebrated the guerrilla tactics of the Black Panthers—came from the same sensibility which, twenty years earlier, had declared that “the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society, they accept the same criteria . . . they both alike depend on the same reality.” By this point he could even bring himself to praise Soul on Ice and justify Cleaver’s assault on him as “a necessary warning.”
Given Baldwin’s cultivated urbanity and nonconformist temperament, there was no reason to assume that his commitment to the black cause would diminish his rhetorical brilliance or that he would no longer use his complex personal history and attitudes in his fiction. Yet in 1962 he did attempt, in Another Country, to forge a language that was more austere and “unpoetic” than the lapidary biblical cadences of his natural style. So great was the strain of his effort to write against the grain that he vitiated his intelligence with sentimentalilty and his psychological intensity with cynical violence. Neither was he able in two later novels—Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968) and If Beale Street Could Talk (1974)—to achieve that fusion of emotion and language which once endowed his essays with incandescent power and clarity.
Now Baldwin has tried to conquer the novel again, and it is obvious that he has staked a great deal on his new book. Just Above My Head2 is the most ambitious effort Baldwin has made to portray the black communal life and culture whose absence from the protest novel he lamented long ago, when he deplored its inability to render “the relationship that Negroes bear to one another, that depth of involvement and unspoken recognition of shared experience which creates a way of life.” A huge chronicle about the children of two Harlem families from the Korean war to the present, his new book will not please those of Baldwin’s critics who feel that his obsession with sex squanders talent better spent in the service of his race. But although he devotes many pages to explicit accounts of both homosexual and heterosexual love to dramatize his familiar themes of love as torment and redemption, his primary concern is the black family and the children—Hall and Arthur Montana, Julia and Jimmy Miller—whose lifelong attachment is the constant of their separate destinies.
The novel opens with the sudden death of Arthur Montana in a London pub at the age of thirty-nine. A famous gospel singer, billed as “the soul emperor,” he began performing in Harlem churches as a boy and quickly rose to the top. For some years before his death, his career had been in decline, perhaps because he had moved away from gospel to the secular music of the blues. But this is only suggested vaguely by Arthur’s older brother and manager, Hall, who is the narrator of Just Above My Head. Nor are we told what physical catastrophe killed the singer, or why he had fallen into such drunken chaos toward the end of his life. Instead Hall speaks often, with the sorrowing intensity that is the hallmark of Baldwin’s literary temperament, of his brother’s tender sweetness, his fragility, his vulnerable innocence. But Arthur remains stubbornly unreal throughout the book, a special presence whose importance to his brother and friends and lovers we must take on faith.
The story shuttles erratically between past and present, but only when Baldwin is writing about the Montana family when the boys were young do the characters seem substantially realized—the affectionate sparring of the brothers, the holiday rituals and food and church services, the loving devotion of the hard-working parents.
In contrast to this happy family, their friends the Millers are torn apart by pride, illness, and covetous ambition. Their daughter Julia, at the age of nine, is one of the most sought-after child evangelists in New York, and since it is only in her extraordinary sermons—naive, arrogant, and funny—that Baldwin’s prose catches fire in the novel, they come to an end too soon. When Julia’s mother dies, she is trapped at fourteen in a brutal incestuous relationship with her father; escaping from him she becomes a prostitute, then a successful model, and for several years the mistress of an African chieftain in Abidjan. But all of these extraordinary permutations take place offstage, and nothing in Julia’s later life can begin to match the marvel of her preaching.
Many wonderful and terrible things also happen to Hall and Arthur and Julia’s little brother Jimmy, yet Just Above My Head is a curiously static work, partly because Baldwin seems unable to define his conception of Hall Montana: whether he is an autonomous being to whom things happen or an ill-fitting mask for the intrusive author busily shifting the scenery, revising the dialogue, and commenting sententiously on every turn of the wheel. Only the scenes in Harlem, and some later episodes in the South, when Arthur travels to Birmingham and Atlanta to sing at church rallies during the early civil-rights days, have the certainty of touch and the sharply observed detail that can allow the characters to breathe on their own. Too much of the time Baldwin the black advocate loads his pages with crude menace (“Some hale and hearty white people . . . are going to be butchered corpses soon—like tomorrow, but it is utterly absurd to pity them”) or woolly abstraction (Julia had “the terrified intransigence which is the key to beauty”) or meandering tirades against Marxists and liberals, neither of whom are part of the story.
Though the novel seems to have been conceived as a portrayal of black family life, Baldwin loses sight of his purpose so easily that it is stillborn. Ironically, when Hall and Julia finally settle down in nearby towns in Westchester, in the comfortable stability of middle age, they are neither black nor white, just middle class, and Baldwin seems undisturbed by the deracination. But everything he says about race in the book and elsewhere would contradict such indifference to the loss of authenticity. The problem, I suspect, arises from Baldwin’s inability to decide exactly where he belongs in the black world today, and what role he must fill. His nervous irresolution was clear in a recent interview; at one moment the black crusader declaring the obsolescence of white America, in the next warning writers against such slogans, and affirming that literature is indispensable to the world. Caught between these claims to his intelligence, his language, and his dedication to his people, Baldwin has written a novel that drifts and flounders in the riptide of uncertainty.
1 Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 180 pp., $855.
2 Dial, 597 pp., $12.95.