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3.7 out of 5 stars
9
The Ghost Writer
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HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERon 25 August 2004
Philip Roth, in this first of the Nathan Zuckerman novels, published in 1979, introduces Nathan as a twenty-three-year-old graduate of the University of Chicago who has had four short stories published and is looking for a mentor. Having contacted famed writer E. I. Lonoff, a writer living in rural New England with his wife of 35 years, he has accepted Lonfof's invitation to visit, but a snowstorm arises and Zuckerman finds himself spending the night with Lonoff and his wife. His observations about the life of Lonoff leads him imagine many stories--about Lonoff's past, his possible relationship with a young former student, and about his life in the countryside. In addition, he also reminisces about his own past, his relationships with his family, his feelings toward his own writing, his possible obligations to Jewish history, and the imagined past of Amy, Lonoff's former student, who resembles Anne Frank.

Though Zuckerman is full of hopes for a broader relationship with Lonoff, he soon discovers that his idol is a petulant and insecure man who has used and, in some cases, emotionally abused, those around him, all in the name of "art." Spending a sleepless winter night on the couch in Lonoff's den, Zuckerman investigates Lonoff's library, especially the collection of the writings of Henry James, which Lonoff admires so much, tries to write a letter to his estranged father (who is appalled by one of Nathan's recent short stories, which, he feels, feeds anti-Semitic prejudice), and ponders the relationship between genuine creativity, editing and revision, and the possible responsibilities of a writer beyond his own creative impulse.

A story about the writing of stories, this novella explores the fictional lives writers create from their own lives, and the sacrifices they make. As Lonoff's wife says of Lonoff, "Not living is what he makes his beautiful fiction out of." Lonoff himself says, "I turn sentences around...That's my life." And Henry James says in a motto Lonoff has framed in his den, "We give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and passion is our task." When Zuckerman leaves Lonoff's house the next morning, he no longer sees Lonoff as an idol, but Zuckerman is still committed to his destiny as a writer, anxious to go to a writers' retreat to work on some new stories. Thoughtful, imaginative, and great fun to read, The Ghost Writer is one of Roth's most tightly organized and revelatory works, essential reading for anyone interested in the creative process. Mary Whipple
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 12 November 2012
There are few artistic pleasures more potent than reading Roth at his best, which is most of the time. This is certainly one of his finest shorter novels, being the first in the series of Zuckerman books, in some of which he is the main protagonist and in others a more peripheral character (as in American Pastoral or The Human Stain).
Those who complain that Roth writes overtly `male` books, from a determinedly masculine viewpoint, should read the last chapter of The Ghost Writer, where Hope, the wife of the central author/father-figure/mentor gets to tell a few home truths to her somewhat impassive, single-minded husband. There are two women at the forefront of this rich and hugely impressive novel, the other being the enigmatic, shadowy Amy Bellette - who may possibly not be all she seems. (I wouldn`t dream of saying more than that.)
Nathan Zuckerman, a budding writer in love with the Great Books and their authors, is in his twenties and visiting E.I. Lonoff, respected mandarin of American literature. He is persuaded to stay the night. While there he glimpses a young woman, about whom he weaves a tale of probable wishful-thinking which also serves as a distinct chapter of the novel we`re reading. (So many ghosts!) He finds himself caught in the middle of a family drama...
The `plot` as such is less important perhaps than the writing itself. There are few writers of my lifetime (Roth`s first novel was published when I was eight) who, sentence by sentence, are able to take my breath away so consistently. His writing manages to be both expansive - those long-breathed paragraphs - and extremely precise, both funny and furious. It`s worth quoting a blurb from the back cover, courtesy of the Washington Post:

Further evidence that Roth can do practically anything with fiction. His narrative power - the ability to delight the reader simultaneously with the telling and the tale - is superb.

I couldn`t have put it better myself, which is why I didn`t try.
I couldn`t agree less with those who would have us believe that Roth`s concerns are limited, the world he writes about a narrowly `Jewish` world. Roth`s writing is so lavish and so resonant that I feel I`m having my mind expanded simply by reading such meticulous, rigorous prose. This 1979 novel wouldn`t be a bad place to start for a Roth novice - though my introduction to Roth was The Human Stain, to my mind one of the greatest novels of the last twenty years.
Reading Roth makes me want to read more Roth. That he has never - and, in his 80th year, almost certainly now never will - won a Nobel Prize is, at the very least, a shame, as he is one of America`s finest, as well as most prolific, novelists of the last fifty years. But the Swedish committee doesn`t tend to award writers like Roth or his friend and contemporary Milan Kundera: too politically incorrect, too interested in sex.
Never mind, we have the books. What a rich and rewarding legacy.
This is a wonderful novel.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 19 June 2013
Set in 1953 in a remote country home in western Massachusetts, Philip Roth's novel "The Ghost Writer" describes a visit by the ambitious, fledgling 23-year old writer, Nathan Zuckerman, to the home of a 56 year old reclusive writer of short stories, E.I. Lonoff, and his wife of 35 years, Hope. The young Zuckerman, in awe of the elder writer, had sent him four short stories to review. Lonoff, favorably impressed, invites the young man to dinner. When a severe snowstorm develops, Lonoff invites Zuckerman to spend the night. The fourth primary character for this short book of an evening and morning is Amy Bellette, a beautifully mysterious young woman slightly older than Zuckerman who is a guest at the Lonoff home working on his manuscripts. Bellette came to the United States from England some years earlier at Lonoff's invitation, but her past is left obscure.

Zuckerman idolizes Lonoff, himself a Jewish immigrant, for his years of devotion to the art of writing and for the terseness, seriousness, and sharpness of his short stories which invariably feature young, wandering, and lost Jewish individuals as their primary characters. Zuckerman was raised in a modest Jewish home and community in Newark, New Jersey. Although he had been close to his family, his father and the community have taken offense at one of Zuckerman's short stories which they believe cast the Zuckermans and their community in Newark in a bad light. Zuckerman seeks some support from Lonoff and also tends to view this remote, silent, and icy man as a father figure.

As with much of Roth, the book is short, the story tangled, and the writing works on many levels. Zuckerman gets the literary encouragement, and more, that he desires from Lonoff. He toasts the young man fulsomely and observes that "his work has turbulence" (p. 33) and that Zuckerman's literary voice "begins at around the back of the knees and reaches well above the head". (p. 72) Lonoff also shuts himself off from life, is rigid and straight-laced, and offers no emotional or physical companionship to the long-suffering Hope. His relationship with young Amy Bellette is the source of the stormy sexual tension and denoumnent of the story.

The novel also explores the world of writing fiction and its relationship to the vagaries and mysteries of life. It does so in the portrayal of Lonoff, in Zuckerman's awakening to the man, and in Zuckerman's new understanding of what his chosen life as an author may entail. The book, as does Roth's later novel, "Exit Ghost" also shows multiple levels in authors and in stories. Roth creates his character Zimmerman who narrates the story and the author Lonoff. In the process, Zuckerman offers a paraphrase of the story he has written about Newark life which has so bothered his father who believes it violates family privacy and encourages anti-semitism. And, although at first the matter is left cunningly ambiguous, during his evening at the Lonoff home, Zuckerman, smitten by Amy Bellette and eavesdropping on a telling late-night conversation between Bellette and Lonoff, invents a story under which Amy tells Lonoff that she is in fact Anne Frank and the author of the famous diary. Zuckerman wants to take Anne Frank/Amy Lonoff home to his parents as his wife to be to satisfy their concerns about his attitude towards his Jewishness. In the frenetic ending of the story as Hope walks away from the marriage in the snow and the cold, Lonoff makes a half-hearted attempt to get her to stay. He has both the callousness and the writerly instinct to give Zuckerman a pad of paper and a pen, telling him that he will make a story of the incident some day.

The title of the novel, "The Ghost Writer" is itself ambiguous and straddles both Zuckerman and Lonoff. Both writers are fictitous creations of Roth. Lonoff is a ghost because, as he sadly recognizes and as Zuckerman comes to understand, he lacks his own active life and is a shade instead, sitting at his typewriter. Zuckerman is also a "ghost writer" because of the outrageous story he invents and puts in the mouth of Amy Bellette. And ironically, in the telling of the book, Zuckermann fulfills Lonoff's understanding that Zuckerman will make a story of the break-up between Lonoff and Hope. An important literary allusion which mirrors the story is to Henry James' story, "The Middle Years" which Zuckerman ponders, quotes, and paraphrases during his evening at the Lonoffs. As James had his own fictious character describe the novelist's work in the story: "we work in the dark-- we do -- what we can -- we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art." (p. 77) The destructive force of writing in James' story finds its parallel in both Lonoff and Zuckerman.

This book, Roth's 11th novel, is a coming of age story of the growth of a writer and a tale of the difficulties and myths that surround creative effort

Robin Friedman
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on 31 December 2012
Roth's writing is well ahead of that of the chasing pack. The Ghost Writer does little to change this - a short novel crammed with endless insight into the life of a writer.
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on 3 July 2014
It's hardly long enough to be a novel. I kept thinking something would develop, but no. Well written but I didn't get why.
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on 2 December 2016
Book is fine, thank you
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on 31 May 1999
This was my second Philip Roth book, the first being his famous "Portnoy's Complaint". I probably made a mistake reading "Portnoy" first, as I doubt any of his other works (or ANYONE'S other works) will be as consistently hilarious as "Portnoy" was. However, looked at as an independent work, "The Ghost Writer" provides a very interesting look at the mind of a writer, the responsiblities of a writer both to him/herself, the people who love him, and to the truth. For those interested in such subjects, "The Ghost Writer" provides for a very good read.
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on 21 February 2016
A navel gazing load of tripe. Pointless meanderings. Smug showing off with literary references. Had to read it for a 'worthy' type of book club, Needless to say I left the book club before they got on to Solzhenitsyn or other high brow stuff. I read for pleasure, I want a well written story not a load of deep meaningless drivel going nowhere. Should have been entitled 'Pointless'.
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on 18 October 2009
This book was force-fed us when studying English Literature in the spring. I understand the qualities of it, but it is way too male and way too jewish for my liking. I struggled to read it until I got to that bit about the girl being Anne Frank, then was mezmerized for a little while until the tale bit its own tail soon after. The way the writer writes about writing becomes slightly annoying in the end.
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