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"What do I know, other than what I can imagine?"
on 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