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In which Netty grapples with Jewish writers. Albeit not in a bad way

October 30, 2011

This blog is being delivered later than it should be. By which I mean, I was hoping – hoping – to have had it done and dusted by around the middle of this month. Now, I like to think that for once this is not because of my usual fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants, leave-it-till-the-very-last-minute, procrastinating ways. Oh no siree, Bob. This time I’m laying the blame squarely at the feet of the author himself!

You see, when Andy and I first decided to read Philip Roth, way, way back in the first edition of Andy and Netty’s Reading Challenge in 2008 (it’s right there in the January 2009 archives, thrill-seekers), the choice was a no-brainer. It was always going to be Portnoy’s Complaint. I can’t recall off the top of my head Andy’s reasons for having chosen Sabbath’s Theater. All I know is when it came my turn, I sat helplessly looking at the lengthy list of Roth’s published work with not much of an idea of where to start (although, admittedly, still not nearly as much as when trying to pluck a book from the oeuvre of Joyce Carol Oates).

It’s the same sort of near-paralysis that I experience when I go into the supermarket wanting a loaf of bread and stand mesmerised in front of the chock-a-block stands for, say, half an hour. As Devo once put it, “Freedom of choice/is what you want/freedom from choice/is what you need”. Indeed, I had an ex who once mused about opening a restaurant where there would be but one item on the menu, yet you would still be handed said menu – thus giving the illusion of choice whilst freeing your brain space up for more important things (possibly such as pondering which Roth book you are going to read for your upcoming blog … ).

Roth has published 27 novels (and two non-fiction works) during his five-decade-long writing career, and amongst these he has recurring characters – his alter egos, if you will (including one who even bears his name). So in the end, after considerable toing-and-froing and more angst than was possibly necessary, I ended up plumping for The Ghost Writer, the first of Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman series (there are nine in all; the final instalment, Exit Ghost, was published in 2007).

The Ghost Writer came out in 1979, when Roth was 46 and already had nine books under his belt. It’s a slim volume, just shy of 180 pages, detailing a pivotal December 1956 day, night and morning in the life of Zuckerman, then 23, but told from the perspective of the narrator 20 years on. Zuckerman, an east coast Jew, is a writer, fresh out of college, with several published short stories to his name and a burgeoning reputation in New York City. He has zagged a winter stay at an upstate rural writers’ retreat (Quahsay Colony); from there he summons the courage to send a letter to his literary idol E.I. (“Manny”) Lonoff, who extends an invitation to visit him at his nearby Massachusetts farmhouse. (Some post-reading research indicates that the Lonoff character is an amalgamation of the real-life writers Henry Roth – no relation – and Bernard Malamud.)

Whilst at the Lonoff residence, Zuckerman spies a glimpse of Amy Bellette, a young student of Lonoff’s whom he has taken under his wing, allowing her to stay while she sorts through his manuscripts. After she leaves the house, Zuckerman stays on for an unexpectedly eventful dinner with Lonoff and his wife Hope, which turns into post-prandial brandys and – in the face of worsening weather – a further invitation to stay. During a sleepless night, Zuckerman ponders a recent falling-out with his father over one of his short stories that mined an unsavoury part of his family history and wonders about Amy’s past.

At breakfast the next morning, tensions in the household revealed at dinner and afterwards the previous night come to a head. As Zuckerman prepares to leave the Lonoff residence, the writer muses: “I’ll be curious to see how we all come out someday. It could be an interesting story.” Then, tellingly, he adds: “You’re not so nice and polite in your fiction. You’re a different person.”

Literature … and Judaism, are the focal, and intertwined, themes of this book – and I wouldn’t be surprised in the majority of Roth’s others. After all, this is his writerly raison d’etre. Another telling passage, from earlier in the novel, sees Zuckerman and Lonoff sipping brandy in his study, ruminating on these two topics. Zuckerman tells Lanoff: “A story by you without a Jew in it is unthinkable … all you write about is Jews.” Lanoff replies, rhetorically: “Proving what?”

As I wrote in my blog on Portnoy’s Complaint, I have next to no experience with the Jewish experience, so the great swathes of it that appeared in both of Roth’s books that I have read so far tend to go over my head; I can read it, I just can’t really relate to it. It’s not a criticism, and it doesn’t make Roth any less an enjoyable read. It’s obviously intrinsic to him as a writer. The other noticeable observation for me is there’s considerably less overt humour in this book – a few snorts here and there, rather than the laugh-out-loud passages of Portnoy’s. But again, that’s merely an observation and it didn’t make this novel any less worthy.

And unlike, say, John Updike’s Rabbit series, after the first of which I swore I would never go near anything to do with Harry Angstrom ever again, I can happily see myself working my way through the rest of the Zuckerman books. Not to mention the “Roth” books, and the Kepesh books, etc, etc. Roth is a great, great writer. To have discovered him now is far better than to have never discovered him at all. So if you haven’t, you now know where to start. The choice has been made for you. As for that loaf of bread, though, well, you’re on your own with that one, buddy.

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