Roth on Zuckerman's Curtain Call

Philip Roth's just-published Exit Ghost has been announced as the final volume in his series of novels about Nathan Zuckerman. Beginning with The Ghost Writer, which appeared in 1979, the Zuckerman saga now spans nine books (ten if you take The Facts into account, for that autobiography opens with a letter from Roth to Zuckerman and closes with one from Zuckerman to Roth). The other books are Zuckerman Unbound (1981), The Anatomy Lesson (1983), The Prague Orgy (1985), The Counterlife (1986; winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award), American Pastoral (1997; winner of the Pulitzer Prize), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000; winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award). All told, Roth has devoted three decades, and more than 2,600 pages of prose, to Nathan Zuckerman. I spoke with him by phone on the morning of September 13th about Exit Ghost and its fictional forebears. What follows is drawn from an edited transcript of that conversation. --James Mustich



James Mustich: Let's start with the way that Exit Ghost invokes, in the figure of Amy Bellette, the muse of The Ghost Writer and takes up directly the theme announced in that first Zuckerman novel, the vocation of an American writer. Do you think Nathan Zuckerman has learned anything about that vocation in the 50 years that have passed between the events described in the two books?

Philip Roth: [LAUGHS] I hope so. Oh my goodness, sure. The first book begins with him in his early 20s (I think he's not even 25), and the last book concludes with him at age 70-something. So 50 years have gone by, he's lived through many experiences, experiences both as a writer and as a man, met many people, been privy to many stories. He's a keen observer and recorder of the life around him. So he's learned a great deal.

JM: At the outset of The Ghost Writer, Nathan says he is contemplating "my own massive Bildungsroman." It seems a natural step to see Exit Ghost as the conclusion of that putative work, at least for you as the author if not for Zuckerman as a character. What sense of the larger architecture of the saga did you hold in view as you worked on the various parts of what we might call the Zuckerman corpus?

ROTH: Well, the thing grew by itself. I had no overarching plan for it. When I wrote the first book, I didn't know anything was going to come of it. Then the second book came, Zuckerman Unbound, and a third book came, The Anatomy Lesson, and a fourth, The Prague Orgy. Then I stopped for a while. Again, I didn't stop because I was planning something in the future. I had other books to write. I think I've written 28 books, and 9 of them have been Zuckerman books. That means one out of every three books. So for a lot of the time, two-thirds of the time, I was doing other things. So the thing accumulated by itself, without my doing any overseeing.

JM: Exit Ghost turns from the larger political and cultural canvases of the novels in the second trilogy -- American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain-- to a more intimate perspective on Zuckerman's experience. Was that prompted by a desire to go back to the beginning and tie things together?

ROTH: It seemed to me that that was the natural place to end -- to return to Zuckerman as the central actor of the drama. As you note, prior to this, there were the three books in which Zuckerman is not the central actor; he's rather the recording intelligence. But I thought the obligation for me was to end with him, and particularly to take seriously the prostate cancer which he speaks about for the first time in American Pastoral.

JM: The first trilogy, along with The Prague Orgy, has now been issued in a Library of America volume. Soon enough the other books -- The Counterlife and the second trilogy -- will be. Do you wonder how a reader will approach this body of Zuckerman work in the future? Each book certainly stands on its own; but to read each in the shadow -- perhaps in the illumination is a better way to put it -- of the other works is to recognize patient unwindings of meaning within the often headlong energy of the individual plots. I'm wondering if you've thought about that at all.

ROTH: I haven't. Nor have I re-read all the books. Now that you bring this up, I think probably I should have read all of them to see what's going on. But it didn't occur to me. I know them in a vague and general sense. I don't remember them specifically. I suppose if someone read the nine books in succession, they'd have a particular experience, of a kind that I can't name -- but it might be rather intense.

JM: Intense indeed, and quite often exhilarating.

ROTH: You did this?

JM: I did.

ROTH: You read them in order, Exit Ghost last?

JM: I read Exit Ghost as soon as I got the reading copy this spring, and then I went back and read them all through again, and read Exit Ghost a second time.

ROTH: So what's it like?

JM: It is remarkably coherent, down to the level of imagery that recurs, as if you had been working all along with a map through the territory. Some of that no doubt speaks to the recurring thematic concerns of all your works, not just the Zuckerman novels. But from The Ghost Writer through Exit Ghost the sequence is bound by an intricate logic that holds together wonderfully well, with The Counterlife as a kind of glowing gyroscope at the center.

ROTH: I'm glad to hear it. I, for instance, did not re-read The Ghost Writer while I was working on Exit Ghost, because I didn't want it interfering with whatever I wanted to make up at the time. Only when I finished the books did I re-read The Ghost Writer, and then very cursorily, to be sure I got the facts correct, which I did. But I wanted to steer clear of the books so as not to fall under the sway of them.

JM: Reading The Ghost Writer again was delightful. I can remember quite distinctly the experience of first reading it -- I think it ran in its entirety in The New Yorker across a couple of issues -- when I was about the same age Nathan is in the book. Returning to it now was a real pleasure.

ROTH: Good.

JM: But it rhymed with Exit Ghost in so many ways, and the structure is so similar, that it is a revelation to find out you didn't read it again while composing Exit Ghost.

ROTH: No, I didn't.

JM: At the conclusion of Exit Ghost, in the dialogue between Nathan and Jamie Logan, the young woman with whom, if I might use a prim word, he is smitten, Jamie seems to push Nathan toward a recognition that his vocation ultimately demands escape from the instability of life and its unreasonable wishes, however seductive they may be, and a retreat to the sense of proportion that turning sentences around allows. Is it fair to say that Zuckerman fits a description we've read earlier in the book, that he is someone for whom "the unlived, the surmise, fully drawn in print on paper, is the life whose meaning comes to matter most"?

ROTH: I think it's safe to say that that's true for most writers, not just for Zuckerman.

JM: When I was re-reading the ending of the book last night, Jamie's longish speech on the next-to-last page put something in my head that I hadn't gotten originally. She explains Zuckerman's attraction to her as a consequence of his being, at the moment, "a writer without a book," suggesting that as soon as he finds a literary inspiration, his fascination with her will evaporate. So it made me consider if his flight from her might be driven by inspiration as well as fear.

ROTH: [LAUGHS] I hadn't thought of that. I have the book in front of me. Let me see. No, I don't think so. First of all, that's an imagined scene Zuckerman has written, in which he imagines that he'd flee from her. He flees the first time in reality because she's not going to come to visit him. Now, when he re-imagines it, he has her agreeing to come to visit him, and he flees from that as well. I think he's fleeing from the fact that he's incapable of doing anything to entice Jamie into his life. I didn't think of it as returning to inspiration, but just really fleeing the impulses that got him in this fix in the first place.

JM: When Nathan visits Amy Bellette in her apartment, she shares with him a letter she has written to The New York Times. It begins: "There was a time when intelligent people used literature to think."

ROTH: [CHUCKLES] Yes.

JM: It seems to me that, for you, fiction represents its own realm of apprehension, one that is imaginative rather than objective or subjective, and in some ways truer to our real experience because of that. What Amy puts in her letter -- "serious fiction eludes paraphrase and description -- hence requiring thought" -- might well be something you'd say yourself. How can literature be used to think?

ROTH: For instance, let's go back to, say, the Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton moment in our history. I would have expected at some point that people might talk about the novels of John Updike, who has written persuasively and at length about adultery; that they'd say, "As in Updike's novel, such-and-such," in looking for the motivation -- on both sides, hers and his. But instead you get references to movies or to television. So that's a very mundane example of people turning for cultural reference to something other than books. I think that when adults' lives were enlarged by the reading of fiction, they could refer what they read back to life, and now that's just not done. One, the audience itself has dramatically been reduced in size, and two, it's as though people don't even know that they can use fiction to think about their lives.

JM: Do you think that the kind of thinking that fiction provokes is different in kind from that stimulated by movies or TV?

ROTH: I would say that good fiction does provoke something different from movies and TV. When people refer to movies and TV, they talk about "the Meryl Streep character." Right? "Then the Meryl Streep character does this." When you talk about Updike's Rabbit Angstrom, you're talking about somebody who has an identity for you as a complete fictional character. I think just in that choice of words, you get the difference between the impact of the one and the other.

JM: That's a wonderful example. Let me take a leap from screen to stage, as it were: In The Prague Orgy there is a stage direction that you once said in an interview could stand as a title for the original trilogy: "Enter Zuckerman, a serious person."

ROTH: [LAUGHS] I don't remember that.

JM: Do you think he's still a serious person at the close?

ROTH: Oh, he's pretty serious in this book. This book is not strong on lightheartedness. I think there are moments when there's something said that may be humorous. I think that probably Kliman says things that are intentionally or unintentionally humorous. But Zuckerman is quite dogged by seriousness here. So we can say, "Exit Zuckerman, seriously."

JM: Let's talk about that "exit" for a minute. It's obviously another stage direction, one invoking Hamlet. Reading the entire sequence fresh, Nathan Zuckerman, in literary terms, struck me at times as an oddly Hamlet-like character, at war within himself about taking up not only his vocation (as in The Anatomy Lesson) but even his identity (as in The Counterlife), the way Hamlet spends four acts debating whether or not to take up the only role available to him, that of the avenging son. In Exit Ghost, Zuckerman's hesitations are the fulcrum of the book. Did you have Hamlet in mind?

ROTH: Not only was I not conscious in that way, I wasn't even conscious it was Hamlet. I got this title because last summer I was going to see a production of Macbeth, and I decided to re-read the play so as to familiarize myself with it. I probably hadn't read it since graduate school. I came upon the scene where Banquo's ghost appears, and it said, "Enter Ghost." In fact, it appears twice. It has "enter ghost" and "exit ghost" twice. As soon as I saw the words "exit ghost," I realized I had the title for my book. So I forgot completely about Hamlet and drew upon the stage direction in Macbeth. It also appears in a third play. It appears in Julius Caesar, too, when the ghost of Julius Caesar appears to Brutus.

JM: Well, so much for my Hamlet line of questioning! But do you think Zuckerman, like Hamlet, suffers from a sense of "characterological enslavement" (to use a term you once employed in talking about David Tarnopol, the protagonist of My Life as a Man)? Is he stuck in his character no matter the lessons he's learned.

ROTH: When you speak of the lessons, I find my mind simply goes blank. [LAUGHS] Perhaps because the books are all in the past for me. How shall I say I experience it? I experience it as his experience, not as the lessons he draws from his experience.

JM: Let's go back to ghost-hunting, then. In The Counterlife, Maria says: "I know now what a ghost is. It is the person you talk to. That's a ghost. Someone who's still so alive that you talk to them and talk to them and never stop." Has Zuckerman been that kind of a ghost for you? There seems to be a kind of ease in the way you inhabit his voice and character -- ease is probably the wrong word, because I know how much work goes into these books. But there seems to be a way in which Zuckerman allows you to speak that you find congenial.

ROTH: What you're looking for with a character is someone who will allow maximum freedom of invention and provide maximum scope to your writing. It turns out that I returned to this character over and over again, because he must have given me that freedom and that scope. Even to speak about his illness. In American Pastoral, he reports that he has had prostate cancer and that he's had surgery to remove the cancer and remove the prostate, and the consequences of the surgery are impotence and incontinence. I did that because at the time I was writing that book, or just beginning it, it seemed like every third or fourth friend I had was battling prostate cancer. I guess I was in my early 60s, and these friends are about the same age. I saw and heard what they were suffering through. So I thought, Well, I'll make Zuckerman a member of this generation who has had this plight befall him too. What I gained, however, I didn't know at the moment: the ability to withdraw Zuckerman from a large realm of life. This made him into an observer rather than an actor, and so suddenly I could have him observing Swede Levov in American Pastoral, observing the Ringold brothers in I Married a Communist, observing Coleman Silk in The Human Stain, and observing them as a spectator.

JM: To return to the state of literature, is it your estimation that, like Zuckerman in the last line of Exit Ghost, its cultural centrality is gone for good?

ROTH: Yes, I'm sure. It's gone for good. It still has some impact, to be sure. But I think as the years go by, in the next 10-20-30 years, it will become more cultic, and be read by people in a cultish way, and that the novel won't have much impact at all.

JM: That is a daunting prospect.

ROTH: Do you agree?

JM: I think, intellectually, I agree, but I'd rather continue under the delusion that it won't be the case. [LAUGHS] Having just read these nine books, for instance, which are so vivid with observation and experience, so full of life, it seems like too great a loss to accept just yet.

ROTH: You have the antennae to pick up the stuff that's in the books. I don't know what your background is, or how you were trained, or where you come from, but you obviously still have these antennae. But in most people, especially young people, these antennae have been clipped. They can't pick up the reverberations from the books at all. Then, of course, the time that's given to them to read is so small, because they are pulled in other directions by all the technology.

JM: In The Ghost Writer, the older writer Lonoff describes his vocation to Nathan quite memorably: "I turn sentences around," he says. It's a lovely description. I've noticed in your recent work that your own sentence-turning continues to grow in deftness and power -- the aural resonance of some of the sentences is extraordinary. As when you write, speaking of Amy, "As if all this loss could ever lose its hold." That's not really a question, just unabashed flattery I wanted to share with you.

ROTH: Thank you. I'm grateful for your seeing it.

JM: One last question, if I may.

ROTH: Sure.

JM: In Exit Ghost, Zuckerman reflects upon his current reading, and you describe how he is revisiting the classics he'd read in his youth, and doing so, it seems, in a quite fruitful way. Does that reflect your own reading habits these days?

ROTH: Yes, it does. He's re-reading Conrad, I think. Isn't that right?

JM: Yes.

ROTH: Well, he's re-reading Conrad because I was re-reading Conrad! In the last three years or so I've found myself re-reading books that I thought were wonderful when I first read them in my 20s. And what I discover is that if I first read it in my 20s, I've lost it. I don't have it. I may have the faintest glimmerings of it, but it's as though I hadn't read the book. So I began re-reading Conrad, the summer before last, and it was simply wonderful. Then I also at the time re-read Hemingway, not all of it, but the good stuff (because there's a lot of bad Hemingway, too). But the good stuff is wonderful. It's bracing when you read it -- A Farewell to Arms, for instance, is just simply a wonderful powerhouse of a book. Then I've been reading Turgenev the last three or four months. Now I've stopped to read Denis Johnson's huge, pessimistic book.

JM: The new one? Tree of Smoke?

ROTH: Yes. It's just a big, strange book. He's a big, strange writer.

JM: More power to him.

ROTH: Oh, he's one of the best. And when I'm done with Tree of Smoke, I'll turn back to the classics, and continue re-reading them.


***

Author Illustration: Joseph Ciardiello















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