Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 16 Jun 2018

Rereading Philip Roth’s Zuckerman books

In the 1980s and 90s, during what is now considered his mid-career, Philip Roth wrote a number of books in which the central character was yet another alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, a somewhat reluctant writer, similarly hijacked by notoriety (Zuckerman published a Portnoy-like book called 'Carnovsky'), and pursued it seems by many of he same furies that pursued Roth.

There are times in these books when Roth seems not so much a novelist as a man haunted by fiction – an unruly and malevolent fiction poltergeist, inescapable, exhausting, destructive.

The sequence of Zuckerman books I most like are the four now published together as Zuckerman Bound – a trilogy and an epilogue, as Roth described it: The Ghost Writer; Zuckerman Unbound; The Anatomy Lesson; and the final volume which serves as a short coda, The Prague Orgy.

Published during the late-70s and early-1980s, these books take place from the mid-50s to the late-70s and in them Roth and Zuckerman, fiction and reality, and artifice and actuality seem to nestle inside each other like Russian dolls.

The first book, The Ghost Writer, has always seemed to me to be one of Roth’s shortest and most beautiful. In a sense it lulls the reader into a sense of false security because it is so different to some of the anguished writing that follows it later in the trilogy.

The Ghost Writer opens in 1956. Nathan Zuckerman has served two years in the army and is now eking out a living in a cold-water apartment in downtown Manhattan, writing obsessively. He has just begun to publish his first stories. As a consequence of an early story he is invited to visit  one of his great writer-heroes, a Jewish-American short story writer called E. I. Lonoff, largely forgotten, certainly widely ignored by younger and more modernist writers. Zuckerman makes the arduous, snowy drive in his old car to Lonoff’s rural retreat in the Berkshires.

Perhaps needless to say, his stay at Lonoff’s isn’t quite what he expected. Overawed by the older writer’s magisterial presence Zuckerman is tongue-tied and inhibited. (And unlike almost all of Roth’s other creations, words have to be squeezed from Lonoff, like blood from a stone.) Throughout the evening, Lonoff quarrels bitterly with his wife. A young girl – a student – is present, ostensibly sorting Lonoff’s papers, but to Zuckerman’s overheated and overactive imagination, she is Lonoff’s almost-adopted daughter, perhaps his mistress, and perhaps destined to become Zuckerman’s lover. But over and above all this, she is also – almost certainly, and miraculously – Anne Frank, who did not after all perish in the camps. There really isn’t much else to say about the plot of The Ghost Writer. But what is truly marvellous is seeing – and simply enjoying – what Roth does with these slender resources. It is a rich opening to the trilogy, evocative, graceful and deeply imagined. (It is also somehow opulently old-fashioned – “It was the last daylight hour of a December afternoon more than twenty years ago” – and all the more enjoyable for this. It is a rain-on-the-windows and open fire kind of book.)

Zuckerman Unbound is set ten or so years later. Zuckerman has published his wildly successful and extravagantly notorious Portnoy-esque bestseller, Carnovsky, and is now pursued by the furies of celebrity. This has to be one of Roth’s funniest books, crammed as it is with priceless Jewish characters – including Alvin Pepler, to my mind one of Roth’s greatest creations, an obsessed and unhinged victim of the 1950s quiz show fixing scandal. His unstoppable kvetching and unquenchable victimhood rival Zuckerman himself (and Portnoy too, for that matter) but without the bitter, corrosive quality.

But then this trilogy becomes a little more problematical. If Portnoy’s Complaint is, in Martin Amis’s description, ‘corrosive’, then we need a new descriptor for The Anatomy Lesson, the third volume in the trilogy. It opens on the cusp of the 70s. Zuckerman is not just written out and blocked, he is quite literally disabled, his back, neck and shoulders a source of scalding, crippling pain. Camped out in his posh new apartment (there is virtually nothing he can do for himself) Zuckerman is self-medicating with drink, drugs and sex. Reviewing this novel at the time John Updike said it was “a ferocious heartfelt book…The central howl unrolls with a mediated savagery both fascinating and repellent, self-indulgent yet somehow sterling, adamant, pure in the style of high modernism’.

All that Updike says is true. The Anatomy Lesson is, finally, an accomplished book, but it is not an easy or enjoyable one.

For anyone interested in this period of Roth’s writing, I would say that the first two volumes of this trilogy – The Ghost Writer and Zuckerman Unbound – are amongst Roth’s masterpieces. They offer unparalleled enjoyment when read together, and this is how they deserve to be read. Their inventiveness has an exuberance that rivals anything in the best of the late novels and they will leave you wanting more. They work perfectly well when paired together, outside the context of the trilogy, as it were, and I’m tempted to say that this is how they are best enjoyed.

The final epilogue, The Prague Orgy, I can’t comment on because reading The Anatomy Lesson always leaves me feeling cudgelled and when I finish it I always put the book aside. But some speak highly of its barely sixty pages and one of these days I shall read it on its own. But for the moment what I treasure here are the first two volumes. For pure enjoyment value, they can’t be beaten.


Alun Severn

June 2018