Philip Roth: English Major Incarnate

For years, I have been hearing about the wonders of the American author, Philip Roth. It doesn’t help that the literary world has constantly been mumbling about whether he had, in fact, written the great American novel. But I had never really heard anything (either through reviews or my peers) that convinced me I wanted to read one of his books. In fact, there seemed to be a general apathy towards him among my fellow English majors. The only time I ever heard anyone wax poetic about him was my Proust professor.

And then, this past spring, he was nominated for and won the Man Booker International Author prize. I was slightly alarmed. How could anyone I’d never have an interest in win that prize? Of all the prizes, it remains my favorite. Probably, it is because I am an Anglophile and there is something so delicious about the name: MAN BOOKER.

But where should I start? Well, it just happened to be that one of my favorite podcasts, the Slate Culture Gabfest, was discussing the debate over Roth’s most recent award. Apparently one of the judges, Carmen Calill, had said that she thought Roth a case of “the Emporer’s New Clothes” and that no one would read him in 20 years time.

Based on that discussion and one of the host’s recommendations, I read Roth’s The Ghost Writer, a novella that introduces Nathan Zuckerman, a reoccuring hero of Roth novels. The story begins with an interesting enough setting: Zuckerman is in search for a mentor. He’s just appeared on the literary scene, having recently graduated from college, and is looking for someone to both guide his career and reshape his public persona as a Grand Auteur.

In the course of the novella, the reader learns that Zuckermann’s visit to established writer E. I. Lonoff’s New England home is not his first attempt to connect with the greats. Of course, to have a novel about a writer searching for the key to becoming a great writer would be too simple and thus we are introduced to the enchanting figure of Amy Bellette, Lonoff’s European ward, and Lonoff’s hideously jealous wife.

What then follows is a strange day and a half, where we are subjected to both Zuckermann’s fantasies about these people and what may in fact be reality. There is further sub-plot about Zuckermann’s own writing and his family’s reaction to what they perceive as being a slight to their culture. But that is not important in the grand scheme of things, well as far as Zuckermann let’s us know.

In one part of the book, Zuckermann snoops around Lonoff’s study in the middle of the night and finds a book in which Lonoff has written:

From there on, down both margins of the final page describing Dencomb’s death, Lonoff had penned three vertical lines. Nothing resembling drollery here. Rather the six surgically precise black lines seemed to simulate the succession of fine impressions that James’ insidiuos narrative about the novelist’s dubious wizardry had scored upon Lonoff’s brain.

While reading the book, I kept thinking how Roth was quite a skilled writer. As in the scene above, it’s hard not to notice his mastery of language. But I was constantly being pulled out of the narrative by Roth’s artifice and the ingenuousness of Zuckermann as a character. There was something entirely smug about the entire novel that made me want to throw it against a wall.

Roth is a skilled writer, but this book left me feeling cold and rather annoyed. One of the things I had heard about his work before I started The Ghost Writer was that Roth was a neurotic, mysogenist writer who reveled in his post-modern status. That alone should have made me steer clear, and while I found all of those elements in The Ghost Writer, what drove me insane was the insincerity of the characters and their ridiculousness. There was nothing enjoyable about reading about any of them, nothing to identify with, even their dissimilarities were too far-fetched. Is one of them really Anne Frank? Is Zuckermann going to re-write the fate of modern Jews? I felt like I had been caught-up in the world of smug English majors, lording about their latest discovery.

You don’t like post-modernism? they whisper. Their smug faces hover around, lording their academic, writerly natures. And don’t forget avant-garde.

Apologies for my italicized impression of English majors, but this book sums up why people hate academia and art.

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