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LAST YEAR’S WORDS IN LAST YEAR’S LANGUAGE

EXIT GHOST By Philip Roth,
Jonathan Cape, £8

Philip Roth’s latest novel abounds with ghosts. Nathan Zuckerman returns as the protagonist in this ninth and last Zuckerman book and resurrects two prominent ghosts from his past — a dead writer and his still alive lover. In an interview to the BBC, Roth attributed the title to Shakespeare’s stage direction “exit ghost” in Macbeth, Hamlet and Julius Caesar. The title also refers to The Ghost Writer (1979), which featured a young Zuckerman’s apprenticeship during a night spent at his writer-hero E.I. Lonoff’s Berkshires home in 1956. That evening, Nathan had been smitten by twenty-five-year-old Amy Bellette, an immigrant with a possible history of Nazi oppression, who was Lonoff’s student and suspected lover. Amy Bellette had become Anne Frank in Nathan’s head — an Anne Frank who had survived the Holocaust and had watched the first production of The Diary of Anne Frank in Manhattan incognito.

E.I. Lonoff (originally modelled on Bernard Malamud, but here on Henry Roth as well) was the archetype of the artist-saint, living austerely in the wilderness and “turning sentences around”, whose wife had stormed out in Nathan’s presence. Zuckerman had never met either Amy or Lonoff after that night in 1956. Nor did he grow into a writer in Lonoff’s austere mould. But age, illness and death threats forced him into the Berkshires in the Nineties, and ironically into a Lonoff-like existence. He had renounced New York, women, newspapers, literary journals and ‘writing’ novels with himself as the protagonist. He had said, “I don’t want a story any longer….I’ve had my story.”

In Exit Ghost, Zuckerman (Roth’s closest alter-ego) returns to New York after 11 years to stay. The purpose of his visit was a gelatine injection for his incontinence — he wears plastic briefs and diapers since his bladder empties itself anywhere and anytime. But an advertisement in the New York Review for a year’s exchange of residences makes him curious. He visits Billy Davidoff and Jamie Logan, the couple that placed the advertisement. Jamie is desperate to leave New York in the aftermath of 9/11. And when John Kerry loses the 2004 presidential election, she panics. Zuckerman, a ghost of his former political self, is amused and aroused by her. Jamie (a shiksa again) resurrects another ghost — old Nathan’s carnal desire, dormant but not extinct. (Prostrate surgery had left him impotent.)

New York, however, recalls more spooks. At the hospital, Zuckerman spots Amy Bellette, now a shrivelled old woman of seventy-five, in a hospital gown she had made into a dress. Amy is dying of a brain tumour and her head is disfigured by a nasty surgical scar. She had lived with Lonoff from 1956 till his death five years later of leukaemia. She has kept Lonoff’s shoes (still preserving the impress of his feet) and the manuscript of his unfinished novel. As the embodiment of the dead and forgotten writer’s memory, Amy ‘talks’ to Lonoff often, and only about books.

Linking the Amy and the Jamie sections is the character of Richard Kliman, a Harvard-educated young journalist who is Jamie’s ex-boyfriend and whom Zuckerman suspects to be her lover now. Kliman is the abhorrent young careerist, bent on publishing a biography of Lonoff purportedly to restore his reputation. At the heart of Kliman’s project is his claim that Lonoff had a dark secret to hide — incest with a half-sister. This secret is the magnetic ghost of the novel that must be laid to rest. Kliman believes that the key to the scandal is in the manuscript of Lonoff’s unfinished novel. Amy is desperate to stop him and solicits Zuckerman’s help, who was already determined to kill the book. But despite finding Kliman repellent, Zuckerman cannot resist him — perhaps because Kliman is a ghost too, that of the young and aggressive Nathan.

Kliman not only helps Zuckerman and Amy meet but also sets in motion the intellectual drive of Exit Ghost where Roth returns to his old themes of the value of literature and the art of fiction, the banality of biography and the adverse impact of academic criticism and journalism on art. Zuckerman and Kliman have a debate about the harm or good Kliman’s proposed book would do to Lonoff and they almost come to blows. In keeping with Roth’s earlier pronouncements, Kliman and the reader are told that the writer is to be found in his work alone, and yet not in the autobiographical trails; a biography weakens the artefact by digging up trivia.

Roth has spent a lifetime writing fiction as if it were autobiography while his autobiographical work, The Facts (1988), is teasingly written like fiction. He has questioned the demarcations between fact and fiction and claimed that the written word automatically fictionalizes fact; and yet he has insisted that the reader be intelligent enough to not confuse fiction with autobiography. Moreover, Zuckerman scandalized his family (as Roth supposedly did his own) by writing about them. Then, what danger could Lonoff’s dirty secret pose'

Zuckerman’s old reverence is re-kindled by re-reading Lonoff after all these years. Then there is Amy Bellette and contemporary academic and journalistic designs. Zuckerman must also fight Roth’s battle against political correctness: a letter ‘dictated’ by Lonoff that Amy had mailed to The New York Times says, “The predominant uses to which literature is now put in...the enlightened newspapers and in university English departments are so destructively at odds with the aims of imaginative writing...”. Amy had lost her cool at an exhibition on great modern writers that excluded ‘dead white males’ like Hemingway, Faulkner and Wallace Stevens. This is Roth’s battle and one that he sees himself, and others of his literary faith, losing. As Lonoff had told Amy, “Reading/writing people, we are finished, we are ghosts witnessing the end of the literary era…” Thus his secret, for all its damaging potential, is better laid to rest.

The other half of the plot is Zuckerman’s struggle to accept the ghost of the sexual athlete he has become. After his initial encounters with Jamie, Zuckerman starts composing a play, He and She, which fills out the unsaid between them, the experience he never enjoyed. Zuckerman must accept his age, his incontinence and Jamie’s lack of interest in him and depart — his briefs are wet again. He had come to New York for his umpteenth epiphany, to stare at the truth and return, burying along with Lonoff the ideal he never achieved. And he is powerless to stop Kliman either.

Exit Ghost is a shadow of the narrative intensity of Roth’s American trilogy and the early Zuckerman books. It lacks even the meditative pathos of Everyman (2006). But Roth pre-empts criticism by linking the weaker narrative to the effect of Zuckerman’s failing memory on his writing. Somewhat like Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein, the mellowing down reflects the protagonist’s collapsing health. Still, Exit Ghost suffers from over-explanations that narrator and author would not have cared for earlier. Hopefully, old and suffering Zuckerman has exited for good. There is a lesson in “Little Gidding” that he cites for Lonoff’s ghost: “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language/ And next year’s words await another voice.”

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