Anyone who has made an earnest attempt at creating art is familiar with the problem: if you are to focus on the work of creating, you need to go deep inside your head. And if you are gallivanting around in your head, you are more or less on vacation from the unrelenting demands of life. You might tell yourself that you can do it, that you can be in both places at once, and maybe you can pull it off, doing whatever needs to get done. But you will never be fully present in either your art, or your life; your consciousness, your essential way of being, will always feel compromised.
A compelling exploration of the life/art problem can be found in the writings of Philip Roth, or more specifically, in two of his novels read in the following sequence: First, The Ghostwriter (1979), and then, immediately afterward, skip the next six Nathan Zukerman novels and go directly to Exit Ghost(2007). Though the books are written 28 years apart, reading them as a pair is an uncanny and troubling endeavor. Roth could not have originally (that is, in 1979) intended it, and yet they go together so well; The Ghostwriter as a question, Exit Ghost as an answer. The Ghostwriter as a hope, a vision, a promise. And then Exit Ghost as a sobering, merciless response. And the authenticity of the response is oddly powerful, because not only has their narrator, Nathan Zukerman, aged in the long years between these two books, but their author has as well.
The Ghostwriter was Roth’s first engagement with Nathan Zuckerman. How much of Roth was distilled into this character we’ll never know. What we do know is that it’s 1956, and Zuckerman, an emerging (and promising) writer of 23 has been invited to the home of acclaimed author, E.I Lonoff and his wife Hope for dinner. Roth’s depiction of Zuckerman, his mixture of self-effacement and arrogance, of doubt and optimism, of obsessive ambition and painful self-consciousness is authentic as only a once young up-and-coming Jewish writer can write about another young up-and-coming Jewish writer.
Lonoff welcomes Zuckerman into the brotherhood of writers, speaking to him, as an equal, of his reading and writing routines, his difficulties, and even his fantasies about how he would like to live. He takes great interest in Zuckerman’s job as a door-to-door magazine salesman.
Did I sell any other magazines other than Photoplay and Silver Screen? Did I use the same line at every door or adapt my sales pitch to the customer? How did I account for my success as a salesman? What did I think people were after who subscribed to these insipid magazines? Was the work boring? Did anything unusual ever happen while I was prowling neighborhoods I knew nothing about? ….Had I ever been to Hackensack? What was it like? ….I wish I knew that much about selling magazines. I wish, he said, I knew that much about anything. I’ve written fantasy for thirty years. Nothing happens to me.”
His genius notwithstanding, nothing happens to him because he has moved to remote farmhouse in the country, with only his wife for company. Lonoff gives Zuckerman a rudimentary description of what might be described as his creative process.
Meanwhile, I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning. And if I knock off from this routine for as long as a day, I’m frantic with boredom and a sense of waste.
His only relief from this routine, he explains, is his teaching job at a local college.
his way, at least two afternoons a week, I have to stop, no questions asked. Besides, going to the college is the high point of my week. I carry a briefcase. I wear a hat. I nod hello to people on the stairway. I use the public toilet. Ask Hope. I come home reeling from the pandemonium.
Hope, it becomes clear, is the one who has had to bear the burden of Lonoff’s yielding, however ambivalently, to the demands of art over those of lived life. Her frustration is compounded by the presence that evening of yet another visitor to the Lonoff household, the “fetching” and clever Amy Bellete, a former student and assistant of Lonoff’s. Amy is dark haired and bright eyed with an enigmatic European accent. Does the Zuckerman character fall for her? Yes he does. And it is this infatuation, more than the dimensions of Lonoff’s conundrum, that spike this tale with metaphysical dynamite. For Zuckerman begins to entertain the idea that he young woman is none other than Anne Frank.
The novel draws to a close. Lonoff confesses to Zuckerman his fantasy of moving to Florence with a younger woman. Zuckerman overhears Amy proposition Lonoff, and Lonoff reject her advances. Hope has a fit of rage. The two youngsters, Amy and Zuckerman, depart leaving Lonoff to his raging wife and his long days of playing with words.
It’s a great book. But don’t stop there. Go now to Exit Ghost. The characters of The Ghostwriter have lived entire lives. Roth has lived an entire life. But you, lucky reader, can enjoy the luxury of time travel, garnering wisdom and insight without having to pay the price in time.
So. It’s 2004. The once randy Zuckerman, now both incontinent (he wears pads) and impotent, and suffers from lapses of memory which are starting to impair his functioning. Amy Bellete, the European beauty who, in The Ghostwriter, inspires Zuckerman to masturbate on Lonoff’s day bed, is an impoverished, decrepit old woman dying of brain cancer. When Zuckerman first recognizes Amy in a cafeteria, he avoids her. Like Lonoff, Zuckerman, we immediately learn, has also chosen art over life. Having indeed fulfilled his promise as a writer, Zuckerman has moved, like Lonoff, to the country, to live a solitary, isolated existence. As he tells it:
I don’t give readings or lectures or teach at a college or appear on TV. When my books are published, I keep to myself. I write every day of the week- otherwise I’m silent. I am tempted by the thought of not publishing at all – isn’t the work all I need, the work and the working? What does it matter any longer if I’m incontinent and impotent?”
Though the last line here makes the rest seem like an elaborate rationalization, the question that Roth is posing is a weighty one; if the point of the writer’s effort is to produce writing, having done that, does it even matter if it is ever read? On a certain level, it doesn’t. But having unequivocally chosen art, what is one to do about the remorseless presence of life?
After succumbing to a momentary temptation, Zuckerman answers an ad for a house swap – his country home for the West side apartment of David and Jamie, a young couple, both of them writers. To his own great surprise, Zuckerman is drawn to the Jamie, the wife, who awakens feelings that the impotent Zuckerman thought were dead and gone.
Through the couple, Zuckerman is pursued by Richard Kliman, a 28 year old freelance journalist. Kliman who is writing Lonoff’s biography, has uncovered a scandalous secret regarding Lonoff’s personal life, about which he wants to questions Zuckerman. Zuckerman is outraged at the sensational violation of his mentor’s reputation. He then seeks out Amy Bellette, with the hope of warning her about Kliman, and finding out the truth about Lonoff. Zuckerman’s obsession with Jamie, and his quest to vanquish Kliman’s plans, fills him with a new hunger for real, lived life.
Back in the drama, back in the moment, back into the turmoil of events! When I heard my voice rising, I did not rein it in. There is the pain of being in the world, but there is also the robustness. When was the last time I had felt the excitement of taking someone on?
Zuckerman, in this novel is 71, and we know before he does that his struggles are doomed. He comes to understand that Jamie has no physical interest in him, and that in the face of Richard’s determination, he is powerless. Powerless to stop him, and powerless to influence what will happen to Lonoff’s reputation.
Lonoff tried to run from life and take refuge in art, but even in death, his life is about to catch up with him. Zuckerman too, tried to escape the irritations and demands of life for his art, only to find that time has barred him from all he thought he wanted to escape. It would appear that in the artist’s struggle between life and art, life is the stronger element.
In the face of the impossibility of an affair with Jamie, Zuckerman is inspire to compose, on his hotel notepaper, long scenes of dialogue between them. It is all fantasy; mere art. But then, what are we to make of this:
But isn’t one’s pain quotient shocking enough without fictional amplification, without giving things an intensity that is ephemeral in life, and sometime even unseen? Not for some. For some very, very few that amplification, evolving uncertainly out of nothing, constitutes their only assurance, and the unlived, the surmise, fully drawn in print on paper, is the life whose meaning comes to matter most.