The Ghost Writer

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Novella by Philip Roth, 1979

When Philip Roth wrote Goodbye, Columbus (1959) and Portnoy's Complaint (1969), he could not have predicted the hostile response by some American Jews who feared Roth's unflattering portraits of Jewish life might foment latent anti-Semitism in the wake of the Holocaust. His detractors insisted that his identity as a Jew and his identity as a writer were irrefutably connected; he had a responsibility to portray Jews in ways that would not nourish the souls of anti-Semites. He argued then and has repeatedly stated since that a writer, indeed any artist, must be free to express his ideas. In "Writing about Jews," an essay reprinted in Reading Myself and Others (1975), Roth rejects the claims of those who "argue or imply that the sufferings of the Jews throughout history, culminating in the murder of six million by the Nazis, have made certain criticisms of Jewish life insulting and trivial."

A few years later his novella The Ghost Writer (1979) enlarged the discussion about a writer's freedom to express his ideas, and, to a degree, offered Roth a fictional forum in which he could continue to debate his views. At the same time, Roth put forth an idea that he has revisited in a number of other books: Jews tend to sanctify stories about the Holocaust and to elevate the storytellers by virtue of their victimization without subjecting either to any literary scrutiny.

In the novella Roth's alter ego, the young writer Nathan Zuckerman, goes to visit his literary idol, E.I. Lonoff, describing him as someone "who, some ten years after Hitler, seemed to say something new and wrenching to Gentiles and Jews, and to Jews themselves, and to readers and writers of that recuperative decade …" There he encounters another Lonoff admirer, Amy Bellett, who alleges to be the deceased Anne Frank, the juvenile author of the famous Holocaust diary. She claims to have assumed an alias rather than reveal her identity in order to preserve the hallowed position maintained by her celebrated work. The circumstances allow Roth to pursue a defense of his writing, with Holocaust literature serving as a point of reference in his discussion of Jewish writers, their subjects, and the reception of their work by Jewish audiences.

As part of his argument Zuckerman sets up a counterpoint between himself and Anne Frank. He made a conscious choice to be a writer; "as for developing into a writer—she owed that not to any decision to sit down each day and try to be one but to their stifling life." He elected to write about Jews, to make them his subject; she wrote about them by default. Yet Jews find fault with his presentation of Jewish life and praise The Diary of Anne Frank. For Zuckerman, and one may assume for Roth, the adoration of the diary was based less on artistic merit than on the tragic circumstances of its subject. The diary invited sympathy for Jews; Zuckerman's work did not.

Zuckerman, like Roth, had felt the long arm of Hitler's endless persecution since fear of anti-Semitism had created its own unique brand of censorship. For example, Zuckerman's father, although claiming to be proud of his son's literary success, worries about the harmful potential of one story, "Higher Education." He admonishes him: "I wonder if you fully understand just how very little love there is in this world for Jewish people. I don't mean in Germany, either, under the Nazis. I mean in run-of-the-mill Americans." And his father's friend Judge Wapter, apparently a stand-in for numerous critics of Roth, concocts "Ten Questions for Nathan Zuckerman" on the subject of the responsibility of Jewish writers. The first question reads: "If you had been living in Nazi Germany in the thirties, would you have written such a story?" and the last question circles back to the same issue: "Can you honestly say there is anything in your short story that would not warm the heart of a Julius Streicher or a Joseph Goebbels?" Roth is, of course, satirizing the concerns of his critics and, through Zuckerman, restating his argument that fiction has no power to propagandize—that the artist must be free to express his thoughts.

—Ellen Gerstle

Daniel Walden