Philip Roth The Ghost Writer

Summary

Yet another example of speculative Jewish fiction, Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer asks the following question: What if Anne Frank did survive and was the mistress of a great Jewish-American author?

The novel begins with Nathan at E.I. Lonoff’s Berkshire home. The famed Jewish-American author, Lonoff lives the life of a recluse, with his gentile wife Hope. Nathan, an aspiring writer, is staying at a rural artist’s retreat (Quahsay Colony). He has sent Lonoff four of his short stories after having a disappointing encounter at the University of Chicago with another Jewish-American author/celebrity, Felix Abravanel, who, unlike E.I. Lonofff, marries an Israeli woman and is quite the fixture in the gossip columns. After having read Nathan’s stories, Lonoff invites Zuckerman to speak with him. The main action of the novel takes place over a 24 hour period, when Nathan meets Lonoff for the first time and stays for the night. Here, Nathan encounters Amy Bellette, a former writing student of his from Europe, who arrived in the US because of an admiring letter she writes to Lonoff, hoping she can be his student. With her ambiguous past and physical resemblance to Anne Frank, Nathan begins to believe that Amy Bellette really is the iconic diarist.

Part fantasy and conjecture of the novel’s character, Nathan Zuckerman, one cannot help but be taken on this ride of conjecture. Partly an example of being a bad Jew, Zuckerman’s imagining that Amy Bellette is Anne Frank is both redemptive but also further indicative of his bad Jewness. He fantasizes about the grown up Anne Frank, hopes to marry her, to prove to his family that he is not a self-hating Jew. And, yet, his rendering of the surviving Anne Frank as a woman in her mid twenties having an affair with a Jewish writer old enough to be her father is a form of sacrilege, defiling the memory of this saint-like figure.

Over the course of the narrative, we learn that Nathan has had a falling out with his family before he leaves for the writer’s retreat. His story, “Higher Education” is inspired by a family dispute over inheritance. Nathan’s mother and father feel it misrepresents their family and Jews in general; they fear the public’s anti-Semitic reception. Nathan defends his portrayal and leaves for the Quahsay on bad terms with his family. While at the colony, Nathan receives a letter from Judge Leopold Wapter, one ofNewark’s most esteemed Jewish figures, who wrote a letter of recommendation for Nathan’s University of Chicago application. Wapter informs Nathan that Mr. Zuckerman has shown him “Higher Education.” He responds with a list of “Ten Questions for Nathan Zuckerman” that go something like this: “If you had been Living in Nazi Germany in the thirties, would you have written such a story?” and “Do you believe Shakespeare’s Shylock and Dicken’s Fagin have been of no use to anti-Semites?” Nathan refuses to answer these questions.

During Nathan’s stay, Lonoff and Hope fight over the author’s relationship to Amy. Hope knows they are having an affair. They fight about this that evening and in the morning Hope packs up an overnight bag and threatens to leave. She tells Amy to stay and live with the nightmare that is Lonoff. Amy however had plans to leave in the morning and drives off before Hope can leave. Lonoff insists nothing is going on between them; Hope refuses to believes this and walks off in the snow. Lonoff turns to Nathan and says “I’m curious to see how this plays out in your work; you’re not so kind and polite in your fiction.” The joke is of course that what we are reading is the novelizaiton of this fictionalized encounter. The chapter in which Nathan imagines Amy Bellette is Anne Frank is the product of Zuckerman’s imaginings—his reading of dynamics he sees. We are reading the narrative that is constructed after the fact, based on the so-called notes and paper Lonoff alludes to at the very end.

Characters 

E. I. Lonoff

Hope Lonoff

Amy Bellette

Anne Frank

Nathan Zuckerman

Judge Wapter

Mr. Zuckerman

Mrs. Zuckerman

Felix Abravanel

Response

The Ghost Writer intriguingly plays with the aesthetics of the camp. Amy Bellete, Zuckerman’s imagined Anne Frank, is attractive precisely because her proportions are off: her head is quite larger than the rest of her body. Zuckerman explains:

“Here she appeared again. But what had seemed from a distance like beauty, pure and severe and simple, was more of a puzzle up close. When she crossed the foyer into the living room . . . I saw that striking head had been conceived onn a much grander and more ambitious scale than the torso. The bulky sweater and the pounds and pounds of tweed skirt did much, of course, to obscure the little of her there was, but mostly it was the drama of that face, combined with the softeness and intelligence of her large pale eyes, that rendered all other physical attributed (excluding the heavy, curlig hair) blurry and inconsequential. Admittedly, the rich calm of those eyes would have been enough to make me wilt with shyness, but that I couldn’t return her gaze directly had also to do with this unharmonious relation between body and skull, and its implication, to me, of some early misfortune, of something vital lost or beaten down, and, by way of compensation, something vastly overdone. I thought of a trapped chick that could not get more than its beaked skull out of the encircling shell. I thought of those macrocephalic boulders theEaster Islandheads. I thought of febrile patients on the verandas of Swiss sanatoria imbibing the magic mountain air. But let me not exaggerate the pathos and originality of my impressions, especially as they were subsumed soon enough in my unoriginal and irrepressible preoccupation: mostly I thought of the triumph it would be to kiss that face, and the excitement of her kissing me back (24).”

With this fictional flourish, the physical oddities of the camp survivor are rendered alluring—Amy’s proportions make her beauty that more puzzling and difficult to behold. The novel is clearly making reference to ubiquitous images of famished concentration camp inmates, whose skeletal heads far exceed the dimensions of their emaciated bodies. But Zuckerman here implies  that the mark of the camp never actually leaves and that these marks might be aesthetically pleasing for the body and in fiction itself.

Chapter 3, “Femme Fatale,” is soley devoted to Zuckerman’s imaginings about Amy’s past, which is offered in matter-of-fact prose. Nathan describes Amy’s relationship to  The Diary of Anne Frank, which he believes is her first published book because Amy is Anne Frank. As a writer herself, Zuckerman’s Amy/Anne contemplates why she peaked in her teens with her diary. “Why, what eloquence Anne. . . what deftness, what wit!” Amy whispers while reading a copy of her published diary for the first time since she had written it a decade or so earlier. “How nice she thought, if I could write like this for Mr. Lonoff, if I could write like this for Mr. Lonoff’s English 12,” the narrative explains, “’It’s good, she heard him saying, ‘it’s the best thing you’ve ever done, Miss Belette” (136). In Zuckerman’s story, of course, Mr. Lonoff never acutally says this, believing Amy is out of her mind. And, yet, Amy continues to ponder why her writing as a twenty-six year old woman living in Boston is just not as good.”But of course it was [better],” the narrative expalins, “she’d head a ‘great subject,’ as the girls in her English class said” (136). Amy comes to the conclusion that, yes, the suffering she endured during her years of hiding were what made her writing so exemplary: “Truly, without the terror and the claustrophobia of the achterhuis, as a chatterbox surrounded by friends and rollicking with laughter, free to come and go, free to clown around, free to pursue her every last expectation, would she ever have written sentences so deft and so eloquent and so witty? She thought, Now maybe that’s the problem in English 12—not the absence of the great subject but the presence of the lake and the tennis courts and Tangelwood. The perfect tan, the linen skirts, my merging reputation as the Pallas Athene of Athene College, maybe that’s what’s doing me in. Maybe if I were locked up again in a room somewhere and fed on rotten potatoes and clothes in rages and terrified out of my wits, maybe then I could write a decent story for Mr. Lonoff!” (137).

Fed up with the burden of being the “survivor,” Amy/Anne burns her camp number off her arm with an iron while smoothing out her blouse (131): “When the bandage was removed, there was a patch of purple scar tissue about half the size of an egg instead of her camp number” (131). Amy/Anne resists being marked as a general survivor of the camps, but also as being the iconic survivor: Anne Frank. She goes into hiding from her famed persona, pretending that she hadn’t survived. But her choice to remain under the radar is part of preserving the importance of what her name has become: she plays dead, becomes living ghost, so as to keep the saint-like image of “Anne Frank” in tact. She had become “a holy shrine, a Wailing Wall” (150). If she had survived, the audience members of the Broadway production of The Diary of Anne Frank (a performance she attends), cannot wail at the end of her death.

The Ghost Writer effectively demonstrates what the spectre of the Holocaust has wrought on Jewish identified people, like Nathan Zuckerman—whose writing about a Jewish experience is too harsh for a post-Holocaust Jewish world–and most unexpectedly, Anne Frank—the very icon of these atrocities. By putting the forth the possibly that Frank could still be alive, the novel illustrates how the unbearable burden would necessitate her own ghosting—requiring her to bury “Anne Frank” and fashion a different identity for the sake of memory and history.

Other Notes

 I’d just like to end by noting that there are some queer moments between Nathan and Lonoff. Specifically, Nathan reads a passage from Henry James’ Middle Passage, in which a doctor, the devoted fan of a fictional author, gives up his medical attentions to his female benefactress in order to nurse the author back to health. In so doing, the woman dies from neglect and leaves none of her money to the doctor. Nathan sees the similarities between him and the doctor in the story, with his devotional admiration of Lonoff. At one point in the novel, Nathan is compelled to kiss Lonoff, but he restrains himself from doing so (74). I’m usually all over queer readings, but for some reason this response was so taken with the Anne Frank figure that I sort of forgot about this moment. It’s probably something I should come back to. One question might be what role does the female survivor play in the strange entanglement of desire. When Nathan first sees Amy, he assumes she is either Lonoff’s daughter or mistress and is intrigued by her because of her connection to the author. How much of Lonoff’s fantasy about Amy is a result of his attraction to Lonoff? How does the female survivor then act as a conduit between these two men?

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