20 November 2007

Philip Roth, The Ghost Writer. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979.

At the end of Anne Frank’s diary, we learn that the girl died in a concentration camp not long before the end of World War II. But a diary is not a strictly factual account, and the story requires an ending that can’t, independently, be verified as true. What if Anne Frank had actually lived?

Throughout his long and distinguished career, Roth has been willing to take on controversy [Portnoy’s Complaint is about masturbation; The Breast is about, well…a man who becomes a mammary gland] and make grand claims, like naming his baseball book The Great American Novel. The Ghost Writer, though, seems like a deeply personal meditation, devoid of provocation, at first blush.

Adhering to strict Aristotelian formal requirements of time and place, The Ghost Writer is a middle-aged writer’s recounting of, and reflection upon, a long-ago meeting with his literary hero. The action is confined to the rural estate of Lonoff, an established short story artist who has invited the young, aspiring author Nathan for a chat. While the winter weather is frightful, things go very well for Nathan—until he sees the young woman sorting through Lonoff’s papers on the floor in the next room.

Tension immediately begins to build as Nathan tries to learn who she is. What he discovers during the long, sleepless night stays with him for twenty years and provides a loose frame for this entirely predictable, but utterly engaging, little book.



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