All-star panel to discuss Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer at Stanford

Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman will join Tobias Wolff to discuss Roth’s 1979 classic, The Ghost Writer, on Feb. 25. In an interview with Another Look, Philip Roth discusses the book. (Interview with Philip Roth here.)


An undisputed literary giant (Photo Nancy Crampton)

Philip Roth is one of the nation’s undisputed literary giants. He’s received the Pulitzer Prize, the Man Booker International Prize, the National Medal of Arts, the National Humanities Medal, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal in Fiction and two National Book Awards. Every year he appears on the Ladbroke’s list of Nobel contenders.

Provocative, pugnacious, eloquent, he’s always caused a buzz – and he’ll do so again at Stanford this month. He will appear on campus, at least in spirit, with his 1979 classic, The Ghost Writer. The seasonal Another Look book club event will take place at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 25, at the Stanford Humanities Center. Award-winning author Tobias Wolff, a professor of English, will join two of the nation’s leading novelists, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, for a discussion. The event is free and open to the public.

The occasion marks the first time Another Look has featured a living author. Though the 80-year-old author of Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint won’t be able to attend, Roth took a few moments to discuss The Ghost Writer, his obsession with language, book clubs and other topics in an interview with Another Look.

Roth’s novels famously veer between lacerating wit, penetrating observation, historical tragedy and, in his most recent works, mortality. Writing with a cathartic energy and anger, angst and sexual obsession, his works have outraged and delighted readers for years.

Although he draws on his Jewish background, Roth steadfastly refuses to be labeled as a Jewish American writer. “‘An American-Jewish writer’ is an inaccurate if not also a sentimental description, and entirely misses the point. The novelist’s obsession, moment by moment, is with language: finding the right next word,” he said in the Stanford Report interview. “I flow or I don’t flow in American English. I get it right or I get it wrong in American English.”

The Ghost Writer tells the story of an ambitious young writer, Nathan Zuckerman, visiting a famous one, E.I. Lonoff, at the older author’s home in western Massachusetts in 1956. A winter storm leaves Zuckerman and the Lonoffs snowbound with a young Jewish refugee from Europe. Zuckerman, estranged from his community for portraying Jewish families in an irreverent light (rather like Roth himself), imagines the beautiful young stranger is Anne Frank, mysteriously survived and in America, who will somehow vindicate him.

Wolff says it’s among his favorite novels.

“Among the many distinguished, indeed essential, novels Philip Roth has given us over the past 50 years, The Ghost Writer is one of the most remarkable – remarkable for its formal mastery, for the subtle, persuasive voice through which Roth brings his narrator to life, and for the sheer audacity of its conception,” he says. “In the enigmatic figure of Amy Bellette, Nathan Zuckerman is led to consider a possibility that will challenge our understanding of history, and the way in which history is shaped to the purposes of those who demand something from it – a lesson, a consolation, a hero, a martyr. The novel makes us feel the necessity, and pain, of recognizing our illusions – personal, artistic, historical.”

Claudia Roth Pierpont, author of the newly published Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books, said ofThe Ghost Writer: “Like The Great Gatsby or Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House, it is one of our literature’s rare, inevitably brief, inscrutably musical and nearly perfect books.”

While Another Look generally features off-the-beaten-track books and authors, in this case it is burnishing an established legacy, one so long that its earlier masterpieces may be overlooked. “This is not a lost book,” said Wolff. “This isn’t the Dead Sea scrolls. Roth has written so much, so well, for so long, that it’s possible for books to fall under the shadow of his late monumental works, such asAmerican Pastoral and Sabbath’s Theater.”

In any case, Roth insists that his oeuvre is now complete, so perhaps it’s time to give another look to all his books. Will there really be no more novels from America’s most famous pen? “Well, you better believe me, because I haven’t written a word of fiction since 2009,” Roth told Another Look. ”I have no desire to write fiction. I did what I did and it’s done.”

The “Another Look” book club focuses on short masterpieces that have been forgotten, neglected or overlooked – or may simply not have gotten the attention they merit. The selected works are short to encourage the involvement of the Bay Area readers whose time may be limited. Registration at theAnother Look website is encouraged for regular updates and details on the selected books and events.

‘The novelist’s obsession is with language’: Philip Roth on writing, the future of language and The Ghost Writer

Philip Roth’s 1979 classic, The Ghost Writer, will be spotlighted at Stanford at a February 25 “Another Look” book club event. Cynthia Haven interviewed the author in preparation for the event. His weapon-of-choice was the email interview, rather than a telephone conversation. Roth was precise, nuanced and to the point. He turned around a thoughtful and polished transcript in one quick weekend.


“Each book starts from ashes.” (Photo: Nancy Crampton)

Cynthia Haven: “There is no life without patience.” This thought is expressed at least twice in The Ghost Writer. Could you expand on it a little?

Philip Roth: I can expand on it only by reminding you that the six words are spoken not by me but by a character in a book, the eminent short-story writer E.I. Lonoff. It is a maxim Lonoff has derived from a lifetime of agonizing over sentences and does a little something, I hope, to portray him as writer, husband, recluse and mentor.

One of the several means of bringing characters to life in fiction is, of course, through what they say and what they don’t say. The dialogue is an expression of their thoughts, beliefs, defenses, wit, repartee, etc., a depiction of their responsive manner in general. I am trying to depict Lonoff’s verbal air of simultaneous aloofness and engagement, and too his pedagogical turn of mind, in this case when he is talking to a young protégée. What a character says is determined by who is being spoken to, what effect is desired, and, of course, by who he or she is and what he or she wants at the moment of speaking. Otherwise it’s just a hubbub of opinions. It’s propaganda. Whatever signal is being flashed by those six words you quote derives from the specificity of the encounter that elicits them.

Haven: You’ve said of your two dozen or so novels, “Each book starts from ashes.” How did The Ghost Writer, in particular, rise from the ashes? Could you describe how it came about, and your labor pains bringing it into being?

Roth: How I began The Ghost Writer almost 40 years ago? I can’t remember. The big difficulty came with deciding on the role Anne Frank was to have in the story.

Haven: It must have been a controversial choice, since she has held a somewhat sacrosanct space in our collective psychic life – even more so in 1979, when the book was published, and even more than that in 1956, when the action of your book takes place, a little over a decade after the war’s end. Were you criticized for this portrayal? How has the perception of her changed in the years since the book was published, especially given Cynthia Ozick’s landmark 1997 essay, “Who Owns Anne Frank,” which decried the kitschification of Frank?

Roth: I could have had Amy Bellette be Anne Frank, and don’t think I didn’t put in some hard time trying to pull that off. The attempt wasn’t fruitful because, in Cynthia Ozick’s words, I did not want to “own” Anne Frank and assume a moral responsibility so grand, however much I had been thinking about bringing her story, which had so much power over people, particularly Jews of my generation –her generation – into my fiction as early as 10 and 15 years earlier. I did want to imagine, if not the girl herself – and in truth, I wanted to imagine that too, though in some way others had ignored – the function the girl had come to perform in the minds of her vast following of receptive readers. One of them is my protagonist, young Nathan Zuckerman, trying to get used to the idea that he was not born to be nice and for the first time in his life being called to battle. One is Newark’s sage Judge Wapter, watchdog over the conscience of others. Another is Zuckerman’s poor baffled mother, wondering if her own son is an anti-Semite dedicated to wiping out all that is good.

Read the rest here

Tobias Wolff on The Ghost Writer

Among the many distinguished, indeed essential, novels Philip Roth has given us over the past 50 years, The Ghost Writer is one of the most remarkable – remarkable for its formal mastery, for the subtle, persuasive voice through which Roth brings his narrator to life, and for the sheer audacity of its conception. In the enigmatic figure of Amy Bellette, Nathan Zuckerman is led to consider a possibility that will challenge our understanding of history, and the way in which history is shaped to the purposes of those who demand something from it – a lesson, a consolation, a hero, a martyr. The novel makes us feel the necessity,and pain, of recognizing our illusions – personal, artistic, historical. In short, Zuckerman is forced to think the unthinkable, which is exactly what his art requires.

On Anne Frank: a few words from John Felstiner

Anne Frank: A bright Jewish girl born 1929 in Frankfurt; forced to move with her family in 1933 to Amsterdam, Netherlands; murdered by Nazism in 1945. Anne would have been no one at all if not for her consistent diary, written toward her “Kitty” from 13 to 15. Her family’s helper, Miep Gies, preserved Anne’s Diary of a Young Girl. Once that was published, she became and still is the Holocaust adolescent, almost daily discovering everything from ruinous Nazis and ruined Jews to families, friends, boys, her body, and more: writing.

Perhaps the simplest yet hardest question is this: Would you rather have Anne Frank’s uniquely sad and heartening diary, reaching about 50 million readers, or would you rather have somewhere a fine person living her fine life? This question, if it is one, has much to do with Philip Roth’s gripping book The Ghost Writer—not to mention his brilliant short story “Eli, The Fanatic,” pulling Jewish identity against home in America.

New York’s Museum of Modern Art, in 1955, published The Family of Man, pictures of humanity around the world. One double-page has 11 photos of mainly normal young handsome women. In the center of them is this: “I still believe that people are really good of heart. Anne Frank, Diary.” Go to her diary, two weeks before it ends, and you’ll see this teen-ager: “It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yes I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good of heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too …” Somewhat crushing the good.

After a Gestapo arrested Anne and her family in their two-year hiding place, they were sent to Holland’s Westerbork camp, then Auschwitz-Birkenau, then Bergen-Belsen. There, broken, she tried to keep her sister alive. Margot died, then Anne.

– John Felstiner

“Father versus Art”: Claudia Roth Pierpont on The Ghost Writer

Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) was published to acclaim a few months ago. These excerpts are taken from her chapter on The Ghost Writer, “The Madness of Art”:

The Ghost Writer, published in 1979, is a novel so seamless that it appears to have been conceived and poured out whole. In fact, it had been brewing for a long time and had grown out of disparate ideas. Roth had wanted to write about Anne Frank since the early years of his career: to change her history, to have her survive, and to bring her to America, as he had brought Kafka in his story of 1973. The subject of the martyred Jewish girl, however, was much harder to approach. The risks of hagiography on the one hand and tastelessness on the other were all too clear. And what would be the dramatic point?


It is a book of memory, then: we are looking back a long way. The year is 1956. Lonoff, we soon learn, died five years later, in 1961. Zuckerman’s own fortunes after this visit are unknown. The snow and the fading light and the closely attentive prose give the atmosphere, throughout, a Chekhovian glow that has its precedent in the final scene of The Professor of Desire.  But where that book ended, Roth is just beginning.

At least part of the breakthrough must be credited to a new protagonist, Nathan Zuckerman. Although Roth has the reputation of a confessional writer, no one is more aware of the importance, for literary freedom, of self-disguise. In an obituary essay on Malamud, published in The New York Times Book Review in 1986 and republished in Roth’s 2001 collection, Shop Talk, Roth points to the contrast between that tightly constrained man and his richly unconstrained art and invokes the German term from Heine, Maskenfreiheit: “the freedom conferred by masks.” One might accurately refer to Nathan Zuckerman as a new mask.


Father versus Art: an even bigger problem or, at least, a more immediate one. And the choice, for Nathan, is unbearable. In his Paris Review interview, published a few years after the book appeared, Roth described the subject of The Ghost Writer as “the difficulties of telling a Jewish story.” (“In what tone? To whom shold it be told? To what end? Should it be told at all?”) Even back in 1971, in an article he wrote for The New York Times, he had recognized that it would have been “asking the impossible” of many Jews to react to his early stories without anger and fear, “only five thousand days after Buchenwald and Auschwitz.” But in this book he brings the problem home. Nathan is haunted by the image of his bewildered father, standing alone on a darkening street corner after Nathan has refused to repudiate his story, “thinking himself and all of Jewry gratuitously disgraced and jeopardized by my inexplicable betrayal.” Still, he can’t back down.

That night, in the makeshift bedroom of Lonoff’s study, he sits in his undershorts at the great man’s desk. Beside the desk, on index cards pinned to a bulletin board, are two quotations, one ascribed to Robert Schumann, about Chopin, and one by Henry James: “We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” The final phrase confuses him. Isn’t it art that is sanity, against the madness of everything else? Yet these are the words that hang over Lonoff’s head every day while he turns his sentences around. Nathan pulls out a pad and begins to write, first a reading list from the books on Lonoff’s shelves, then an account of the remarkable day, featuring Lonoff’s praise of Nathan’s own distinctive literary voice – “I don’t mean style,” Lonoff said, “I mean voice” – and, inevitably, a letter to his father about his art and his voice and his family bonds that will explain everything. But he cannot finish it because he cannot find the right words.


The Ghost Writer has a formal, almost musical structure: four sections in which the themes intertwine as tightly as in a chamber quartet. The third section, the Anne Frank section, might be called the scherzo, or even quasi una fantasia, and required much rewriting. The first draft, Roth says today, was “overdramatized, and lyric in the worst sense,” since he was intimidated by the subject. He’d written it in the third person (Nathan telling Anne’s story) but then decided to rewrite it in the first person – Anne telling her own story – in order to wash out the overstatement and the saintliness, or what he calls “all that UJA rhetoric.” (The United Jewish Appeal was not known for its literary subtlety.) The girl who wrote the diary would never write in such an elevated tone about herself. Then he translated it back into the third person, now cleansed of the problems of tone. The result is natural and vivid and disconcertingly plausible; humor is continually shadowed by the sorrow of the source. Yet even Nathan finally suspects that this new fiction will not acquit him from the charges of anti-Semitism that his earlier story had brought. Rather, it will seem to his judges “a desecration even more vile than the one they had read.”


‘Another Look’ launches second year with Ackerley’s ‘My Father and Myself’

By Cynthia Haven

Roger and Joe Ackerley, 1913 (Photo by permission of Harold Ober Associates)

J.R. Ackerley led an outwardly quiet life between his flat in suburban Putney and his London office at The Listener, the BBC’s weekly magazine, where he worked from 1935 to 1959.  Though he was the leading literary editor of his generation, he was in no hurry to publish his own work – hence, his controversial memoir appeared posthumously.

Now his following is growing.  It’s likely to expand further when Stanford’s “Another Look” book club takes on My Father and Myself, exploring Ackerley’s life as a gay man and his determined outing of long-held family secrets. A book discussion will be held Oct. 29 at 7:30 p.m. in the Stanford Humanities Center’s Levinthal Hall.  The event is free and open to the public.

The evening will be moderated by Terry Castle, professor of English and author of  The Professor and Other Writings. She will be joined by Adrian Daub, an associate professor of German studies, and Jeffrey Fraenkel, founder of San Francisco’s Fraenkel Gallery for photography.  The event launches the second year of “Another Look,” founded by the English/Creative Writing Department.

It’s not the first time Stanford has had a role in beating the drums for My Father and Myself.  When Edwin Frank, a former Stegner Fellow in Stanford’s Creative Writing Program, founded the New York Review Books Classics in 1999, none of Ackerley’s books were in print.  Frank republished all four – they were among the first titles of the eminent series that rediscovers out-of-the-way classics.

Given current critical esteem, their former obscurity is surprising, but Frank cites several reasons why this was so. “He published one book early on, and it was a success.  Then he didn’t write anything for years on end. If you do that, you will have a more vulnerable career as a writer,” he explained. “My Dog Tulip was published privately.  My Father and Myself was posthumous.  We Think the World of You was published in 1963 – it was a relatively open picture of a gay relationship between two none-too-appealing people.”

Read the rest here.

The Many Loves of J.R. Ackerley

With a young friend in Athens

J.R. Ackerley was sitting on a park bench with Forrest Reid in Hyde Park, when the older writer asked him, “Do you really care about anyone?”

In My Father and Myself, Ackerley says he pondered the remark long afterwards. “To this searching question I do not know the answer, it goes too deep; since people and events vanish so easily from my memory it may be no.”  Not everyone shares his assessment. “It is characteristic of him to report against himself – he fears he is an uncaring person,” said Edwin Frank, founder of the New York Review Books Classics.

When accused of hating the human race, however, Ackerley was quite startled: “I am not a misanthropist,” he insisted. “I like people and get on well with them; I am only a numerical misanthropist.” To stem the rising population tide, he recommended homosexuality. No one could be entirely sure how serious he was.

In his own life, he adopted his recommendation seriously and with enthusiasm: he restlessly cycled through men – hundreds, by his own account. Yet, in My Father and Myself, few even get a first name.  Most of them got money – “a pound was the recognized tariff for the Foot Guards then, the Horse Guards cost rather more.”

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Sometimes love really is a bitch.

My Father and Myself is dedicated simply “To Tulip.”

Tulip’s identity is no enigma. Although the real name of J.R. Ackerley’s dedicatee was “Queenie,” his editors worried the name had racy connotations, even for a dog, and hence the title of his earlier book had been My Dog Tulip. It is perhaps the only story of a man and his dog in which the two are treated as equals.

Ackerley was clearly besotted with his Alsatian bitch.  It is said that photographs do not do her justice: she was by all accounts a beauty, and she shuddered with pleasure when Ackerley stroked her back and tail.

Ackerley would take her for long, leisurely walks before going to his office in Putney, noting the “Victorian calling cards” she left behind on various trees and bushes.  As they strolled, he introduced her to other dogs and sang the ditty he had invented for their walks:

Piddle piddle seal and sign,
I’ll smell your arse, you smell mine;
Human beings are prudes and bores,
You smell my arse, I’ll smell yours.

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