On the futility of extracting fact from fiction

Philip Roth has always intertwined biographical details in his fiction. Yet his latest novel is a polemic against those who judge a work of art through the artist’s personal life.

Rob Killick

Topics Books

It has become common for artistic and literary reputations to be dismantled at the hands of what a character in Philip Roth’s latest novel Exit Ghost calls ‘cultural journalists’, prone as they are to confuse artistic achievement with biographical detail.

‘Your cultural journalism is tabloid gossip disguised as an interest in “the arts” and everything it touches is contracted into what it is not’, writes Amy Bellete, a character in Exit Ghost, in a letter to a newspaper. ‘Who is the celebrity, what is the price, what is the scandal? What transgression has the writer committed, and not against the exigencies of literary aesthetics but against his or her daughter, son, mother, father, spouse, lover, friend, publisher or pet?’

Roth insists on the discipline, denial and distance that are required by authors to produce great fiction, and he disparages those who wish to denigrate the producers of great work by elevating details from the artist’s life over his or her artistic achievements. He implies also that those who wish to understand the artist by looking at their biographies are both wasting their time and, worse, risk destroying the reputations of great writers for reasons to do with the their own inadequacies.

‘The writer works alone for years on end, stakes his or her everything on the writing, pours over every sentence sixtytwo times, and is yet (apparently) without any sort of overriding literary consciousness or goal….The writer’s guiding motives are always personal and generally low…And this knowledge comes as a comfort, for it turns out that not only are these writers not superior to the rest of us, as they pretend to be – they are worse than the rest of us. Those terrible geniuses!’

Exit Ghost contains a sustained polemic against this aspect of celebrity culture, and a defence of literary tradition. The book revolves around a struggle between Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s protagonist from previous novels, and a young journalist, Richard Kliman, who is determined to uncover the supposed hidden secret of IE Lonoff, a dead American short story writer who Zuckerman admires. Kliman believes this private secret will explain the reason as to why Lonoff left a novel manuscript unfinished.

Zuckerman has been hiding away in the hills of Massachusetts for 11 years, cut off from the world and doing nothing except writing. He is impotent and incontinent as a result of prostate surgery. It appears he is also suffering from early stage dementia. He decides to go back to New York for corrective surgery to cure his incontinence. While he is there, he decides, on a whim, to swap homes with a young New York literary couple fleeing to the countryside to escape the threat of al-Qaeda. They introduce him to Kliman who wishes to enlist Zuckerman in the quest for the dead writer’s ‘secret’. Zuckerman makes one last effort to become part of the world again, to live in the city after years in the wilderness, to fight a righteous battle, to fall in love, to become physically whole again.

As an ally in his struggle, Zuckerman has Amy Bellete, the dead writer’s former lover, herself suffering from a brain tumour. But she is determined that her lover’s reputation be protected from the revelation of this secret. By choosing to portray the enemies of cultural journalism as old, sick and defeated, Roth suggests that this is a battle that might already be lost.

Yet Zuckerman manages to expose one of the common flaws of cultural journalism: the assumption that biographical detail can ‘explain’ fiction. Fiction is, by its very nature, open to countless influences and interpretations. The imagination of the writer is the crucible for wide-ranging experiences, real and literary.

Kliman assumes that there are autobiographical elements in Lonoff’s unfinished manuscript. While he believes the author’s ‘secret’ is a shameful detail of his past, Zuckerman disagrees, insisting that Lonoff ‘borrowed’ his secret from Nathaniel Hawthorne. He implies that it was due to literary reasons, not emotional ones, that Lonoff did not publish his novel. Neither Kliman nor Zuckerman has any proof for their assertions.

Many readers of Roth are fascinated by the extent to which his own life is intertwined with his fiction. You could argue that Roth is asking for it. Not only does Nathan Zuckerman share many biographical details with his creator, but Roth has also named characters after himself.

So he has always played with the intertwining of reality and fiction, but in Exit Ghost he insists they are not the same and that one cannot be a judge of the other. For Roth, great fiction offers truths that real life cannot deliver. Fiction is ‘the not-so that reveals the so’.

Great fiction can provide solace for what cannot be in real life. As Zuckerman puts it:

‘..Isn’t one’s pain quotient shocking enough without fictional amplification, without giving things an intensity that is ephemeral in life and sometimes 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.’

Roth has lately taken to killing off his protagonists, first the unnamed hero of his almost flawless novel Everyman and now, by suggestion, Nathan Zuckerman. Is this a kind of magical attempt to offer sacrifices to the Gods in order to prolong his own existence? Or perhaps like Hymie Roth, the gangster in The Godfather who feigns decrepitude in order to draw out his enemies and deal with them, Roth is offering his literary enemies an opportunity to tackle him while he is still alive. Roth knows that his own life will continue to be picked over when he is gone by the very type of critic he attacks. Exit Ghost allows him to give his retaliation in advance.

The novel’s outcome is both pessimistic and a challenge; pessimistic in that Zuckerman recognises that he no longer has the power to defend literary values, and a challenge in that Roth throws down the gauntlet to the reader. Roth works into the narrative in an approving way the names of almost the entire Western literary canon. He is telling us that these are the authors who are worth something, whose reputations need to be protected, not traduced. He is saying that if you care for these writers then you too should defend their right to be judged by what they have produced rather than what they did in their private lives.

There is a larger point here, for it is not just in the realm of fiction that famous people have been given the treatment by the kind of reductionist journalism Roth rails against. Politicians, for example, are routinely judged by what they do in their private lives rather than by their political actions. The urge to expose and denigrate is endemic in Western society. The desire to pull down rather than raise the reputations of the talented and gifted, of people who wish to lead in whatever field, is a symptom of an unconfident and decadent society.

Roth also understands that reality cannot be denied by fiction. Old age will claim us all. ‘This way or that, arrow or drifter, you still reach the end.’ He stares at old age and its discontents frankly and with no attempt to sweeten the pill. Old age brings ‘friction and agitation and conflict and pointlessness and disgust’.

Exit Ghost is a novel in which illness, decrepitude and decline appear on nearly every page, but there are no corresponding signs of weakening in the quality of Roth’s own writing. His observation and humour are sharp as ever, as is his rage against the worst aspects of modernity. From his vignette of the self loathing New York intellectuals who respond to Bush’s second election victory by saying ‘there’s nothing to stop them now except al-Qaeda’ to his sense that the ubiquity of mobile phone use illustrates ‘the immense loneliness of human beings’, and his fury that great writers like William Faulkner should be excluded from public recognition to make way for inferior writers who happen to be black and female, there is no sense that Zuckerman’s literal retreat from the world is to be followed in real life by Roth.

Roth’s engagement with the world is as intense as ever, although now with the understanding that if the end is not quite nigh it is nighish. As Zuckerman says,
‘I was learning at the age of seventyone what it is to be deranged. Proving that self-discovery wasn’t over after all’.

Rob Killick is CEO of the digital agency cScape.

Exit Ghost by Philip Roth is published by Jonathan Cape. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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