Stanford’s “Another Look” spotlights Marguerite Duras’ The Lover

Stanford’s book club honors the famous French writer’s centenary with a May 12 discussion of The Lover, her autobiographical tale of her scandalous teenage affair with an older Chinese millionaire, set in her native Saigon.

By Cynthia Haven

Long before most Americans could find Vietnam on a map, the French ruled Indochina, and its Chinese, French, and native Annamese denizens lived in an unequal colonial stew. So when a 15-year-old French schoolgirl had a passionate affair with a wealthy 27-year-old Chinese lover in Saigon, it created a scandal. The affair eventually became a book, and the book became a masterpiece.

The writer, Marguerite Duras, would tell the story again and again, throughout her lifetime, but never more compellingly than in The Lover, which received a prestigious Prix Goncourt when it was published in 1984, and sold two million copies.

Now, in Marguerite Duras’s centenary year, the “Another Look” book club is celebrating the author and her book at 7:30 p.m., Monday, May 12, at the Stanford Humanities Center’s Levinthal Hall. The panel will be moderated by Blakey Vermeule, professor of English, with her colleague Paula Moya, professor of English, and Stephen Seligman, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of California, San Francisco. The event is free and open to the public.

Vermeule had read the short novel as a high school student, but on rereading it, “I was gobsmacked,” she said. “It’s one of these masterpieces that gets rediscovered again and again. It’s a very intense book, so powerful it had slipped my mind what a truly great and subtle work of art it is.” With the centenary, she thought it was an excellent moment to revisit the book the New York Times Book Review had called “powerful, authentic, completely successful … perfect.”

Duras’ simple, terse writing style reads “as if language itself were merely a vehicle for conveying passion and desire, pain and despair,” wrote British author and journalist Alan Riding. “The mysteries of love and sex consumed her, but she had no room for sentimentality in her works, or indeed, in her life.”

“I write about love, yes, but not about tenderness,” she had told him in a 1990 New York Times interview. “I don’t like tender people. I myself am very harsh. When I love someone, I desire them. But tenderness supposes the exclusion of desire.”

The Mekong River ferry where the lovers met.

Duras was born in Gia Dinh, near Saigon. Her father fell ill and returned to France, where he died. Her widowed mother, a teacher, was bankrupted in a shady land deal. The family struggled as impoverished colonials in a small tight-knit, gossiping community. Duras recalls an abusive mother who had severe bouts with depression, a drug-addicted brother who beat his sister fiercely and stole from the family (and even its servants), and a beloved younger brother who died young. When she met a Chinese millionaire on the ferry crossing the Mekong River, the teenager saw a doorway to a different world. The affair continued until Duras returned to France to finish her education at 18.

In France, she worked in the French Résistance in a team under the direction future French President François Mitterand, who remained a lifelong friend. After the war, she became a member of the French Communist Party. Duras is often categorized with the writers of the postwar “nouveau roman,” a movement that loosened the grip of plot- and character-driven narrative, blurring the boundaries of time and space, but Duras resists easy categorization. She experimented with novels, plays, films, essays, and memoir. She was fascinated, in particular, by the possibilities of film, most notably writing the screenplay for Alain Resnais’s 1960 classic, Hiroshima, Mon Amour.

She wrote The Lover at 70, when she had become a tiny old woman, her body wracked by alcoholism and cigarettes, giving interviews often read like a parody of what a French avant-garde writer is expected to sound like. She told the story in different ways with widely divergent details, so much so that until the discovery of an unpublished diary, there could be doubts that the affair had happened at all.

“She had an intensive, almost anti-social capacity to tell the story the way she wanted to tell it, in all its violence and ugliness,” said Vermeule. “The need to be utterly solitary, and socially antipathetic – very rarely does one see it in women writers. It’s not a pose they claim,” she said.

“This book is so very psychoanalytic. She’s clearly under that spell. Look at the nonlinearity of the story. As narrrator, she is almost dissociated from herself, moving from first to third person and back.”

Duras quarreled with film director Jean-Jacques Annaud as they collaborated on the 1992 film of the book, and retaliated with 1991′s The North China Lover, as a way of reclaiming her story. But no version before or since had the luster of The Lover. According to Stanford scholar Marilyn Yalom writing in How the French Invented Love, “She could transform a somewhat sordid affair into a mutually passionate romance and project into posterity her vision of love as an irresistable force that penetrates through the skin, regardless of its color.”

That vision continues to transfix readers, and The Lover continues to draw fans, decades after its first publication. In The Independent, South African playright and novelist Deborah Levy wrote in 2011, “The Lover does not just portray a forbidden sexual encounter of mind-blowing passion and intensity; it is also an essay on memory, death, desire and how colonialism messes up everyone.”

“Marguerite Duras was a reckless thinker, an egomaniac, a bit preposterous really. I believe she had to be. When she walks her bold but ‘puny’ female subject in her gold lamé shoes into the arms of her Chinese millionaire, Duras never covertly apologises for the moral or psychological way that she exists.”


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 the website is encouraged for regular updates and details on the selected books and events.


But did it really happen?


The young Marguerite Duras

“I swear it. I swear all of it. I have never lied in a book. Or even in my life. Except to men. Never.”

 With these words, Marguerite Duras penned a categorical denial of any fanciful invention in her many autobiographical novels and films. One ponders the odd qualification: admitting she “only” lied to men implies she was willing to deceive half the human race.

The denial invites the question: Did she ever tell the truth? She says she was ostracized for her reckless teenage affair with an older Chinese millionaire – yet one classmate remembers Marguerite as secretive and well-behaved, though she boasted mysteriously of leading a double life. The former student clearly recalls Duras appearing at school, flaunting a diamond ring, saying she knew a rich man. This incident represents one contact point between her fiction and the truth. Yet another lycée classmate said, “I just don’t understand this story about a Chinese lover. It wasn’t like today. There were no lovers, especially not Chinese lovers.”

The “real” lover?

One boarder at the Duras domicile described Duras’s mother as a strict teacher able to keep order among her unruly charges; she took him to mass every Sunday. A school counselor described her mother as a great teacher:

“They worship her in Indochina because she’s so dedicated to her profession. She has educated thousands of children … They say she has never given up on a child, not until he could read and write. She would hold classes late into the evening for children she knew would someday be workers … when students lived too far away to go home in the evening, she had them sleep at her house on mats in the living room, or in the school’s playroom…” 

The mad queen of desperate poverty? Not quite. And yet the counselor’s account comes from Duras herself, documented in a later memoir. Duras herself is telling the other side of the story, the side that undermines and argues with her own earlier versions.

The house with blue tiles … now a tourist attraction

She didn’t always reverse herself. Duras portrays her mother as crazy and desperate, frozen in time and literature as the tenacious colonial mother struggling to save a disastrous investment in 1950′s The Sea Wall, or the seriously depressed and abusive mother in 1984′s The Lover. But the mother wasn’t only a naïve victim of the French bureaucrats in the Land Registry of Cambodia. Far from languishing in her misfortune, she had become a wealthy woman by the time she returned to France in 1950, sending lots of money to her children. She had launched an upper-crust Saigon boarding school and purchased five houses which had proven to be a lucrative investment. She also trafficked in the Indochina piastres that all whites in the colony went in for, according to Duras’s biographer Laure Adler. She was a resilient self-made woman, more than able to get on her feet again after an economic disaster.

Did the Chinese lover exist? It appears so, but the story changed greatly over the years. In The Sea Wall, Duras told the story of the teenage Suzanne courted by “Monsieur Jo,” the unattractive, depraved son of a wealthy planter. In this version he is white, not Chinese, and courts his prey in a seedy nightclub. By 1984, he would morph into the more alluring, nameless Chinese millionaire in The Lover.

The lover has been identified as Huynh Thuy Le. The mansion with the blue tiles exists: his family home, 140 kilometers southwest of Saigon in Sadec, is now a tourist attraction and welcomes 1,000 visitors a month. The photo shows the gentle, wispy man she describes in the lover, a little wan and eager to please. By the time of her next book on the subject in 1991, The North China Lover, the hero has changed again, and Duras insists that this version is the once-and-for-all “truth”:

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Lycée to the teenage Duras: “Don’t take anyone’s advice.”

The 6-year-old Duras, her mother, and brothers.

From Marguerite Duras’s 1991 memoir, The North China Lover:

The lycée – the halls are full of students. The child is waiting against a column in the hall. She is isolated, facing outward.

The assistant principal passes by, touches her shoulder. He says:

“I’d like a word with you.”

She follows the assistant principal into his office.

“All right … Of course the students’ mothers have forbidden their daughters to have anything to do with you. You know that …”

The child smiles. She knows it.

“But it’s worse than that. The students’ mothers have informed the head of Lyautey that you aren’t sleeping regularly at the boarding school.” A slight irritation on the assitant principal’s part. “How they found out, I don’t know. You’ve been caught” – he smiles – in the dragnet of the mothers of the students of Saigon. They want their daughters to keep to their own kind. They say” – listen to this – “‘Why does she need a baccalaureate, that little tart? Middle school is enough for people like her …’”

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Marguerite Duras on writing and “the doubt of solitude”

At the “house of writing” with Yann Andrea in the 1990s

One does not find solitude, one creates it. Solitude is created alone. I have created it. Because I decided that here was where I should be alone, that I would be alone to write books. It happened this way. I was alone in this house. I shut myself in – of course, I was afraid. And then I began to love it. This house became the house of writing. My books come from this house. From this light as well, and from the garden. From the light reflecting off the pond. It has taken me twenty years to write what I just said.


Finding yourself in a hole, at the bottom of a hole, in almost total solitude, and discovering that only writing can save you. To be without the slightest subject for a book, the slightest idea for a book, is to find yourself, once again, before a book. A vast emptiness. A possible book. Before nothing. Before something like living, naked writing, like something terrible, terrible to overcome. I believe that the person who writes does not have any ideas for a book, that her hands are empty, her head is empty, and that all she knows of this adventure, this book, is dry, naked writing, without a future, without echo, distant, with only its elementary golden rules: spelling, meaning.


In life there comes a moment, and I believe that it’s unavoidable, that one cannot escape it, when everything is put in doubt: marriage, friends, especially friends of the couple. Not children. Children are never put in doubt. And this doubt grows around one. This doubt is alone, it is the doubt of solitude. It is born of solitude. We can already speak the word. I believe that most people couldn’t stand what I’m saying here, that they’d run away from it. This might be the reason why not everyone is a writer. Yes. That’s the difference. That is the truth. No other. Doubt equals writing. So it also equals the writer. And for the writer, everyone writes. We’ve always known this.

I also think that without this primary doubt, there can be no solitude. No one has ever written in two voices. One can sing in two voices, and make music, and play tennis; but write? No, never. From the start I wrote books that were called political. The first was Abahn Sabana David, one of the ones I still hold dearest. I think that’s a detail, that a book can be more or less difficult to lead than ordinary life. It’s just that difficulty exists. A book is difficult to lead toward the reader, in the direction of his reading. If I hadn’t begun writing, I would have become an incurable alcoholic. It’s a practical state in which one can be lost and unable to write anymore… That’s when one drinks. As soon as one is lost with nothing left to write, to lose, one writes. So long as the book is there, shouting that it demands to be finished, one keeps writing. One is forced to keep up with it. It’s impossible to throw a book out forever before it’s completely written – that is, alone and free of you who have written it. It’s as horrible as a crime. I don’t believe people who say, “I tore up my manuscript, I threw the whole thing out.” I don’t believe it. Either what was written didn’t exist for them, or else it wasn’t a book. And when it isn’t a book, one always knows it. When it can never be a book, no, that one doesn’t know. Ever.

– From Marguerite Duras’s Writing, 1993

Marguerite Duras as Vietnamese heroine

Marguerite Duras’s 1950 The Sea Wall is one of several autobiographical novels, along with The Lover. The earlier book, which takes place in Indochina of the 1920s, tells of her mother’s desperate fight against the sea. Tricked by the local administrators into purchasing a useless concession of land with her life’s savings, she builds a sea wall to prevent the annual monsoon from flooding the land – but the wall is swept away with the first rains.  In Laure Adler’s Marguerite Duras: A Life, the biographer describes one unintended consequence of the widow’s hopeless struggle:

“Even today in Ho Chi Minh City learned old Vietnamese men will speak to you of Marguerite’s book The Sea Wall with their eyes full of tears. They’re moved not so much by the mother’s despair as by the passion with which Marguerite pays tribute to the men who died in the blistering heat, cutting and laying roads through the swamps for France. The men were chained together. Ordered to work them till they dropped, military leaders, veterans of the French colonial army, rounded up and oversaw political prisoners and poor peasants dying of starvation. Numerous testimonies speak of having seen groups of them dragging dead bodies around. This orally transmitted historical fact has never been properly recorded. Marguerite paid tribute to these unsung heroes who gave their lives for France. There are students in Vietnam today who still tremble with gratitude towards Marguerite Duras. She was the only one to speak of the children of the plain who the moment they were born were condemned to die of hunger, cholera or dysentery. ‘The children simply went back to the land like wild mountain mangoes, like the little monkeys from the mouth of the lagoon.’”

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.”