I continue my Philip Roth marathon. I have now read “The Ghost Writer”, “The Anatomy Lesson”, “The Human Stain”, “Letting Go”, “Our Gang”, “The Great American Novel”, “Exit Ghost” and “Everyman”. That’s about 25 percent of what he has published. (I have read several of the other books years back, but plan on re-reading them this year.)
The most recent three books are “Our Gang”, “The Anatomy Lesson” and “Exit Ghost”. I am now reading “My Life as a Man” – I should finish that one shortly.
Roth’s books can be categorized as those featuring Nathan Zuckerman as a main character and those that don’t. “My Life as a Man” features Zuckerman, but it’s an early book and its Zuckerman seems a different person than the Zuckerman found in his Zuckerman books, so it’s hard to know how to characterize that one. The Nathan Zuckerman in “My Life as a Man” is a fictional character who is the main character in two stories written by fictional Peter Tarnopol in a book written by Philip Roth. He is the doppelganger, perhaps, of Peter Tarnopol the way the other Nathan Zuckerman would be the doppelganger, equally perhaps, of the real Philip Roth. Understand?
“Our Gang”, on the other hand, has nothing to do with any Nathan Zuckerman. It is a satire of President Richard Nixon and was published when Nixon was in the second year of his to-be abbreviated second term. In 1971. Just as “The Great American Novel” was a satire of that great American sport – baseball. But while I felt that “The Great American Novel” was an outstanding book, it seems to me that “Our Gang” is an outstanding failure. Enough said. No reason for anyone else to read it.
I didn’t think that “The Anatomy Lesson” was much better, but I really liked “Exit Ghost”. Both are true Zuckerman books, featuring the real fictional Nathan Zuckerman.
Now the first Zuckerman book was “The Ghost Writer” – I liked that one a lot, as well. We meet Nathan just out of school, enamored of the writing of the hardly known older Jewish novelist (fictional) E. I. Lonoff, gets the opportunity to visit the writer at his isolated house in the Berkshires. He meets Lonoff, Lonoff’s wife, and an alluring young woman in her 20s who appears to be helping Lonoff sort his papers. Zuckerman becomes witness to more than he expected as the overnight visit ends when Lonoff’s wife abandons him in a snow storm to young Amy Bellette, who is obviously more than a helper.
Zuckerman is to become a writer of some note, author of “Carnovsky”, in Roth’s second Zuckerman novel, “Zuckerman Unbound”. I have not read this one yet. Methodical, I am not. I have read, however, “The Anatomy Lesson”, which finds Zuckerman at 40 (he was 23 in “The Ghost Writer”), living in New York City, suffering from a debilitating condition (extreme, paralytic back and joint pains, among other things) that no doctor and no psychiatrist knows how to treat. He is living in an isolated situation (he might as well be in the Berkshires) except for the three different women who minister to him (all in the same way, of course – this is Philip Roth) and who each have their own serious problems (not the same problems, of course – this is Philip Roth). Taking the bull by the horns, Zuckerman decides to change his life, stop writing, and go to medical school back at his University of Chicago alma mater. Not that he is at all prepared in any way to attend medical school, but he is determined, so he flies to Chicago to look up an old classmate and now physician and start his medical training. Of course, he can’t follow through, but he diverts himself on the plane when he starts talking to his seat mate, takes a fake identity (the name being that of an editor who has written a scathing review of something he has written) and under this editor’s name, informs his seat mate that he is a major pornographer and club owner and goes into the details of his business life. Both the illness and the false identification were a bit too much for me.
My next Zuckerman novel was “The Human Stain”, where Zuckerman, like Lonoff before him, is living a fairly isolated existence in the Berkshires, and becomes involved in the affairs of an older Jewish professor, writer and former dean of a nearby college, who it turns out isn’t really Jewish and who (rather than Zuckerman) is the central character of the book. So, it was sort of a divertimento, although an interesting one (like several of Roth’s books, this one had been made into a film which I had seen and enjoyed).
The final book of the life of Nathan Zuckerman is “Exit Ghost”, which I found perhaps the most appealing of them all. Zuckerman has returned from the Berkshires to New York City (in fact, he went for a doctor’s appointment, but decided to stay, at the spur of the moment agreeing to trade his mountain home for a New York apartment for a year). Two women are featured – one Jamie, the wife of the young couple who live in the New York apartment, the other being Lonoff’s formerly 27 year old mistress Amy, now dying of brain cancer. Zuckerman is 70; Amy is 74. There is also two other men – one is Jamie’s husband, and the other Jamie’s old boyfriend, Kliman, who happens to be a writer as well who wants to write the life story of the now forgotten Lonoff, something that neither Amy nor Zuckerman wants to see happen. Especially as Kliman believes he has uncovered a deep, dark, incriminating secret about Lonoff’s life that is probably untrue (and instead the product of a writer’s imagination), but which would be the linchpin on which Kliman would base his biography.
So that’s where I am now. After I finish “My Life as a Man” (again based on Tarnopol, not Zuckerman), I have two more books to read, neither of which involve either Zuckerman or Tarnopol. “American Pastoral” and then “Sabbath’s Theater”. Each pretty long. I have no idea what they are about. But when I finish those, I will try to find “Zuckerman Unbound”. And go on from there.