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Old age and literary immortality

July 14, 2012 40 comments

Exit Ghost by Philip Roth. 2004 French title: Exit le fantôme.

I was learning at seventy-one what it is to be deranged. Proving that self-discovery wasn’t over after all. Proving that the drama that is associated usually with the young as they fully begin to enter life – with adolescents, with young men like the steadfast captain in The Shadow-Line—can also startle and lay siege to the aged (including the aged resolutely armed against all drama), even as circumstances readies them for departure.

Maybe the most potent discoveries are reserved for last.

Exit Ghost is our Book Club choice for July. I’ve already read several Roths, The Plot Against America, Portnoy’s Complaint, The Human Stain and The Breast.  Exit Ghost is the last of the Nathan Zuckerman series, Roth’s literary doppelgänger.

In Exit Ghost, Zuckerman Zuckerman has been living like a hermit in Berkshire for the last ten years. – Note to self: there seem to be an American myth about hermit authors writing books in cabins in remote parts of the country. A Thoreau syndrome? Like a French poet is maudit or is not? So Zuckerman has been working, reading and staying away from newspapers and public life for a solid decade. He’s seventy-one, had a prostate cancer ten years ago and has been incontinent and impotent since his prostatectomy. He’s now returning to New York to see a famous urologist and have collagen injection in his bladder in the hope to regain some control over it. Back to New York, he’s caught up with city life and finds himself excited by the prospect of living again a normal life, ie without wearing plastic briefs and changing urine pads.

In the country, there was nothing tempting my hope. I had made peace with my hope. But when I came to New York, in only hours New York did what it does to people – awakened the possibilities. Hope breaks out.

His past life springs to his face when he comes across Amy Bellette in the hospital. She has a brain tumor and no longer looks like the young woman she used to be. Zuckerman first met her in the 1950s, when she was Lonoff’s lovely lover. Lonoff is one of Zuckerman’s favourite writers. Then our hero comes through an ad in a newspapers for a home swap; a young couple of writers, Billy and Jamie want to spend a year in the country and Zuckerman is up for spending a year in New York. He meets them and feels attracted by Jamie in a romantic way that seemed to belong to his past more than to his present or future. After he bought used copies of Lonoff’s work in a bookshop, he is contacted by Kliman, a young writer who intends to write Lonoff’s biography and pretends to have a copy of his unfinished novel and to know juicy details of his past life.

While the first part of the book explores old age and how it blows human dignity with a sledge hammer, the second part is stressed on Zuckerman’s reaction to young Kliman willing to write a biography of his literary hero Lonoff. In the first part, Roth describes the physical decline of his characters, both Zuckerman and Amy. I found these passages very poignant: Zuckerman’s problems with his bladder, how he feels that his memory is failing him, that sooner or later he won’t be able to write any more. He also depicts his coming back to New York and the changes in America: the cell phones, the women’s clothes. I need to mention that Roth wrote this novel in 2004 and his analysis of the second election of G. W. Bush proves his lucidity and his capacity to analyse the society and events while living them. He’s brilliant when it comes to describing America.

Oddly, Roth joins Maugham in his thought about a writer’s posterity. Indeed, Kliman discovered a scandalous story in Lonoff’s life and intends to use it for Lonoff’s biography. Zuckerman is totally against it, arguing that this will write in stone a certain image of Lonoff, hiding his work while only his literary work matters. In a word, Zuckerman wants that Lonoff’s skeleton remains in its closet just as in Cakes and Ale Ashenden refuses to tell Kear the controversial side of the Driffield he knew.

Both Roth and Maugham deplore that other writers try to create an official vision of a writer. As a biographer they choose the episode of the writer’s life they emphasise, either revealing dirty secrets or concealing them. Kliman argues that his biography will give publicity to Lonoff’s work and that his work won’t be as forgotten as it is now. Kliman wants to bring readers of the biography to Lonoff’s work and Zuckerman is sure that these readers, if they ever decide to read a novel by Lonoff, will read it with the filter of the biography. I agree with Zuckerman/Roth; for example, it is hard to read Céline without thinking about his anti-Semitic outbursts. That’s also why I tend to read things about a writer after reading their book and not before.

And Zuckerman, old and heading to death, feeling his faculties declining, can’t help wondering who will protect his privacy when he’s dead. Who will stop biographers to write his life and impose their imperfect vision of him as the Truth? That’s an intriguing thought. I’m not interested in writers’ biographies. I never read any, I hardly browse through their bio on Wikipedia. In that I’m not a thorough writer. I know reading about a writer’s life helps understanding their work but I don’t like for their personal life to come as a screen between their work and me. I want to start a novel without being prejudiced. Am I Roth’s dream reader? The one who never reads journalists’ reviews, writers interviews or bios? Alas no, I’m a book blogger…

Exit Ghost manages to mix Zuckerman’s different layers of perception. He scrutinises his own fragility and envisions the end of his life. That’s for the “man-size” vision. Then there’s his vision of society, his analysis of contemporary America. That’s the “outside of my garden” layer. The last layer is that of immortality. Can you control your immortality? How do you ensure that your immortality only comes from your work and not from your personal life? Thomas Hardy tried to control his image: he had his wife write his biography and I understand that he prompted most of it to her. Just as Driffield in Maugham’s novel, he organised his immortality. Zuckerman isn’t there yet but he sure wonders what posterity has in store for him.

His conflict with Kliman is also his inner conflict between his lost young self and his current old one. Kliman is the image of what he used to be.

All of us [his generation] are now “no-longers” while the excited mind of Richard Kliman believes that his heart, his knees, his cerebrum, his prostate, his bladder, his bladder sphincter, his everything is indestructible and that he, and he alone, is not in the hands of his cells. Believing this is no soaring achievement for those who are twenty-eight, certainly not if they know themselves to be beckoned by greatness. They are not “no-longers”, losing faculties, losing control, shamefully dispossessed from themselves, marked by deprivation and experiencing the organic rebellion staged by the body against the elderly; they are “not-yets”, with no idea how quickly things turn out another way.

I wonder if Philip Roth is aware that a French Jew wrote a book entitled Au-delà de cette limite votre ticket n’est plus valable and that its ageing character Jacques Rainier is Zuckerman’s older brother with his analysis of the 1973 oil crisis, his erection problems and his immense love for a very young woman. And that this writer committed suicide not to face old age.

As always, I love Roth for his style, his bluntness, his sense of humour, his capacity to turn Zuckerman’s problems into universal issues. There’s no pathos, just thorough and brutal description of someone’s declining health and faculties. Roth’s strength lays in his ability to follow a character’s inner life and every day life in his most intimate details and at the same time to discuss universal issues. Great book.

Brian from Babbling Books read it recently and you can discover his thoughtful review here.

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