Author: Philip Roth
Published by Vintage, 2008.
HE SKILFULLY takes a scalpel and offers his reader a poetic anatomy of ageing. Yet, he goes much deeper than bodily failings like incontinence after prostate surgery, the demise of a once razor-sharp mind after removal of a brain tumour, or how people see their most precious memories falling apart just as dried garlands do under the weight of time: Philip Roth.
The Pulitzer Prize winning author, in his book Exit Ghost published by Vintage in 2008, inhales life once again into his time-nourished character Nathan Zuckerman, whom many literary critics call Roth's alter-ego, reappearing in his fictions for decades.
Now Zuckerman comes back to make readers authentically sense ageing, to touch it and to smell it; to feel the urge to re-claim the privileges that physical strength, the drive of youth and power of a sharp mind provides; but also to suggest that there has always been an abyss separating the real life of writers and their biographies from the work they produce and the characters they create, no matter how much they have invested into those lines of prose.
“What you do not have, you live without – you're seventy-one and that's the deal,” ponders Zuckerman in Exit Ghost. “The vainglorious days of self-assertion are over. Thinking otherwise is ridiculous.”
And though Zuckerman does say that at this age the drama of self-discovery is long over, he is still offering the reader the drama of discovering the fragility of age and art.
The story line is not particularly complicated: Nathan Zuckerman, after living for long years isolated from anything that could have disturbed his focus on writing and reminded him of how much time has been eaten off his life, returns to New York, where he encounters the snare of female beauty at its full strength and does close to nothing to avoid being lured into a trap called Jamie. It is the entrapment which he had been successfully avoiding, the trap of desire for intimacy and the instant denial of it by his age.
New York also reserves an encounter for him with a hyper-ambitious young writer named Kliman who smells a traumatic event in the biography of Zuckerman’s friend, Lonoff, an author he claims deserves to be revived and re-remembered.
Zuckerman believes that Kliman, a symbol of youthful arrogance who in fact stands for everything Zuckerman loathes at his age, would push his fingers and nose into places where memories need to be left resting. He could not bear his “outsized boy's energy and smug self-certainty and the pride he took in being an enthusiast and a raconteur” and he could not bear “the crushing immediacy of him”.
The core of the book indeed is his intense interaction with these two young, healthy and beautiful figures along with Zuckerman’s friend, who was the lover of Lonoff.
But when Zuckerman meets her again she is more of a faded memory of a once beautiful and sharp woman who, after having a tumour removed from her brain, can no longer share nor guard her memories of Lonoff.
At the same time Zuckerman clearly delivers the message that biographers must reach out for the life of writers carefully, just as if they were handling old precious objects, lest the harm they might cause is much greater than the discoveries they make.
Roth's writing is eloquent as well as penetrating, just like the scalpel that opens up aching wounds in a sudden movement.
The book perhaps cannot match the intensity of The Human Stain or the power of American Pastoral or The Dying Animal, but anyone who is ready for Roth's disarming honesty, fine anatomical portrayal of ageing and inspiring ponderings about the autonomy of literary texts should reach out for this book.