Life Irritates Art


"Biography," observed Oscar Wilde, "lends to death a new terror." At 71, Nathan Zuckerman, impotent, incontinent, and confronting his own mortality, is terrorized by a biographer. A 28-year-old novice intent on making his mark in the literary world by recounting the life of E. I. Lonoff, Richard Kliman stalks the late writer's acquaintances. He is a total stranger to Zuckerman, but when Kliman telephones to pry information about Lonoff, Zuckerman, who knew and admired the late master of short fiction, hangs up on the young pest. It is a reaction that biography, the vocation that empowers nudniks, inspires. Lonoff aspired to disappear into his texts, and Zuckerman is appalled by Kliman's scheme to restore Lonoff's reputation, and promote his own, by exposing the writer's guilty secrets. Declaring himself "the biographer's enemy," Zuckerman sets out to sabotage Kliman's project.

I took an uncommon interest in Exit Ghost, the ninth and, according to Houghton Mifflin, the last of Philip Roth's Zuckerman novels. I first glimpsed Zuckerman in 1974, when he surfaced in a short story within My Life As a Man, and I have been devouring each full-fledged Zuckerman volume since his initial appearance as protagonist, in 1979 in The Ghost Writer (to which, in the reappearance of Lonoff's paramour, Amy Bellette, the new book circles back). But this one seems aimed at me, as more than just an avid reader. Using as evidence a manuscript that Lonoff never completed, Kliman the biographer intends to prove that the author's final work was a long-delayed artistic triumph over shame--over adolescent incest with his half-sister. Though Lonoff shares many characteristics with Bernard Malamud, a final incomplete manuscript that appears to confess to incest echoes another revered American Jewish novelist: Henry Roth.

After a brilliant debut with Call It Sleep in 1934, it took Henry Roth 60 years to publish his second novel, A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park, in 1994. It was the first volume of an ambitious tetralogy, Mercy of a Rude Stream, that Roth was still struggling with at the time of his death, in 1995, at 89. In the second volume, A Diving Rock on the Hudson (1995), Roth's alter ego, Ira Stigman, makes the startling, painful revelation that he long ago indulged in incest with his sister, Minnie. In 2005, I published a biography of Henry Roth that attributes the novelist's protracted literary silence largely to lingering torment over illicit sibling sex.

Though I am three decades his senior and not at all the physical twin of a figure "well over two hundred pounds, easily six-three, a large, agile, imposing young man with a lot of dark hair and pale gray eyes," Kliman's name resembles my own. I am not nearly as obnoxious as Kliman, except perhaps when exhibiting what the novel calls "the insane rapaciousness of the biographical drive." In quest of hidden truth and the book I aimed to produce, I, too, must have seemed an irksome opportunist to some who knew Henry Roth. Philip Roth is attentive to these tensions between the urge to reveal and the urge to conceal. Out of the passion of Henry Roth and the ambiguous ambitions of biography, he has created compelling fiction.

An informant in the Strand bookstore alerts Kliman that Zuckerman is back in town and still reading Lonoff. I learned from Henry Roth's editor, Robert Weil, that Philip Roth had met with Henry Roth's literary executor, Larry Fox, and viewed a videotape of the older Roth's final interview. So I was not shocked to encounter Henry's ghost prowling Philip's latest novel. But Exit Ghost is less a ghost story than a vampire fable or, more precisely, the parable of a parasite; Kliman draws sustenance for his own fledgling career from Lonoff's rotting carcass. Zuckerman the would-be vampire slayer trusts the tale, not the teller, and he condemns "the dirt-seeking snooping calling itself research." However, Kliman points out that Zuckerman the writer is himself a snoop.

The biographer and the novelist are, like Shakespeare's lunatic, lover, and poet, of imagination all compact. While affirming Mallarmé's conviction that everything in the world exists in order to be turned into a book, both attempt to pierce beyond the public veil. "I'm not doing anything other than what you do," Kliman tells Zuckerman. "What any thinking person does." Before meeting them, Zuckerman fantasizes about Jamie Logan and Billy Davidoff, the couple whose West Side apartment he decides to swap his Massachusetts cabin for (he later discovers that his fantasies were widely inaccurate); in doing so he is indulging in biography, as he is when he interrupts his narrative to reminisce about George Plimpton. Zuckerman rightfully mistrusts Kliman's "vitality and ambition and tenacity and anger," all the more so because he recognizes them as sources of his own art.

It would of course be a mistake to identify Nathan Zuckerman (or David Kepesh or even the "Philip Roth" who appears in five novels) with Philip Roth, the public figure wary of public appearances who nevertheless anointed Ross Miller, a professor at the University of Connecticut, as his biographer. Yet it would also be unnatural not to muse about the identity of the novelist. "Curiosity is nurtured by life," insists Kliman. We must accept responsibility for the lives we conjure up, even as we are haunted by the ghosts of unimagined lives.