Life Irritates Art
By STEVEN G. KELLMAN
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
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.