Philip Roth’s Ghost Stories

Philip Roth.

Just because you don’t believe in God doesn’t mean you can’t believe in ghosts. Philip Roth is a stone-cold atheist and is perhaps the most sternly materialist of all the great writers. Not only does Roth not believe in God, his novels are so steadfastly focused on the physical, bodily dimensions of human life (sex and disease) as to be completely free of the sort of residual religiosity that writers like John Updike or Cynthia Ozick possess, with their muted echoes of liturgical music and flickering spiritual hopes. Roth’s whole attitude towards religion is curtly summed up by this description of the anonymous hero of the 2006 novel Everyman: “Religion was a lie that he had recognized early in life, and he found all religions offensive, considered their superstitious folderol meaningless, childish, couldn’t stand the complete unadultness – the baby talk and the righteousness and the sheep, the avid believers. No hocus-pocus about death and God or obsolete fantasies of heaven for him. There was only our bodies, born to live and die on terms decided by the bodies that had lived and died before us.”

Yet Roth is also, to a remarkable degree, a ghost-haunted man. His great strength as a writer is his memory, his almost extrasensory ability to conjure up the sights and sounds of his youth, the unexpectedly rich soil of post-World War II Newark which has season after season yielded literary fruit for Roth. “You must not forget anything,” is Roth’s credo. With his potent power of recall, Roth can’t let the past go. For him the dead – an ever-growing list and litany which now includes his parents, his first wife and many friends – don’t stay buried. They live on in him, inside his mind.

In his 1995 memoir A Sistermony, Roth’s friend Richard G. Stern tells a surprising story:

Lately, [Roth had] been driving to his friend Janet Hobhouse’s grave and talking to her. (He told me Janet’s history, the English father who deserted her, her Jewish sculptress mother who’d killed herself, her terrible post-Oxford marriage -punches and burned manuscripts – her good book on Gertrude Stein, two bad novels, her brilliance, beauty and sympathetic power; then cancer, a final affair – with Jeremy Irons – and death at forty-two.) “I tell her things I don’t tell anyone. I ask her advice. And get it.”

That Philip not only doesn’t censor, but yields to and encourages, these irrational blips in what is otherwise an exceptionally rational character once surprised me.

Has anyone ever looked at Philip Roth as a writer of ghost stories, an heir to Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, equally obsessed as they with how the mouldering past lingers among the living? The evidence is all there in his titles: The Ghost Writer: the first proper Zuckerman book. Exit Ghost: the last in the series. The way Roth characters keep returning to cemeteries (in the Zuckerman books, in Sabbath’s Theater, in Everyman). The way Roth called up the spirits of his parents to serve as characters in The Plot Against America. In Exit Ghost, the former mistress of E.I. Lonoff spends decades carrying on posthumous conversations with her long gone lover. In one chapter of The Counterlife, one of the many incarnations of Nathan Zuckerman dies, but then has a conversation with his widow. “I know now what a ghost is,” the widow says. “It is the person you talk to. That’s a ghost. Someone who’s still so alive that you talk to them and talk to them and never stoop. A ghost is the ghost of a ghost.”

In general, Roth’s impulse is to blur the seemingly firm line between life and death, as he does between fact and fiction. Long before his parents died, he imagined their funerals in various novels; and then when the actuality occurred he gave it the non-fictional treatment.

These are of course not the ghosts of horror stories: they are not unearthly beings from another realm. They are very much material ghosts, created by the brain after living with flesh and blood creatures at close quarters. Still, they are no less ghosts for all that, evidence of how human presences have an afterlife.

One thought on “Philip Roth’s Ghost Stories

  1. I am finishing now “The Furies”, by Janet Hobhouse, where Roth is a character under the name “Jack”. She seems a little hurt by what he did with her in “The Counterlife” (I guess she is this book’s Maria character). He took just a couple of things from Janet: her faked poise and her British accent. It is interesting to compare how each use the person in real life in order to elaborate a character. I think Roth succeeds and Janet not so, because she knows how to write but she cannot master neither the architecture nor the economy of a novel.

    Reading “The Furies”, I couldn’t imagine Roth visiting his grave to speak with her. It’s been a nice surprise.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s