WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP between art and life? That is a question which, repeated often enough, can either drive you crazy or send you to sleep (as Tennyson used to repeat his own name to induce himself into a torpor). Among other things, it is a question with no answer -- art is a reflection of life, a comment on life, an extension life, a distortion of life, a production of life, a penetration of life: mimesis, criticism, enhancement . . . you name it. None of these are "answers": they are tendentious working hypotheses or adopted attitudes. One way or another they get the sentences going.
A famous comment by a Jamesian writer (in "The Middle Years") was this: "We work in the dark -- we do what we can -- we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art." Better perhaps than the idea of art as a mirror-carried-down-the-street sort of thing. It is this quotation which haunts the young aspiring writer, Nathan Zuckerman, in Philip Roth's The Ghose Writer. Why "madness" of art? Surely it was life that was mad and art that was sane? Zuckerman has gone to visit the writer he most admires -- E. I. Lonoff -- in search of a spiritual father, or "patriarchal validation." He likes the way Lonoff seems to have "winnowed out . . . the insatiable self" and thinks of him as "the Jew who got away." He stays at Lonoff's house for a period an after various domestic turmoils he gets some sense of the price Lonoff has paid for his seemingly serene objecticity and detachment. As Lonoff's wife says: "There is his religion of art . . . rejecting life! Not living is what he makes his beautiful fiction out of!"
But then, of course, what exactly is it to live or not live, to make or not make beautiful fiction? In the event Zuckerman goes directly to life (i.e. she knows it within his family) for his first successful fiction -- "a story that borrowed from our family history instances of what my exemplary father took to be the most shameful and disreputable transgressions of family decency and trust." His family and the Jewish community is shocked -- not because the story may not be true, and not because it may not be art, but because "I wonder if you fully understand just how very little love there is in this world for Jewish people." So, never mind about art/life questions, as far as his family and related Jews are concerned his writing constitutes an "inexplicable betrayal" of all Jewry. Zuckerman, not wishing to be defined -- or confined -- as a Jew when it comes to writing, responds belligerently: "I am the kind of person who writes this story." When asked directly if he is anti-Semitic and indifferent to his family and father, he answers: "'I am on my own.'"
I start with this brief summary of The Ghost Writer because Zuckerman Unbound , which is avowedly a sequel, is in may ways a repetition which moves to a similar conclusion. It would seem that not only is Roth obsessed with the relationship of art to life, but particularly obsessed with the relationship between art (or the life he writes) and life (the life he actually experienced and remembered) -- how much is transformation (art) and how much is mere transcription (betrayal)? I say "Roth" but, in line with this whole problem, he can side-step or back-step here. Zuckerman has written a best seller called Carnovsky. As it happens -- as it happens -- it is about a young Jewish boy growing up in Newark, his compulsive onanism, his sexual obsessions, etc. As it happens, this sensational and notorious novel was published in 1969 (like Portnoy's Complaint ) and brings Zuckerman a degree of fame, fortune, and notoriety which prove to pose as many problems as his previous poverty -- indeed these problems constitute or precipitate the incidents in the novel.
Now we may be tempted to think -- well this is really Philip Roth writing up what happened to him (more life than art). But in the book when people think that Zuckerman is really Carnovsky of the novel, he is indignant and outraged. "They had mistaken impersonation for confession and were calling out to a character who lived in a book." So if someone says "Zuckerman" when accusing him of all sorts of things, he can say, no, that is Carnovsky: don't confuse life and art. And if I or anyone else says "Roth," he can say, no, that is Zuckerman: don't confuse life and art. Fair enough -- up to a point. But changing a name is hardly "the madness of art" and sometimes one feels -- I keep it indefinte, nothing is verifiable in this area -- that one is rather closer to the madness of life. Or, perhaps, that the two are becoming indistinguishable.
The book is prefaced by a remark from Lonoff: "Let Nathan see what it is to be lifted from obscurity," and when asked what is the crisis in the life of a writer and his relation to the public Zuckerman answers: "'First, their indifference; then, when he's lucky, their attention.'" Zuckerman is suffering from too much of the world's attention, the tribulations of notoriety. Among other things, he has lost his most recent wife (like nearly all of Roth's male protagonists Zuckerman has no aptitude for a binding, sentimental attachment), he receives threatening phone calls and endlessly abusive, accusing letters (or occasionally offers of a sexual nature -- more Carnovsky/Zuckerman confusion); he has a slightly implausible night with a famous film star.
The most prolonged encounter as a result of his book is with a figure named Alvin Pepler, once a quiz show celebrity, now a nobody. He follows, dogs, haunts Zuckerman (there are references to Conrad's "The Secret Sharer" and echoes perhaps of Bellow's The Victim, or more likely the main source for both of them, Dostoevsky's The Double ). He seems to want some advice on his writing but his cringing, self-abasing, deference finally explodes revealing his conviction that Zuckerman "stole" his life (because he too is from Newark and is a dedicated onanist -- like Carnovsky. Or Portnoy . . .). This relationship is a source of a good deal of Roth's kind of fast, almost slick, comedy.
But the most compelling and dramatic sequence occurs at the end when his father is dying, the family assembled, and the father seems to utter a maledicton on Zuckerman -- "bastard." His gentle brother Henry tries to reassure him, but then turns on him: "'You are a bastard. A heartless conscienceless bastard. What does loyalty mean to you? What does responsiblity mean to you? What does self-denial mean, restraint -- anything at all? To you everything is disposable. Everything is exposable! Jewish morality, Jewish endurance, Jewish wisdowm, Jewish families -- everything is grist for your fun-machine . . . love, marriage, children, what the hell do you care? To you it's all fun and games.'" He tells Zuckerman that his book killed their father. "He'd known when he was writing the book. But he'd written it anyway." No matter with what awareness of betrayal and sense of remorse -- he'd written it anyway.
Zuckerman's absolutely obsessive self-preoccupation (familiar enough from other novels by Roth) is finallly quite ruthless. However much he might thinks he envies people who live "dans le vrai" (he is fond of Flaubert's famous phrase); no matter that he might think, "Inventing people. Benign enough when you were typing away in the quiet study, but was this his job in the unwritten world?"; ironic enough to read, "he spent his days complicating life for himself on paper, he packed a suitcase and began again to complicate his life in the world" -- but no matter how much nostalgia or yearning there might be for "le vrai," "the unwritten world" -- he'd written it anyway. All that agonizing -- some of it self-indulgent, histrionic repetituous, and some of it pertinent, ironic and funny -- about the relationship between art and life is resolved in that simple and succinct formulation. He'd written it anyway.
In terms of family and relationships there is a cost to pay as the book shows. Indeed at the end after effectively putting his family behind him, he takes a ride round Newark where he spent his youth. But everything has gone, has changed. The only Newark left of his childhood is that depicted in Carnovsky. There is some sense of relief and the book itself may be seen as acting as an act of exorcism. "Over. Over. Over. Over. Over. I've served my time." But there is a sense of isolation and desolation. When a passing black notices him starting down the street, he says, "'Who you supposed to be?' 'No one,' replied Zuckerman, and that was the end of that. You are no longer any man's son, and are no longer some good woman's husband, you are no longer your brother's brother. And you don't come from anywhere anymore, either." But -- he'd written it anway. And perhaps that is "the madnes of art."
Philip Roth has written a worthy sequel to The Ghost Writer, which was his best novel for some time. This one is firm and hard -- even at times excoriating; it moves well and is written economically -- no fat on it. It is hard not to read it as some very personal statement or exploration, but of course I must not confuse Roth with Zuckerman. Or art with life. Which is where we came in. But I do hope that Philip Roth finds other areas of experience to write about in the future.