The Ghost Writer ends in a punchline, so it must have been a comedy. After teetering on the brink of disaster, in fact, the book’s last scene is suddenly hilarious; a dignified wife of thirty-five years who has finally made the decision to leave her husband storms out the door and falls on her duff, makes it to the car only to discover a defective battery, then heads off walking in the snow — her destination is Boston, twenty miles away — with her world famous husband resigned and trailing after her. It is like the end of many a two-reel comedy, the funny little walk, the pratfall, the hero dusting himself off and disappearing into the distance. Yet it was the reader’s impression through most of the novel that he was deeply absorbed in serious problems of art, and character, and relationships among people. Philip Roth’s writing at its best is characterized by just this deft touch, a blend of high seriousness with sometimes light, sometimes broad comedy.

In 1959, Nathan Zuckerman is a young writer with a future: he has published four fine stories in literary quarterlies and has been tabbed as a man to watch by Saturday Review. But his most recent and most ambitious story has gotten him in trouble at home. His father, who had been supportive of his efforts to that point, feels that it betrays their ethnic heritage — “Nathan, your story, as far as Gentiles are concerned, is about one thing only . . . Kikes and their love of money” — and Mr. Zuckerman has gone as far as to enlist the aid of the godfather of the local Jewish community, a Judge Wolper, who has made it in a larger world but remained true to his heritage, and who sends Nathan a letter commending to his attention the Broadway production of The Diary of Anne Frank and asking such questions as, “What in your character makes you associate so much of life’s ugliness with Jewish people?” and “Can you honestly say there is anything in your short story that would not warm the heart of a Julius Streicher or a Joseph Goebbels?” Amusing questions, to be sure, the questions of a small time provincial who does not understand that an artist’s only real responsibility is accurately to render his vision (“The Big Three, Mama! Streicher, Goebbels, and your son!”), but questions not, on the other hand, without interest. A prophet is without honor in his own country for good reason: what people would honor somebody who said those things about them? As Nathan’s mother says, rather pitifully, “It looks like you don’t really like Jews very much.”

It is in the midst of this situation that Nathan seeks out, very consciously, a new spiritual father in the person of E. I. Lonoff, an older writer whom he enormously admires. Lonoff has made the decision Nathan would like to make: he has abandoned the other exigencies of life to give himself over totally to art. He leads a life of seclusion and apparent serenity, far removed from the literary scene. Through years of neglect and more recent success he has stubbornly embodied his vision in spare lean stories of men who are excluded, confined, who fail to reach out and grasp life because they fear discord and the opinion of others. To Nathan, Lonoff has been writing about the Jewish people who have surrounded him in Newark all his life.

Yet Lonoff has also been writing about himself. He has, for instance, rejected even the sincere recognition and acclaim of the literary world. He has lived with a wife and raised a family without being touched by them; not one of his stories concerns a protagonist who is anything other than a total solitary. Even he sees his life as uneventful, pushing around sentences day after day, and he would love to be even as much a man of action as Nathan is in his part-time job as a magazine salesman. As the novel progresses, we see that Lonoff is living with a wife who is tired of being just a backdrop for his work, who wants a life of her own, and he is adored by a young woman who is begging to run off with him to Florence, but he will not act. He remains isolated and confined. Nathan can see in Lonoff that a man’s character is his fate, but also, inasmuch as he is an artist, that it is his subject, however little he is aware of it. In the words of Henry James, words which Lonoff has noted, “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.”

Perhaps, then, Nathan has no choice. His doubt, his passion, what he has, all concern his obsession with his Jewish background, what he admires and likes and what repels him, what draws his attention and fascinates him. He cannot start discriminating, any more than Philip Roth could, as some years back in his career he wrote Goodbye, Columbus and Defender of the Faith, and, in the frantic outer reaches of his obsession, Portnoy’s Complaint.

Thus what we see Nathan Zuckerman doing in the last third of the novel is not making a decision — there is really none to make — but fashioning a story, and a fantastic story it is, that the refugee girl who is in love with Lonoff claims actually to be Anne Frank, that she did not, as people have thought for years, die in a concentration camp. Nathan elaborates the story at some length, and even in so unlikely a tale raises fascinating questions about the value of art. Amy/Anne comes to see, for instance, that her story is in part so moving simply because her girlish emotions were so natural and ordinary; she was so little Jewish, and yet exterminated by the Germans as a menace. She also sees that the story is only really powerful if the girl does die, so she resolves to keep her identity hidden, not reveal herself to her real father, who is still living, but instead take up with Lonoff. The story, of course, parallels Nathan’s case exactly; he wants to sacrifice his ordinary life in order to become an artist, and to abandon his father for the older writer. He seems to have invented an incredible tale about another person, but has really only written, as writers always do, about himself.

The impression we are given from the book’s whimsical ending, as Lonoff resignedly pulls on his galoshes and trudges after his enraged wife, is that we remain forever trapped in the ambiguities of our destiny. Lonoff will continue to long for a life of action, but will remain in the seclusion he needs to write. Nathan will follow him in that calling as a pure artist but will continue to crave love and admiration from his family. Hope Lonoff will want her husband to chuck her out for a younger woman but will never quite persuade him to do the chucking. The car that will finally take us away from our ambivalent situation will never start. If it did it would have a flat. As another famous artist, Jimmy Durante, used to sing — in a style that Lonoff is fond of imitating for Amy — “Did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go, still have the feeling that you wanted to stay?” And when he sang, with that incredible face, the long schnoz, the bashed up hat, gravely impossible voice, his song was somehow deeply touching, but also, let’s face it, immensely funny.