In the fall and winter of 1991, I spent a few cloistered months reading Joseph Conrad with Edward Said. There were twelve of us in his class, and our task was to read every work of fiction Conrad wrote and discuss them together twice a week. Said assumed that all of us cared as much as he did about what we were reading, so no time was wasted on details of class administration, and we approached our task with a sense of high purpose. From Almayer’s Folly to the late existential works like The Shadow-Line, we would take turns reading a brief passage and discussing why it was there, what Conrad meant for us to see. Said wanted to know what Conrad meant on every page, in every paragraph, in every line. Why this word and not some other? In class, Said had the pugnacious charm of a boxer, and his response to a wayward effort to make sense of what we were reading could be fierce. “No, Mr. Weiland,” he would say. “That isn’t it at all.” There was an intense restlessness in that room, as though a bomb needed defusing and the clock was ticking down. I was glad to be working with wires and explosives.
One day in the middle of the semester Said arrived, as usual, after we had arranged ourselves around the table. Unlike every other classroom I’ve known, there was no talk between students in those anxious moments before class began: we waited, always, in silence. But on this day a student we hadn’t seen before was standing in the doorway. As Said took his seat, the student addressed him, saying he was a one-time visitor who’d come to audit the class.
“Is it still OK if I join you today?” he asked good-naturedly.
Said, unsmiling, jerked his head toward the door. “No, get out.”
“But I was told–”
The student scurried out before any of us could catch his eye; we were too busy trying not to catch Said’s. He was fuming and his flushed fingers were clenched around a pen. He didn’t turn back to us until the student had gone and the door was shut. It was as though he had erupted. A moment later, he took a breath, looked at us blankly and asked someone to read from that day’s assigned portion.
We never did learn the unfortunate young man’s story. I suppose he had made arrangements with an assistant who had neglected to tell Said. Or perhaps he had spoken with Said himself, who had simply forgotten. I don’t know. But I won’t forget Said’s astonishing anger.
We didn’t know then that Said had not long before been given a seemingly “fatal medical diagnosis,” as he later described it: leukemia. He would endure years of chemotherapy and other brutal treatments, and he lived until 2003. But that fall the new diagnosis was in the air, and death was in his eyes.
What happens in Philip Roth’s new novel, Exit Ghost, isn’t hard to summarize: Roth’s novelist hero, Nathan Zuckerman, having spent a decade in an isolated house in the Berkshires, returns to New York to see a Mount Sinai urologist about his prostate cancer. Zuckerman is 71, impotent, incontinent and absorbed in rereading Joseph Conrad for the first time in fifty years. He’s got The Shadow-Line with him. In the week he spends in the city, he encounters a frail and head-scarred Amy Bellette, the object of his youthful infatuation in The Ghost Writer; she is undergoing treatment for brain cancer at the same hospital. During the week, Zuckerman learns that a 30-year-old woman and her husband are looking to swap their Manhattan apartment for a country retreat; he swiftly makes the woman, Jamie Logan, the object of his infatuation.
Add a great deal of clumsy erotic fantasy and itchy, repetitive rumination on the nature of fiction and biography, and… that’s about it. And yet it is an enormously affecting dirge on the theme of physical, political and social decline. Once alive to the moment, Zuckerman is now out of sorts and out of step: he expects groceries to be packed in boxes rather than bags, he rails against cellphones, he wonders who Tom Cruise is. He laments his lost time, his lost appetites, his lost desires, his lost place in the world. Even his passion for America, which so strongly colored the earlier Zuckerman novels, has faded. Having been “enthralled by America for nearly three-quarters of a century,” he explains, he moved to the remote countryside to “remain in America without America’s ever again being absorbed in me.”