22 SEPTEMBER 2007, Page 39

The final curtain?

Francis King EXIT GHOST by Philip Roth Cape, £16.99, pp. 292, ISBN 97824681097531 © £13.59 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655 This is the ninth and final volume of the sequence, eliding fiction and autobiography, in which Philip Roth's alter ego Nathan Zuckerman is narrator and protagonist. In the first volume, The Ghost Writer (1979), the still emergent author makes a pilgrimage of homage to a literary veteran, E. I. Lonoff, once highly praised for a novel of Jewish life and then all but forgotten when he puzzlingly fails to produce the expected successor. Lonoff enjoys a ménage a trois with a long-suffering wife and a mysterious foreign woman, Amy, his student and muse, to whom Zuckerman is instantly attracted and whom he half believes to be Anna Frank, living incognito in America.

Now in Exit Ghost (stage direction from Hamlet), the series comes full circle. A mordantly characterised Zuckerman, dilapidated survivor of prostate cancer, returns to New York after 11 years of devoting himself to monotony in a New England mountain retreat, to face not merely a wholly changed world, on which he makes the sort of searching, scathing comments that Roth himself might make, but also disconcerting and even alarming reminders of the pilgrimage of so many years ago.

Before long a pushy biographer, a reincarnation of Henry James's 'publishing scoundrel' in The Aspem Papers, is badgering him to collaborate in the shabby endeavour of revealing the secret behind Lonoff's abandonment of writing. Zuckerman also encounters in a café a frail, elderly woman, whom he gradually recognises as the once desirable 'Anna Frank'. It turns out that she is now terminally ill with a brain tumour. In the mental confusion caused by her illness she has already passed to the biographer half of a novel written by Lonoff, which seems to confirm not merely the existence but also the nature of the old man's secret.

From the moment when Lonoff appeared in the first of the Zuckerman series, many people inferred that the character was based on Bernard Malamud, much admired by Roth. But this novel indicates that to a far greater extent it is based on the novelist Henry Roth. After writing his superb 1934 saga of immigrant Jewish life Call It Sleep, Henry Roth retreated from the literary world into a number of undemanding jobs. At the time of his death in 1995, he was nearing the end of a far darker account of his early years, Mercy of a Rude Stream, four of the six volumes of which have now been published. These demonstrate that he, like the fictional Lonoff, was haunted and disabled by a secret: as an adolescent he committed incest with both his older sister and a young cousin.

The word cancer keeps tolling with plangent insistence throughout this book. Zuckerman's own cancer has reduced him to embarrassing impotence and incontinence. From 'a spigot of wrinkled flesh' urine either refuses to pass or dribbles out to soak the 'diaper' worn by a man once sexually attractive but now totally unappealing to anyone not magnetised by his fame. As with urine from his 'spigot', Zuckerman also has to coax recollections and even common words, drop by drop, from his failing memory. When reading such passages, I kept wishing that Roth had dealt more obliquely with the irreversible symptoms of advanced age. But people younger, tougher or more morbid than myself may feel otherwise.

If someone were to ask me, 'Well, did you enjoy the book?' I should have to reply, 'I enjoyed many pages. But did I enjoy it as an artistic entity? Sadly, no.' All the old intellectual audacity and technical resource are present to impressive effect; but in the propulsion of the narrative there are too many passages when a creatively exhausted author seems to be treading water.