Coverage has started to appear, both in Britain and in the US, of Philip Roth’s new novel Exit Ghost, the last of his Nathan Zuckerman books. Roth’s recent work has earned near universal acclaim, but not, it seems, this new novel. Christopher Hitchens’s review in the Atlantic is pretty ferocious (sample observation: “Roth has degraded the Eros-Thanatos dialectic of some of his earlier work and is now using his fiction, first to kill off certain characters and to shoot the wounded, and second to give himself something to masturbate about”). An even nastier, and frankly pretty stupid, assessment is by Carlin Romano in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
One uncertainty that the coverage has failed to resolve is that which lingers over the novel’s title. You’d think it came from the famous “exit ghost” stage direction in the first act of Hamlet—and this is what most commentators, including Hitchens, have assumed. But Hermione Lee begins her conversation with Roth in the current issue of the New Yorker by referring to it as being “taken from a stage directon in Macbeth.” There is, indeed, an “exit ghost” command in Macbeth, in the banquet scene when Banquo’s ghost appears. I think one has to trust the New Yorker on this one—not only because their fact-checking is probably more thorough than anyone else’s, but also because Roth himself doesn’t contradict Lee’s assertion (which she repeats) in the course of their conversation. So, it’s Macbeth, not Hamlet, that Roth is alluding to. But what does this mean in terms of the novel’s themes? No doubt that is something literary critics will ponder for many years to come.