Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Operation Shylock is vulnerable, despite its wit, learning, intelligence, and eloquence, to the charges of hostile critics that Roth is trapped in narcissistic, sermon-ridden reveries whose tone is overly argumentative and whose vision is enslaved to his personal experiences and obsessions. In his defense, Roth could cite the long-established tradition of introspective writing originated by such classics of Romanticism as Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Les Confessions de J.-J. Rousseau (1782, 1789; The Confessions of J.-J. Rousseau, 1783-1790) and William Wordsworth’s The Prelude: Or, The Growth of a Poet’s Mind (1850). One direct influence on Roth’s autobiographical texts is surely Fyodor Dostoevski’s Notes from the Underground (1864), the first-person narrator of which resembles his creator in temperament and history yet remains a creature of fiction. A century later, Albert Camus used the same searingly subjective device in La Chute (1956; The Fall, 1957).

In less direct form, many of modernism’s greatest novels and stories by such writers as Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, and James Joyce present material from the author’s life. Many others, including Dostyevski, Kafka, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Edgar Allan Poe, Nikolai Gogol, Joseph Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Vladimir Nabokov, have employed the literary device of the double.

Operation Shylock is thus both postmodern in its uses of self-consciousness and traditional in its exploration of the divided self. It is a masterful accomplishment by one of America’s most important writers.