Operation Shylock: A Confession Analysis

Philip Roth

Operation Shylock

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Though Philip Roth subtitles his twentieth book A Confession, he cautions his reader, “For legal reasons, I have had to alter a number of facts in this book.” Yet Roth’s sly confession later concedes that its own deceit is a matter of more than revising a few litigible details: “Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. This confession is false.” Like the proverbial Cretan paradoxically contending that all Cretans are liars, Roth presents a plausible if bizarre story about a famous novelist named Philip Roth and then labels it a sham. Whether the events recounted in Operation Shylock: A Confession constitute “facts” remains as problematic as the credibility of The Facts (1988), an ostensibly guileless memoir that Roth subverts with a framing critique by his fictional surrogate Nathan Zuckerman.

In a psychotic state induced by Halcion, a drug he took to relieve excruciating pain following minor knee surgery, Roth is unable to distinguish illusion from reality. Operation Shylock begins with a harrowing account of his ensuing emotional cnsis. Barely recovered from an ordeal that pushes him to the brink of suicide, he accepts an assignment from The New York Times to interview Aharon Appelfeld, an Israeli author renowned for his novels set during the Holocaust. Shortly before his departure for Jerusalem, Roth receives a call from Apter, a distant Israeli cousin and a Holocaust survivor. Apter tells him that Philip Roth has been reported in attendance at the trial of John Demjanjuk, the Cleveland autoworker who had been extradited to Israel to face charges that he was in reality “Ivan the Terrible,” responsible for thousands of murders at Treblinka. While the public ponders who Demjanjuk really is, Roth must contend with confusion over his own identity, since someone is apparently passing himself off as Philip Roth, the eminent American author whose relationship to the Jewish community has always been tense.

Ever since the publication of his first book, Goodbye, Columbus (1959), a mordant satire of philistine assimilationist Jews, Roth has been condemned by Jewish leaders for offering ammunition to the anti-Semites. The outrageously priapic Alexander Portnoy of Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) offered further provocation to Roth’s Jewish critics, even as the book extended his Faulknerian love-hate fixation with his own people. In The Ghost Writer (1979), not even the martyred Anne Frank, resurrected and transported to America, was safe from the Jewish author’s grandiose designs. In Operation Shylock, an Israeli official accurately describes Roth as “one who has made his fortune as a leading Jewologist of international literature.”

For even secular Jews of the late twentieth century, two themes remain sacred and essential to their identity: the Holocaust and Israel. Operation Shylock mocks and exacerbates Roth’s notoriety as defamer of the Jews by contesting both. It entertains the possibility that Demjanjuk was libeled in the accusation of genocidal violence. It offers the spectacle of Philip Roth as anti-Zionist. The spurious Roth who surfaces in Jerusalem preaches the precepts of Diasporism-the anti-Zionist doctrine that the Ashkenazic Jews of Israel should all return to Europe. Contending that “Israel has become the gravest threat to Jewish survival since the end of World War Two,” the other Roth, who might in “reality” be a private eye from Chicago, insists that the only way to avert a second holocaust worse than the first is for Jews to evacuate the Middle East, where they constitute an easy target for hostile Arab neighbors. Even if the Jews should manage to survive physically in Israel, the price will be spiritual extinction. In their own national homeland, the bogus Roth notes, the Jews have achieved nothing comparable to their cultural and scientific accomplishments scattered in the lands of exile. As “Roth” and Roth encounter the Intifada in the streets of Jerusalem, both conclude that the military response to the Palestinian uprising has de-Judaized the Jews, transformed them into soulless brutes.

“Philip Roth” claims to have met with President Lech Walesa in order to negotiate Jewish repatriation to Poland.

The time has come to return to the Europe that was for centuries, and remains to this day, the most authentic Jewish homeland there has ever hem, the birthplace of rabbinic Judaism, Hasidic Judaism, Jewish secularism, socialism—on and on—. …The time has come to renew in the European Diaspora our preeminent spiritual and cultural role.

When Roth meets the counterfeit “Philip Roth,” he finds that his manic Doppelganger bears an uncanny physical resemblance to himself. Though he privately calls him Moishe Pipik, a Yiddish label that translates him into the ludicrous “Moses Bellybutton,” Roth finds it impossible to dismiss the stranger peremptorily as a crackpot or a charlatan. He is fascinated by...

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Operation Shylock

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

OPERATION SHYLOCK purports to be an account of Roth’s experiences while in Jerusalem to interview Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld. But, while the preface admits that minor details were altered, a concluding “Note to the Reader” insists that the book is fiction: “This confession is false.”

At the outset of his story, Roth, recovering from a breakdown induced by Halcion, is scarcely able to distinguish reality from illusion. His fragile sanity is threatened by a report that Philip Roth has been attending the Jerusalem trial of John Demjanjuk, the Cleveland autoworker extradited to face charges of mass murder at Treblinka. A bogus Roth has been preaching the precepts of Diasporism, the anti-Zionist doctrine that the Ashkenazic Jews of Israel should all return to Europe. When Roth meets his manic Doppelganger, he finds an uncanny physical resemblance to himself and is unable to dismiss the stranger as a crackpot or a crank. He is fascinated by the spurious Roth’s claim to have founded an organization called Anti-Semites Anonymous, and he finds himself attracted to the other man’s lover, a recovering anti-Semite named Wanda Jane “Jinx” Possesski.

Divided in his own beliefs and identity, Roth encounters Lewis Smilesburger, a spymaster for the Mossad who coaxes him into a secret mission for Israeli intelligence. The eleventh, and final, chapter of OPERATION SHYLOCK is a record of that covert operation, but, in the ultimate authorial tease, Roth announces that he has decided not to publish it. We are...

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Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In a 1991 conversation with Molly McQuade, Roth stated that during 1956-1958, "I had a little apartment across from Stagg Field. I worked...

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Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The very aspects of Operation Shylock that cause problems for the readers and prompt sharp critical reaction from the critical...

(The entire section is 646 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Despite the difficulties encountered by the reader in attempting to separate Roth's delicately thin wall between the real and the fictional,...

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Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Operation Shylock may appear unique in that Roth has manufactured two versions of himself for the principal characters, as well as...

(The entire section is 215 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Critics generally agree that since Portnoy's Complaint (1969), Roth's novels have been a series of autobiographical confessions. The...

(The entire section is 91 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Bloom, Harold. “Operation Roth.” The New York Review of Books 40 (April 22, 1993): 45-48. Bloom, Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale, has long admired Roth’s writing. He particularly praises the novel’s narrative exuberance, moral intelligence, and high humor.

Ezrahi, Sidra DeKoven, et al. “Philip Roth’s Diasporism: A Symposium.” Tikkun 8 (May/June, 1993): 41-45. Several writers express their views about the concept of diaspora in Roth’s Operation Shylock. An in-depth and wide-ranging look at the novel.

Furman, Andrew. “A New Other’ in American Jewish Literature: Philip Roth’s Israel Fiction.” Contemporary Literature 36 (Winter, 1995): 633-653. Focuses on the theme that centers on Israel and projects the concept of the Other’ on the Arab. Although it seems that Roth has escaped the current literary trend of demonizing the Arab, Furman demonstrates that a close textual reading of The Counterlife and Operation Shylock reveals that the theme is reiterated in both works.

Halkin, Hillel. “How to Read Philip Roth.” Commentary 97 (February, 1994): 43-48. Although some critics maintain that Roth is steering away from themes of Judaism, Halkin argues that Roth’s later works are dominated by Jewish themes. Halkin presents several critical analyses of Roth’s books, including Operation Shylock.

Safer, Elaine B. “The Double, Comic Irony, and Postmodernism in Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock. MELUS 21 (Winter, 1996): 157-172. Safer asserts that the humor in Roth’s novel revolves around the ironic use of doubles and a postmodernist blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction.

Updike, John. “Recruiting Raw Nerves.” The New Yorker 69 (March 15, 1993): 109-112. As a novelist, Updike is in many ways Roth’s opposite: coolly disciplined, WASPish, never boisterous. Yet he is an astute and generous critic, and his review praises Roth highly for his evocative style and ingenious plotting. Updike, however, does complain that the book has too many long monologues and that Roth is “an exhausting author to be with.”