Philip Roth Roth, Philip (Vol. 86) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Philip Roth Operation Shylock: A Confession

Award: Faulkner Award for Fiction

(Full name Philip Milton Roth) Born in 1933, Roth is an American novelist, short story writer, autobiographer, essayist, and critic.

For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 15, 22, 31, 47, and 66.

Operation Shylock (1993) centers on a character named Philip Roth, who travels to Israel in 1988 after learning that a man claiming to be Philip Roth is in Jerusalem promoting a movement called "Diasporism." Roth eventually meets his impostor—a former private detective from Chicago who is dying of cancer—and gives him the nickname Moishe Pipik. Predicated on his belief that a future Muslim attack on Israel will prompt the Israelis to respond with nuclear weapons, Pipik contends that in order for Judaism to survive, all Ashkenazi Jews must return to Europe and relinquish Palestine to native Middle Easterners. The novel also concerns Roth's interaction with George Ziad, a Palestinian friend from Roth's college years who tries to recruit him to the Palestinian cause, and Louis B. Smilesburger, a Mossad spymaster who is trying to recruit Roth for "Operation Shylock," an Israeli intelligence scheme designed to uncover Jewish-American financial backers of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). After many unsuccessful efforts, Smilesburger eventually convinces Roth to travel to Europe to spy on Ziad and his Jewish contacts. Although Israel's stance toward Palestinians, which Roth characterizes as combative and aggressive, is treated throughout Operation Shylock as damaging to the Diaspora, which is credited with producing many of Judaism's cultural achievements, Roth's final cooperation with Smilesburger suggests that there is a part of Roth that cannot turn away from Israel. Critical reaction to Operation Shylock has been mixed. While praising Roth's use of the doppelgänger and his elaborate development of themes concerning his Jewish identity, Judaism, the Diaspora, and the future of Israel, many commentators argue that the novel suffers from rhetorical excess and Roth's interest in self-presentation. Roth's incorporation of historical events and actual people in the work and his insistence that Operation Shylock is autobiographical and not a piece of fiction has also puzzled critics and generated controversy. Nevertheless, John Updike has contended that "this Dostoyevskian phantasmagoria is an impressive reassertion of artistic energy, and a brave expansion of Roth's 'densely overstocked little store of concerns' into the global marketplace. It should be read by anyone who cares about (1) Israel and its repercussions; (2) the development of the postmodern novel; (3) Philip Roth."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories (novella and short stories) 1959
Letting Go (novel) 1962
When She Was Good (novel) 1967
Portnoy's Complaint (novel) 1969
Our Gang (novel) 1971
The Breast (novel) 1972
The Great American Novel (novel) 1973
My Life as a Man (novel) 1974
Reading Myself and Others (essays and criticism) 1975
The Professor of Desire (novel) 1977
The Ghost Writer (novel) 1979
Zuckerman Unbound (novel) 1981
The Anatomy Lesson (novel) 1983
The Counterlife (novel) 1986
The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography (autobiography) 1988
Deception (novel) 1990
Patrimony: A True Story (memoir) 1990
Operation Shylock: A Confession (novel) 1993

∗These works, along with the epilogue "The Prague Orgy," were published as Zuckerman Bound: A Trilogy and Epilogue in 1985.

Richard Eder (review date 7 March 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Roth Contemplates His Pipik," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 7, 1993, pp. 3, 7.

[Eder is an American critic who has won a citation for excellence in reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle as well as a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. In the review below, he presents a mixed assessment of Operation Shylock.]

"Mischief," Philip Roth writes partway through his new novel [Operation Shylock: A Confession], "is how some Jews get involved in living." He quotes his friend, the Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld, but it is hard not to think that Appelfeld was talking about Roth.

Almost more than the stories they tell, Roth's recent novels—particularly The Counterlife and Deception—have been about the uncertain and illusory relationship he sets up between himself and his characters. Each book gives us a multiplicity of fictional Roths, directly or by means of alter egos, so that the teller and his tale keep changing places in a Pirandello-like contradance or pea-and-shell game.

It is disconcerting, and never more so than in Operation Shylock. It can be intrusive and self-absorbed. Look at me, not at my story, Roth seems to say, and he keeps butting in to switch places with it.

Yet this is only partly arbitrary. Method and story are joined. Always, Roth presents being Jewish as the most intense and extreme way of being human; and Jewish self-consciousness—morbid, comic, inspired—as a heightened form of human self-consciousness. But staring at things too hard causes double vision. Staring at yourself too hard fractures your sense of yourself.

Shylock gives us two fractured visions or, if you like, quadruple vision. Diaspora Jew confronts Israeli Jew, a theme introduced in Counterlife and now lavishly played out. At times, in fact, there are three double visions. An Arab voice is heard to complain with the scintillating lucidity that Roth is master of, but more faintly, as if even Roth could not quite handle sextuple.

A reader risks disappearing into his complexities. There is the author's suggestion—dangled, withdrawn, dangled, and very quietly canceled—that the story really took place and that its protagonist really does sign his royalty checks "Philip Roth." Occasionally, a genuine fact subverts the phantasmagoric account.

Shylock begins with a famous author named Philip who visits Israel in a state of Halcion-induced disorientation. There he meets a man named Philip Roth. The latter is urging Israelis of European descent to move back to a Europe that eagerly awaits them. ("Our Jews are back!" jubilant Polish crowds will cry out at the railroad station.) Unless they undertake this second Diaspora, he argues, there will be a second Holocaust, a mutually exterminating nuclear war with the Arabs.

Roth Two looks like Roth One. He wears the same tweed jacket with a...

(The entire section is 1233 words.)

John Updike (review date 15 March 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Recruiting Raw Nerves," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXIX, No. 4, March 15, 1993, pp. 109-12.

[A prizewinning novelist, short story writer, poet, dramatist, and critic, Updike is one of America's most distinguished men of letters. Best known for such novels as Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), and Rabbit Is Rich (1981), he is a chronicler of life in Protestant, middle-class America. A contributor of literary reviews to various periodicals, he has frequently written the "Books" column in The New Yorker since 1955. In the following review, he remarks on theme and characterization in Operation Shylock and places the novel in the context of Roth's...

(The entire section is 3735 words.)

Robert Alter (review date 5 April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Spritzer," in The New Republic, Vol. 208, No. 14, April 5, 1993, pp. 31-4.

[Alter is an American educator and critic. In the following review, he examines Roth's use of farce and the doppelgänger in Operation Shylock.]

At least as far back as The Ghost Writer, which appeared in 1979, Philip Roth's fiction has exhibited an oddly correlated double development. The novels become more preoccupied with questions of Jewishness, the writer's relation to Israel, the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and the collectivity of Jews; and they become more self-reflexive, pondering the conundrums of their own fictionality or lack of it. These concerns were treated with...

(The entire section is 3201 words.)

Harold Bloom (review date 22 April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Operation Roth," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XL, No. 8, April 22, 1993, pp. 45-8.

[Bloom is one of the most prominent contemporary American critics and literary theorists. Some of his best known works include The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973) and Kabbalah and Criticism (1974). In the review below, he discusses characterization and the theme of Jewishness in Operation Shylock.]

When requested to choose an exemplary passage from his work for a New York Public Library Commonplace Book, Philip Roth came up with this, from Zuckerman Unbound (1981):

Zuckerman was tall, but...

(The entire section is 4907 words.)

Jenny Turner (review date 13 May 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Nicely! Nicely!" in London Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 9, May 13, 1993, pp. 20-1.

[In the following review, Turner speculates on Roth's motivation for writing Operation Shylock and other novels that feature a Philip Roth persona.]

If you are anything like me, you will find yourself having to fight off a sort of sinking feeling as the new Philip Roth comes thudding into your life. What If A Lookalike Stranger Stole Your Name, Usurped Your Biography, And Went Around The World Pretending To Be You? the jacket flap blares: oh God help us, here we go again. You know there will be a lot of paranoid self-justification, in which the author revisits crimes...

(The entire section is 3230 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Brookhiser, Richard. "The Gripes of Roth." National Review XLV, No. 6 (29 March 1993): 68-9.

Unfavorable assessment of Operation Shylock.

Fein, Esther B. "Philip Roth Sees Double, And Maybe Triple, Too." The New York Times (9 March 1993): C13, C18.

Feature article based on an interview in which Roth discusses Operation Shylock and the Jewish-American novel.

Gray, Paul. "A Complaint: Double Vision." Time 141, No. 10 (8 March 1993): 68, 70.

Favorable assessment of...

(The entire section is 378 words.)