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 There is the author's suggestion—dangled, withdrawn, dangled, and very quietly canceled—that the story really took place and that its protagonist really does sign his royalty checks "Philip Roth."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 button missing, fervently admires his books, and loyally detests his critics. Roth One naturally detests him and the confusing publicity he is creating. To distance himself, he gives his usurper the Yiddish sobriquet for an obstreperous child: Moishe Pipik.
Some distancing! Pipik means bellybutton, and that, of course, you can't cut off. Pipik is a fighter in the civil war that goes on inside Roth. Arguing that Jewish culture and ethics have been formed in the Diaspora, and that Israelis are coarse vulgarians, he flatters Roth's own Diaspora art. Pipik is a mad cartoon, of course, and the madness is reinforced by his ranting pleas to Roth not to disavow him. Pipik's warm and wholehearted Gentile lover, Jinx, adds to the rant by arguing that not only is Pipik an idealist, he is dying of cancer as well.
(This entire section contains 1233 words.)
Some distancing! Pipik means bellybutton, and that, of course, you can't cut off. Pipik is a fighter in the civil war that goes on inside Roth. Arguing that Jewish culture and ethics have been formed in the Diaspora, and that Israelis are coarse vulgarians, he flatters Roth's own Diaspora art. Pipik is a mad cartoon, of course, and the madness is reinforced by his ranting pleas to Roth not to disavow him. Pipik's warm and wholehearted Gentile lover, Jinx, adds to the rant by arguing that not only is Pipik an idealist, he is dying of cancer as well.
Guilt as thick as fuel oil powers Pipik's claim upon the narrator. A second claim is made by Ziad, a Palestinian-American schoolmate from Chicago who has settled on the West Bank to mourn his father's confiscated property and "to hate." Ziad's pleas mirror Pipik's; he, too, argues that the Jews in Israel have lost their soul and become oppressors. Taking Roth to be the author of the Second Diaspora plan, he attempts to recruit him for the Palestinian cause.
A third claim is addressed to the part of Roth that, despite his vulnerability to Pipik's and Ziad's arguments, cannot reject Israel. A Mr. Smilesburger first appears as a rich, doddering old Israeli who, seeming to take him for Pipik, gives him an enormous check to advance the cause. In fact, he is a high-ranking officer of Mossad, the Israeli equivalent of the CIA. He has Roth briefly kidnaped and then, appealing to his loyalty, assigns him to go to Athens to infiltrate a group of dovish Greek Jews with ties to the PLO.
These are, of course, the same people that Ziad wants him to meet. Everything in Shylock—Mossad's name for the Athens project—has a double face. Smilesburger practices agentry upon Roth and so, much less efficiently, does Ziad. Yet each embodies an authentic moral and political position. Their respective monologues are passionate, moving and impaled upon paradox. They display the author at his most trenchant.
Smilesburger gives a searing defense of Israeli hawkishness. The Palestinians are essentially innocent, and the Israelis are guilty of their displacement, he affirms. He mocks Roth and other doves as hypocrites who want to have both Israel and their moral virtue. Hawks and doves will be hanged together if the Arabs win, he says. At the war-crimes trial, he will not argue the Holocaust or Biblical claims. He will say: "I did what I did to you because I did what I did to you."
It is raison d'état or, in the Hebrew phrase, ein brera (no other choice). Only Roth could make its advocate so stark and so human. As for Ziad's argument—that Israel has used the Holocaust to justify its suppression of the Palestinians—it comes across in a witty and original construction, but less vividly. Yet Ziad's present-day pain humanizes him, standing as it does against the inevitable abstraction of a far greater pain that is 40 years old.
Throughout the book, there are scenes from the trial of John Demjanjuk, the alleged Ivan the Terrible who killed thousands of Jews at Treblinka. Ziad contrasts the meticulousness and openness of the trial with the arbitrary and part-hidden violence used against the Palestinians. The Demjanjuk trial, he insists, is used to keep the Holocaust alive. The Roth character protests the incomparable difference in magnitude between the two cases.
The author is not after balances, though. Shylock is his characteristic headlong series of charges over the broken ground of unresolvable contradiction. When he is dealing with the contradictions between Israelis and Arabs, and between the Israeli Jews and those outside, the charges are exhilarating and as revealing in their rich paradox as anything he has done.
There are long stretches, though, where Roth's self-absorption is so thick and extended as to screen out light, air and interest. The bright use of Pipik as a quixotic Diasporist and as one of Roth's alter egos dims in the long nighttime monologues where the alter drops off. Even weaker and more inert is Roth's treatment of Pipik's lover and defender, the Polish-American Jinx, who bills herself as a "recovering anti-semite," 12 steps and all. His paradox fails him; as their talk drags on and on, she becomes his sexy, long-winded, shiksa foil. Shylock is less a novel than a dramatic monologue that alternately spurts above and sinks under its own voice.
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."
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 previous works.]
Some readers may feel there has been too much Philip Roth in the writer's recent books—The Facts, subtitled "A Novelist's Autobiography," with an eight-thousand-word afterword by the novelist's recurrent character Nathan Zuckerman (1988); Deception, an airy love tale, with wide margins, involving an American novelist called Philip living in London and conversing with a number of women in gusts of pure dialogue (1990); and Patrimony: A True Story, the gritty, moving account of Roth's father's slow death from a brain tumor and of his own coincidental open-heart surgery (1991). Such readers should be warned: there are two Philip Roths in his new novel, Operation Shylock: A Confession. The first one, an aging author minding his own business in New York and Connecticut, hears from friends in Israel that another Philip Roth has been in the news and is delivering a lecture in Jerusalem's King David Hotel on the topic "Diasporism: The Only Solution to the Jewish Problem." After a sleepless night, Philip I (let's call him) telephones the hotel and, upon inquiring if this is Philip Roth, is told, "It is, and who is this, please?"
The question is a profound one, and the concept of the double, in this novel, is never again as electrically spooky as in the long-distance phone call that is apparently answered by the caller. Later, in Jerusalem, Philip I meets Philip II, and at first finds the resemblance only approximate:
I saw before me a face that I would not very likely have taken for my own had I found it looking back at me that morning from the mirror…. It was actually a conventionally better-looking face, a little less mismade than my own, with a more strongly defined chin and not so large a nose, one that, also, didn't flatten Jewishly like mine at the tip. It occurred to me that he looked like the after to my before in the plastic surgeon's advertisement.
We seem to have, at first blush, the figure of a nicer brother, like handsome, earnest Henry Zuckerman in The Counterlife (1987). At least since Portnoy's Complaint (1969), Roth's refractory central persona has been haunted by a moral shadow, the decent, civic-minded, asexual non-writer who is innocent of blame—blame from used and abandoned shiksas, and blame, in the exhaustively investigated case of Nathan Zuckerman, from outraged Jewish critics of the author's allegedly anti-Semitic fictions. But Philip II, "the Hollywooded version of my face so nebbishly pleading with me to try to calm down," is no mere shadow. The closer Philip I looks, the more exact the resemblance becomes, down to a "nub of tiny threadlets where the middle button had come off his jacket—I noticed because for some time now I'd been exhibiting a similar nub of threadlets where the middle button had yet again vanished from my jacket." The perfection of the duplication infuriates the original, whose charge of personality appropriation meets a wall of fawning verbosity. When Philip I demands, "Who are you and what are you? Answer me!," the answer comes back, "Your greatest admirer." Philip II supplies a cascade of grievances on the author's behalf ("Portnoy's Complaint, not even nominated for a National Book Award!") and of fluent babble about Jung's mystical theory of "synchronicity" and his own theory of Diasporism, which would solve the dangerous problem of Israel by returning its million European Jews to Europe. In addition, he bursts into tears, twice, and reveals, without tears, that he (Philip II) is terminally ill of cancer.
If the repercussions and complications of this self-on-self grapple don't absolutely defy summary, they certainly don't invite it. The book is a species of international thriller: Philip I witnesses some of the trial of the alleged concentration-camp demon John Demjanjuk, ponders the purported diary of the Jewish martyr Leon Klinghoffer, and winds up, against his better judgment, performing as a spy in Athens and elsewhere for the Israeli intelligence service, the Mossad. Operation Shylock is, too, something of a medical thriller, and exhibits Roth's knowing way with pathology, no less masterly than Thomas Mann's. Philip I is slowly recovering from paralyzing mental distress induced by his taking Halcion in the aftermath of a botched knee operation, and the novel's Gentile femme fatale is a Chicago nurse called Jinx Possesski, whose descriptions of hospital life are authoritatively harrowing. Philip II, the lover who has saved her from the anti-Semitism contracted after prolonged exposure to Jewish doctors, wears a penile implant to compensate for the ill effects of cancer therapy, and the novel's father figure, a Mossad eminence bearing the genial name Louis B. Smilesburger, gets about on forearm crutches, has "that alarming boiled look of someone suffering from a skin disease," and shows a bald head "minutely furrowed and grooved like the shell of a hard-boiled egg whose dome has been fractured lightly by the back of a spoon." Roth's habitual polarities goy/Jew and hedonism/altruism have been augmented by sick/well and disintegration/integration. Jinx is trumpeted as "a voluptuously healthy-looking creature … somebody who was well."
The novel is also a psychological thriller, centered on Philip I's frenzied and not unparanoid responses to the excessive stimuli of a few days in Israel—responses that are to be construed, we are told at the end, as steps in his recovery from the Halcion overdose and its sensations of disintegration. This particular infirmity, Roth readers will recall, figured in the last paragraph of The Facts, when Nathan Zuckerman assures the author, "I am distressed to hear that in the spring of 1987 what was to have been minor surgery turned into a prolonged physical ordeal that led to a depression that carried you to the edge of emotional and mental dissolution." Roth's œuvre presents an ever more intricately ramifying and transparent pseudo-autobiography: the first-person voice goes back to Goodbye Columbus (1959), the layered self-referentiality to My Life as a Man (1974), the serialized formalization of an alter ego to The Ghost Writer (1980). He should be commended for facing the fact that a fiction writer's life is his basic instrument of perception—that only the imagery we have personally gathered and unconsciously internalized possesses the color, warmth, intimate contour, and weight of authenticity the discriminating fiction reader demands. Rousseau's Confessions opened the door to the nineteenth-century novel, and Proust's autobiographical Remembrance of Things Past could be said to have closed it. In the post-Proust, postmodern, post-objective world of American fiction, Roth stands out as a working theorist of fictional reality, a marvellously precocious and accomplished realist who has tested the limits of realism: he has feverishly paced its boundaries and played games with its pretensions. The act of writing has become his fiction's central dramatic action. In this novel, which purports to be a confession, Philip II is a study in ongoing character creation. When he entertainingly and circumstantially describes his seamy career as a private detective in Chicago, his auditor, Philip I, feels doubts that echo the reader's own:
I thought, He's got it all down pat from TV. If only I'd watched more L.A. Law and read less Dostoyevsky I'd know what's going on here, I'd know in two minutes what show it is exactly. Maybe motifs from fifteen shows, with a dozen detective movies thrown in…. Maybe it was the in-flight movie on El Al.
However, taking the trouble to invent a profession and to crib details from other, often equally fictional sources does, by drawing on the edges of the writer's imagination, make possible a wider personal truth—a dreamier level, as it were, of confession. Philip II, implausible and raddled as he is, is more of a character than Philip I, who seems, it must be allowed, slightly stiff. Like a Hemingway hero, Philip I has his dignity to protect, a certain rightness to uphold. Perhaps his neck is stiff from the effort of not letting his head be turned by all the compliments directed at him in the course of Operation Shylock. Along with his doppelgänger's slavish flattery, he hears himself described by an old Palestinian friend, George Ziad, as a model, non-Israeli Jew: "A Jew who has never been afraid to speak out about Jews. An independent Jew and he has suffered for it too." Ziad and Philip I were fellow graduate students at the University of Chicago in the fifties, and Ziad, now a professor in Israel, teaches Portnoy's Complaint to his students "to convince them that there are Jews in the world who are not in any way like these Jews we have here." The alluring Jinx Possesski reads Philip I's palm and, after assuring him that, according to his creases, his "sexual appetite is quite pure," tells him, "If I were reading the hands of a stranger and didn't know who you were, I would say it's sort of the hand of a … of a great leader." Clinchingly, Smilesburger, who by his final appearance has metamorphosed into the embodiment of enduring Jewish manhood ("The this-worldliness. The truthfulness. The intelligence. The malice. The comedy. The endurance. The acting. The injury. The impairment"), compliments Philip I on his spying assignment and his writing both: "First through our work together and then through your books, I have come to have considerable respect for you…. You are a fine man."
It's hard to wrap your mind around this paragon, whereas grotesque, sketchy Philip II has problems we can grasp: he is dying of cancer, he has been cursed with the name and appearance of a celebrity without being one, he must resort to a phallic prosthesis to satisfy his sexy girlfriend, he is enough tormented by the condition of post-Holocaust Jewry to have developed some crackpot schemes to remedy it. Through the plot's tangle and the steam of righteous indignation emitted by Philip I, this figment attracts our wonder and pity; his last days, and his incredible little afterlife as a dead sexual partner, commemorated in a letter from the faithful Jinx, stick in our minds, as images of the human condition having nothing to do with being a writer. "I AM THE YOU THAT IS NOT WORDS," Philip II tells Philip I, in capitals. For a writer, to be without words is to be without defenses, without immortality. Philip II is not the nice side of Philip I but his sick side, his mortal side, given phantasmal reality through the projective magic of fiction.
This magic is amply displayed in Operation Shylock, which, under the mysterious intensity of its inspiration, is as painstakingly written as it is elaborately developed. The passages introducing the characters, especially the female characters, are brilliantly, lushly evocative. Here is Jinx:
Her whitish blond hair was worn casually pinned in a tousled bun at the back of her head, and she had a wide mouth, the warm interior of which she showed you, like a happy, panting dog, even when she wasn't speaking, as though she were taking your words in through her mouth, as though another's words were not received by the brain but processed—once past the small, even, splendidly white teeth and the pink, perfect gums—by the whole, radiant, happy-go-lucky thing.
George Ziad's wife, Anna, appears thus in their cavelike village home:
Anna was a tiny, almost weightless woman whose anatomy's whole purpose seemed to be to furnish the housing for her astonishing eyes … intense and globular, eyes to see with in the dark, set like a lemur's in a triangular face not very much larger than a man's fist, and then there was the tent of the sweater enshrouding the anorexic rest of her and, peeping out at the bottom, two feet in baby's running shoes.
Yet, once they have been so vividly introduced, the characters turn out to be talking heads, faces attached to tirades. The novel is an orgy of argumentation; Roth, like Bernard Shaw, is as happy to shape an aria around a perverse or frivolous argument as around a heartfelt one. "That lubricious sensation that is fluency" seizes even our sensible Philip I as, too often mistaken for Philip II, he fervently expounds his double's theory of Diasporism, "calling for the de-Israelization of the Jews, on and on once again, obeying an intoxicating urge." One of the book's few taciturn characters, a Mossad strong-arm man, complains to him, "You speak too much. You speak speak speak." Though both Philips do much waxing wroth over a range of issues, the de-Israelization of the Jews—the claim that the embattled and therefore combative state of Israel has poisoned the Jewishness of the Diaspora—forms the dominant topic, argued from a pro-Jewish standpoint by Philip II and from a pro-Palestinian standpoint by George Ziad:
"What happens when American Jews discover that they have been duped, that they have constructed an allegiance to Israel on the basis of irrational guilt, of vengeful fantasies, above all, above all, based on the most naive delusions about the moral identity of this state? Because this state has no moral identity. It has forfeited its moral identity, if ever it had any to begin with. By relentlessly institutionalizing the Holocaust it has even forfeited its claim to the Holocaust! The state of Israel has drawn the last of its moral credit out of the bank of the dead six million—this is what they have done by breaking the hands of Arab children on the orders of their illustrious minister of defense."
Though such views are put in the mouths of fictional characters, Roth's Zionist critics will not excuse him from their vigorous expression. "Name a raw nerve and you recruit it," Smilesburger tells Philip I after he has read this book. The ominous case of Salman Rushdie flickers into the author's mind: "Will the Mossad put a contract out on me the way the Ayatollah did with Rushdie?" If there were a Jewish Ayatollah, he might have issued his fatwa long ago, in the wake of those youthful short stories about goldbricking Jewish soldiers, bullying rabbis, Short Hills nouveaux riches, and little Jewish boys who can't understand why, if God could make the world in six days, He couldn't also impregnate a virgin.
Relentlessly honest, Roth recruits raw nerves, perhaps, because they make the fiercest soldiers in the battle of truth. Moral ambiguity, Semitic subdivision, has always been his chosen briar patch. His searching out of Jewishness is of a piece with the searching out of himself that has consumed so many pages and so many pleading, mocking, mocked alter egos. This, his most extended consideration of Jewishness, takes as its reference points not God's covenant with Abraham or the epic of Moses but affectionate memories of the Diaspora Jews of his boyhood's Newark. The myths of personal history have replaced those of a people's history. The only significant Old Testament reference is to Jacob's night-long wrestle with an unknown presence, which pairs nicely as an epigraph with Kierkegaard's assertion "The whole content of my being shrieks in contradiction against itself." Jacob's struggle with another, which gave Israel its name as "he who wrestles with God," has become, in echo of Christian self-abnegation, the self's struggle with itself.
Never impressionistic in his style, Roth began with sensory facts, arranged and presented in a prose not quite colloquial but simple and clear. From Goodbye, Columbus:
I watched her move off. Her hands suddenly appeared behind her. She caught the bottom of her [bathing] suit between thumb and index finger and flicked what flesh had been showing back where it belonged. My blood jumped.
That night, before dinner, I called her.
Under the stress of the intricate questions his later fiction poses, his sentences stretch and turn a bit stentorian: "However heroic the cause had seemed to Michael amid the patriotic graffiti decorating his bedroom walls in suburban Newton, he felt now as only an adolescent son can toward what he sees as an obstacle to his self-realization raised by an obtuse father mandating an outmoded way of life." A diagrammatic grayness creeps in as the complications thicken: "And what was I thinking? I was thinking, What are they thinking? I was thinking about Moishe Pipik and what he was thinking…. This is what I was thinking when I was not thinking the opposite and everything else." Not that Roth has quite forgotten the tricks of sensory actualization. Philip I sleeps with the delectable Jinx, and tells us nothing about the experience until, in the next chapter, while riding in a taxi, he remembers "that wordless vocal obbligato with which she'd flung herself upon the floodtide of her pleasure, the streaming throaty rising and falling, at once husky and murmurous, somewhere between the trilling of a tree toad and the purring of a cat." Later still, the experience washes back upon him less pleasantly: "I smelled her asleep in my trousers—she was that heavy, clinging, muttony stench and she was also that pleasingly unpleasing brackishness on the middle fingers of the hand that picked up the receiver of the ringing phone." But such sensory details are rare, and get rarer as the story goes on.
Somewhere after Philip I sleeps with Jinx, the novel stops pretending to coherence and becomes a dumping ground, it seems, for everything in Roth's copious file on Jewishness: a slangy American anti-Semitic monologue recorded by Philip II as a "work-out tape" for his Anti-Semites Anonymous program, the touchingly bland and banal journal of Leon Klinghoffer (fictional), searing testimony in the Demjanjuk trial (actual), and pages of uninterrupted discourse on the saintly nineteenth-century rabbi Chofetz Chaim and his desire that Jews abstain from loshon hora—evil speech, especially against other Jews. Perhaps the novel, whose events are centered on a few days in January of 1988, was too long in the working, and accumulated an awkward number of subsidiary inspirations. The headlines that haunt it—Demjanjuk, Klinghoffer, the case of Jonathan Pollard, the United States Navy officer who spied for Israel—also date it, as everything on the far side of the end of the Cold War is, for the time being, dated.
Operation Shylock, though it is as hot and strenuous as Deception was cool and diffident, shares with the previous novel an album quality, a sense of assembled monologues and interviews. Roth has taken to entrusting his message to the eloquence of his characters rather than to the movement of the plot. Plot be damned, he as good as says. Pausing midway to take stock on behalf of Philip I, he writes, "The story so far is frivolously plotted, overplotted, for his taste altogether too freakishly plotted, with outlandish events so wildly careening around every corner that there is nowhere for intelligence to establish a foothold and develop a perspective."
Well, theorists might argue, life isn't packaged in plots anymore, and why shouldn't a novel be a series of interviews, in this interview-mad age? Jinx Possesski's pilgrimage from working-class Catholic to fourteen-year-old hippie to born-again Protestant to anti-Semitic nurse to atheist consort of an anti-Zionist Jewish prophet is livelier than most tales you will read in People or hear on Donahue. But Roth, in his furious inventiveness and his passion for permutation, has become an exhausting author to be with. His characters seem to be on speed, up at all hours and talking until their mouths bleed. There are too many of them; they keep dropping out of sight, and when they reappear they don't talk the same. The plot is full of holes, and Roth, who becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish from Philip I, leaves out, for fully discussed security reasons, the crucial chapter in which he goes to Athens and spies for Israel and demonstrates, despite vicious rumors to the contrary, that he is a "loyal Jew" full of "Jewish patriotism."
This hard-pressed reviewer was reminded not only of Shaw but of Hamlet, which also has too many characters, numerous long speeches, and a vacillating, maddening hero who in the end shows the right stuff. Writing of Hamlet, T. S. Eliot coined, or gave fresh circulation to, the phrase "objective correlative," saying, "The supposed identity of Hamlet with his author is genuine to this point: that Hamlet's bafflement at the absence of objective equivalent to his feelings is a prolongation of the bafflement of his creator in the face of his artistic problem." Again, "In the character Hamlet is the buffoonery of an emotion which can find no outlet in action; in the dramatist it is the buffoonery of an emotion which he cannot express in art." All of Roth's work, and the history of mutual exacerbation between his work and his Jewish audience, lies behind the pained buffoonery of Operation Shylock. His narrowing, magnifying fascination with himself has penetrated to a quantum level of indeterminacy, where "what Jung calls 'the uncontrollability of real things'" takes over. The authorial ego's imaginative "self-subverting," which in the Zuckerman sequence conjured up counterlives of compelling solidity, in Operation Shylock slices things diaphanously thin. Still, 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.
Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories (novella and short stories) 1959Letting Go (novel) 1962When She Was Good (novel) 1967Portnoy's Complaint (novel) 1969Our Gang (novel) 1971The Breast (novel) 1972The Great American Novel (novel) 1973My Life as a Man (novel) 1974Reading Myself and Others (essays and criticism) 1975The Professor of Desire (novel) 1977 ∗The Ghost Writer (novel) 1979 ∗Zuckerman Unbound (novel) 1981 ∗The Anatomy Lesson (novel) 1983The Counterlife (novel) 1986The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography (autobiography) 1988Deception (novel) 1990Patrimony: A True Story (memoir) 1990Operation 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.
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 greatest imaginative richness in The Counterlife (1986), Roth's best book. His next novel, Deception (1990), was much thinner, cast entirely as a series of dialogues that record, among other things, a collision with genteel English anti-Semitism that impels the protagonist, as his mistress wryly notes, to "return to the bosom of the tribe." What he longs for, he has told her, is "Jews without shame. Complaining Jews who get under your skin. Brash Jews who eat with elbows on the table. Unaccommodating Jews, full of anger, insult, argument and impudence." This equation of Jewishness and rudeness has evidently been encouraged by Roth's personal trajectory from Newark to the realm of high culture, and its simplicity is disturbing; it has a peculiar congruence with the skewed argument of John Murray Cuddihy's once-controversial book The Ordeal of Civility, which abrasively bracketed Yid with id and portrayed the Jews as essentially a brusque, disruptive presence in the Christian world.
But the brash contentiousness that Roth has raised to an ideal suffuses the population, and the very mode of expression, of his new book [Operation Shylock: A Confession]. Written out of Roth's usual hyperconsciousness of the masterworks of European and American fiction, Operation Shylock provides a very late and very Jewish version of that pre-eminently nineteenth-century and early-modern figure, the doppelgänger. The first thing that catches the reader's eye after the table of contents is an epigraph in Hebrew cursive script, and its translation, "So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak": the earliest literary double, Roth suggests, may have been that mysterious stranger who ambushed Jacob in Genesis 32. What follows is a "confession" by a fictional character named Philip Roth, who shares with the author of this novel a biography (born in Newark in 1933, and so on), a wife and a list of publications from Goodbye, Columbus to Patrimony. The experience of the protagonist in Jerusalem 1988, where most of the action takes place, is pure invention, though he also does a few things that the real Philip Roth did, such as interviewing his friend the Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld and looking in at the trial of John Demjanjuk.
On his way to Jerusalem, Roth discovers that someone claiming to be Philip Roth has been running around Israel preaching a new doctrine that he calls "Diasporism." (The term, if not the doctrine, was invented by the British painter R.B. Kitaj, a friend of Roth's, in a small book called The Diasporist Manifesto that appeared a few years ago.) Proposing himself as a kind of Theodor Herzl in rapid reverse, he wants to lead all the Ashkenazi Jews out of Israel, where their physical existence is continually endangered by Arab hostility, and back to Europe, the cultural setting in which they flourished for centuries and which will now welcome them after the ghastly aberration of the Hitler years. (The Diasporist rather casually imagines he can safely leave the Sephardi Jews in Israel, because they are Middle Easterners like their putative brethren, the Arabs.)
When Philip Roth the narrator comes face to face with Philip Roth the doppelgänger, he discovers that the imposter is a dead ringer for himself, down to the khaki trousers, tieless Oxford shirt and frayed tweed jacket. The second Roth is a brilliant mimic or an authentic refraction of the first, but he is also a liar, a charlatan, a wild obsessive and an extravagant megalomaniac. Roth the narrator predictably responds to this bizarre duplication of himself with a mixture of rage, dismay, frustration, exasperation and fascination. Eternal A student of comparative literature, he is quick to identify the features of the double in nineteenth-century fiction, "fully materialized duplicates incarnating the hidden depravity of the respectable original."
Yet that literary precedent has only slight applicability to his own predicament. The literary figure of the double is indeed a dark fantasy, but in this book Roth makes its relation to fictional self-reflexivity more prominent than any grand psychological resonance of fantasy. He construes the double not as the embodiment of a hidden self, but rather as that other kind of doubling, much less threatening, which is the re-invention of the self for the purpose of a fiction. The narrator imagines the appearance of his double as a kind of retribution exacted from the novelist, who has repeatedly invented avatars of himself in his protagonists, straddling the borderline between fiction and autobiography: "It's Zuckerman, I thought whimsically, stupidly, escapistly, it's Kepesh, it's Tarnopol and Portnoy—it's all of them in one, broken free of print and mockingly reconstituted as a single satirical facsimile of me." Living a life by constantly reassembling himself in novelistic projections, he "ate of the fruit of the tree of fiction, and nothing, neither reality nor myself, has been the same since."
The second Philip Roth is also an ideological extrapolation, rather than a psychological excavation, of the first. That is, Roth the narrator (and the author) is a Jew deeply and sympathetically concerned with the culture and the society of Israel, but his ultimate allegiances are to the Diaspora that is his home, to the pungency and the vitality and the uninhibited freedom of the life that Jews have made for themselves there. Roth the double flamboyantly embodies these allegiances, though he does so with the high intensity of lunacy and with a political program (Diasporism, plus an organization for gentiles called Anti-Semites Anonymous) that is catastrophically quixotic.
Roth the ideological mountebank and a number of subsidiary characters—his luscious gentile mistress, an Israeli secret service operative, a Palestinian university chum of the narrator's who has returned to his native Ramallah and become a militant nationalist—are rendered with considerable verve. The question is whether they, together with the narrator's vivid and often acerbic reflections on the book's events, really add up to a novel. As usual, Roth has beaten his critics to this question. He repeatedly wonders whether the figures and the circumstances that have overtaken him bear any credible resemblance to reality. Of his double, he observes to Appelfeld, "He gives off none of the aura of a real person, none of the coherence of a real person. Or even the incoherence of a real person." Later he complains about the "general implausibility" of the plot in which he finds himself, "a total lack of gravity, reliance at too many key points on unlikely coincidence, an absence of inner coherence."
Such disclaimers built into the novel, together with its identification as a confession and its final note to the reader that "this confession is false," are stratagems to preempt criticism, and are familiar from earlier books by Roth. Compared with the flaunting of artifice and to the ambiguities between fiction and reality in a major self-reflexive novelist like Nabokov, they seem a little thin. They certainly do not sufficiently complicate the simple truth that Philip Roth is always writing about Philip Roth.
Perhaps it might be better to think of this book not as a novel but as a looser and less realistic fiction of the sort that Gide had in mind when he designated several of his longer narratives as soties—roughly, farces. In the farce, burlesque and exaggeration tend to displace realistic characterization, and plot may be willfully contrived for parodic ends or for the sheer play of elaborate artifice. There has been a tilt toward farce in many of Roth's novels, but with the exception of the negligible The Breast, it has never been so extreme as here. Roth seems to invite such a classification when he names the voluptuous shiksa Jinx Possesski and the undercover agent Smilesburger (with a wink to le Carré's Smiley), and has the narrator repeatedly refer to his double as Moishe Pipik (a mildly derogatory and weakly comic Yiddish epithet that means Moses Bellybutton). In a bedroom conversation with the aforesaid Jinx, the narrator actually spells out this sense of being caught not in a realistic novel, but in a farce: "it's Hellzapoppin' with Possesski and Pipik, it's a gag a minute with you two madcap kids…. Diasporism is a plot for a Marx Brothers movie—Groucho selling Jews to Chancellor Kohl!"
Readers who make their way through Operation Shylock with the same expectations that they brought to The Professor of Desire or The Counterlife will be frustrated. What is called for, rather, is to let yourself go with the sheer farcical momentum of the narrative. But even such a forgiving attitude does not dispose of all the unresolved questions that the book raises: the tendency to rhetorical excess and melodramatic gesture on the part of its characters; the fact that everyone in the book, including Israelis with a presumably imperfect grasp of English, sounds exactly like Philip Roth; the sense of too many threads left dangling or abruptly torn off in the ending.
What survives such difficulties, however, is a great deal of talk, and that proves to be formidable enough. The book is really a series of encounters between performing selves, and the chief interest is in the verbal and emotional energy of the performances. This stand-up comedy is in part a reversion to Portnoy's Complaint, with the important difference that here the tenor of the talk is political and historical, not personal and psychological. The politics of Jewish existence after the Holocaust and the founding of Israel is the occasion for most of the displays. That existence, as Roth recognizes, is shot through with interesting and ironic conflict: Israeli versus Palestinian, Israeli culture versus Diaspora Jewish life, an untrammeled sense of Jewish self-affirmation versus a resurgence of anti-Semitism.
The effect of the performance is to play out the opposing lines of these conflicts, to allow the articulation of each position at the top of the decibel scale. As Roth conceives it, this habit of verbal extravagance is essentially Jewish, and probably also essentially neurotic. (There are some partial precedents in Dostoyevsky.) Even George Ziad, the militant Palestinian, proves to be in this respect thoroughly Jewish, though he waves a different flag: "The gush, the agitation, the volubility, the frenzy barely beneath the surface of every word he babbled, the nerve-racking sense he communicated of something aroused and decomposing all at the same time, of someone in a permanent state of imminent apoplexy." It is in vain that Smilesburger quotes to the narrator the injunction to silence—"Grant me that I should say nothing that is unnecessary"—of the early twentieth-century Polish rabbinical luminary Israel HaCohen, who was known as the Chofetz Chaim and became a household name in the Orthodox Jewish world for his moralizing tracts against the abuses of speech. For everyone in this novel lives, irrepressibly, by outdoing through language.
Writing about Jewish theatrical traditions, the critic Benjamin Harshav has aptly characterized this distinctively Jewish mode of spectacular talkativeness:
Such "Jewish discourse" [founded on Yiddish and the study of the Talmud but then manifested in all sorts of secular art-media] is talkative, argumentative, contrary, associative. Its typical traits include answering with examples, anecdotes, parables or questions, rather than with direct, logical replies; seeing the smallest detail as symbolic for universal issues; delving into meanings, connotations and associations of a single word, and leaping from a word or concrete item to abstract generalizations and theories.
When it is translated into fiction, this associative, exegetical, sometimes pugnacious mode of discourse produces neither linear plot development nor panoptic descriptive vision, but rather meandering verbal extravaganzas. Countless examples from Yiddish writers like Mendele and Sholom Aleichem (and from some older Hebrew writers) come to mind. Political positions in Roth's book are not analyzed or defined, they are played out as verbal vaudeville, as when Ziad complains of Israeli invocations of the Holocaust: "Marlboro has the Marlboro Man, Israel has its Holocaust Man … for the smokescreen that hides everything, smoke holocaust." Or when the narrator's misgivings about his own futile Hebrew education as a child balloon into the airy fantasy of a wild set of comparisons:
For one hour a day, three days a week, fresh from six-and-a-half hours of public school, we sat there and learned to write backwards, to write as though the sun rose in the west and the leaves fell in the spring, as though Canada lay to the south, Mexico to the north, and we put our shoes on before our socks.
These sundry performances are the kind of stand-up comedy—what Jewish comedians of the '50s used to call "spritz"—that seeks to engage urgent political ideas and issues of identity. The various characters express their extreme positions shrilly and uncompromisingly, if also sometimes amusingly. The narrator, a bundle of confusions and ambivalences, works back and forth dialectically between clashing perspectives. If, in the passage just quoted, he exposes the barrenness of after-school Jewish education in America, he proceeds, a couple of pages later, to an opposite perception. As he stares uncomprehendingly at the Hebrew script on a schoolroom blackboard in Jerusalem—it is the verse about Jacob and the angel—he reflects: "That cryptography whose signification I could no longer decode had marked me indelibly four decades ago; out of the inscrutable words written on this blackboard had evolved every English word I had ever written." Like all the unrestrained speakers of this book, Roth the narrator is no doubt exaggerating. But as with the other speakers, the exaggeration contains a kernel of insight.
There is something quite engaging about the way this Jewish affirmation is put, but again doubts linger. Hebrew, for a start, is reduced to mere display. For how, really, can the key to Roth's own work be an unintelligible language? How can a patently deadening Jewish education do anything more than deaden? As to the larger political questions raised by the novel, the splitting of selves and the clash of opposing performances do strike brilliant sparks; but one wonders whether the routines may not be in the end too easy a way to handle urgent and even excruciating dilemmas. The appeal of the Diaspora is articulated by a character who is a dazzling arguer, but crazy. The smoldering resentment of Palestinian nationalism is spelled out by a character who is a dazzling arguer, but even crazier. Where, in the end, are we supposed to stand?
At the beginning of Roth's career, the world of which that stifling Jewish schoolroom in Newark was an integral part figured either as an object of satirical representation or as a trap to break out of. Now, in a way that surely would have surprised his early critics in the Jewish community, Roth has created a fiction in which Jewishness, individually and collectively, is imagined as an ineluctable destiny with positive if troubling content, in which he can see himself as complement, antithesis and spiritual brother to Appelfeld, the Holocaust survivor who composes his fiction in that mysterious ancestral language that moves from right to left.
And even on the level of literary form, this aggressively loquacious narrative, warts and all, owes less to James and Conrad than to Sholom Aleichem and the Eastern European Jewish world. It is a world that Roth knows only through translation, and the remove somehow does not diminish the magnetism of the culture of origins; a filtered, second-generation American Jewish version of that culture has played a prominent role in Roth's work at least since Portnoy's Complaint. The centering of Israel and Jewish identity, and their treatment in a warm and positive light, is a relatively recent development in his work, and conspicuously evident in this new book. Roth has the skill to make these themes resonate, but their only sounding-box remains the limiting theater of self-presentation that remains the venue of all his novels.
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 not as tall as Wilt Chamberlain. He was thin, but not as thin as Mahatma Gandhi. In his customary getup of tan corduroy coat, gray turtleneck sweater, and cotton khaki trousers he was neatly attired, but hardly Rubirosa. Nor was dark hair and a prominent nose the distinguishing mark in New York that it would have been in Reykjavik or Helsinki. But two, three, four times a week, they spotted him anyway. "It's Carnovsky!" "Hey, want to see my underwear, Gil?" In the beginning, when he heard someone call after him out on the street, he would wave hello to show what a good sport he was. It was the easiest thing to do, so he did it. Then the easiest thing was to pretend that he was hearing things, to realize that it was happening in a world that didn't exist. They had mistaken impersonation for confession and were calling out to a character who lived in a book. Zuckerman tried taking it as praise—he had made real people believe Carnovsky real too—but in the end he pretended he was only himself, and with his quick, small steps hurried on.
Twelve years later, in his new book Operation Shylock, Roth pretends he is only himself, and then doubles the pretense. We are given two fictional characters calling themselves Philip Roth, the as it were original Philip Roth and an impostor, who has arrived in Jerusalem usurping the novelist's identity in order to advance a counter-Zionist movement, a "new Diasporism" that urges Ashkenazi Israelis to return to their countries of origin, particularly in Europe. This idea, one of Roth's grand inventions, reminds me of Saki's short story "The Unrest-Cure," where an Unrest-cure could be defined as the equivalent of preaching Diasporism in Jerusalem:
Well, you might stand as an Orange Candidate for Kilkenny, or do a course of district visiting in one of the Apache quarters of Paris, or give lectures in Berlin to prove that most of Wagner's music was written by Gambetta; and there's always the interior of Morocco to travel in. But, to be really effective, the Unrest-cure ought to be tried in the home.
Roth's career as a novelist has been one long Unrest-cure, in this sense, and has been tried in the home, if we take that home metaphorically as being the Jewish situation or condition. He has made himself the issue, the novelist as scapegoat, accused of Jewish self-hatred by Jews so defensive that they can't bear any criticism, however accurate or well-intentioned. It is rather late in the day for a Jewish writer to present himself as a moral prophet, but in his books Roth has dared to do so, making moral judgments on the relationship between parents and children, husbands and wives and lovers, and he has thus earned a lifetime of unrest. Indeed his new novel seems the apotheosis of a Jewish Unrest-cure.
Having endured so many unkind readings, Roth the novelist responded by making the entire Zuckerman saga his own ordeal, the saga of the novelist's travail at suffering his critics. This might have been intolerable had Roth forgotten or lost his comic gift, the uniquely painful laughter that he specializes in provoking. Poor Nathan Zuckerman going from scrape to disaster induces hilarity in us even as we wince at the humiliations that we endure with him, since his wounded dignity becomes our own.
Whether Operation Shylock marks the ultimate replacement of Zuckerman by "Philip Roth," his successor in the new novel is a much livelier fellow than the author of Carnovsky. Compared to the authentic "Philip Roth" (not the impostor) of Operation Shylock, the Zuckerman of The Counterlife, The Anatomy Lesson, etc., was more passive and conventional. Women thrust themselves on the hapless Zuckerman. He is besieged by nearly everyone he encounters, and responds ineffectually. But "Philip Roth," in Operation Shylock, is far more aggressive. Moreover, by narrowing the gap between author and protagonist (though the gap is certainly, as it has to be, still there), Roth the novelist has been able to create his most vivid character: fiercely comic, exuberant, stubbornly reasonable and unreasonably stubborn, lucid in extremis, above all immensely curious, about others as well as about himself.
It is irrelevant to accuse a comic genius of self-centeredness, whether the specialist in the aesthetics of outrage is W. C. Fields or Roth. The humorist, in portraying himself, gives us an exemplary figure, the person whose stance says: "We are here to be insulted." To that extent, Operation Shylock's "Philip Roth" is a descendant of the greatest of fictive humorists, Sir John Falstaff, who is there to be insulted and to return more, and more wittily than he receives. More than any other figure in literature, Falstaff is so intelligent a comedian that even his throwaway lines compel us to deep, prolonged meditation. So, too, Roth's new novel offers perspectives that are intensely serious.
Still, he has not written Operation Falstaff, but Operation Shylock, and the Jewish image, as always, remains his central concern. One of the throwaway phrases in The Counterlife is "Jews, who are to history what Eskimos are to snow." Roth's perspective has always been that of the endless blizzards of Jewish history. Portnoy's Complaint remains wonderfully funny on rereading, and is anything but a period piece. What is transparent is that book's willing and positive Jewishness; as much as Patrimony (1991), an account of his father's long dying, it is also a testament to the painful love for one's parents. The sorrows and absurdities of love—familial, personal, or for a people—have been Roth's true subject ever since. We do not expect a fierce satirist of Jewish life to be motivated by love for his targets, but that seems to me the innermost meaning of Roth's new novel.
In its first sentence Operation Shylock thrusts us into the midst of things, with a reference, dated January 1988, to the Jerusalem trial of John Demjanjuk, alleged by the Israeli prosecution to be the notorious Ivan the Terrible, the vicious guard of the Treblinka death camp. The pathos of the State of Israel, its salient feature to many Jews of the Diaspora, is certainly present in this novel, with its reminders of Holocaust horrors. But equally present are the harsh equivocations that seem to some necessary for the survival of the state, at least in its present boundaries. The hypocrisies and brutalities of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians emerge with frightening vividness in Operation Shylock, which nevertheless balances the hypocrisies and brutalities with a sense of the Israelis' desperation for survival. What emerges from Roth's novel is the terrible paradox that Israel is no escape from the burdens of the Diaspora.
Roth begins his "confession" (the book's subtitle) with the shock at being told of "the other Philip Roth" who is in Jerusalem to mount a crusade promoting "Diasporism: The Only Solution to the Jewish Problem." Rather than madden both myself and the readers of this review, I refer to the author of Operation Shylock as Roth, the central character in the novel as "Philip Roth," and the impostor as Moishe Pipik, the name assigned to him by "Philip Roth" in the book.
Moishe Pipik (Moses Bellybutton) is the eternal Yiddish little shot wishing to be a big shot. A rather shady private detective, Pipik longs for the worldly success of the author of Portnoy's Complaint and its successors. Unable to emulate his hero as a writer, the impostor chooses outrageous action. Pipik, in "Philip Roth's name, has secured an appointment with Lech Walesa, and has sold the Polish leader on his plan to persuade hordes of Jews voluntarily to return to Poland, traditional paradise for Jews! But even that is only a particle of Pipik's mad design. He is also the founder of Anti-Semites Anonymous, an organization which, like its model, urges its potential members to abstain from their addiction, while simultaneously recognizing that they are incurable.
Pipik is "Philip Roth"'s antithetical shadow: he looks like his original, dresses like him, has studied every mannerism, researched minutely the writer's childhood history. Uncanny as this is, it is persuasive, if only because "Philip Roth" frequently confides in us his worries that he is still in a state of Halcion-induced nervous breakdown. The theme of the double, which Poe handled without humor in "William Wilson," Roth treats both as Kafkan hallucination and as an American-Jewish comedy, set in Jerusalem during the hallucinatory trial of the supposed Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka.
What fascinates about Operation Shylock is the degree of the author's experimentation in shifting the boundaries between his life and his work. It may even be that Roth has succeeded in inventing a new kind of disciplined bewilderment for the reader, since it becomes difficult to hold in one's head at every moment all of the permutations of the Rothian persona.
One sees now that the crossing-point in Roth's career was The Counterlife, in which Zuckerman, the novelist, and his brother, who has fled his American family to settle in Israel, turn upon each other in a debate over whose life it was anyway, and who was stealing the other's identity. Whether or not Roth decides to bind his last four books together, they clearly are a tetralogy in which the novelist presents himself, along with his antithetical double or shadow self, as two opposing natures implacably set against each other. The Facts (1988), an ostensible autobiography centering upon Roth's education as a novelist, annoyed me when it first came out. It seemed to be what Roth's harshest critics consider his work to be: too clever, self-obsessed, a narcissistic reverie, but after Operation Shylock, I see that I misread it.
In its final section, The Facts explodes into a protest by Nathan Zuckerman against his author. Roth gets nearly five times the space for his narrative that Zuckerman gets for a reply, yet the fictional character's thirty-five pages are the most memorable in the book, since Zuckerman may not match Roth in intellect, but overdoes him as a rhetorician of outrage. This outrage is a direct expression of his fear that he may cease to exist if his portrayer turns to explicit autobiography. Urging against publication of The Facts, Zuckerman points to an apparent weakness in Roth's work that Operation Shylock has, I believe, transcended:
As for characterization, you, Roth, are the least completely rendered of all your protagonists. Your gift is not to personalize your experience but to personify it, to embody it in the representation of a person who is not yourself. You are not an autobiographer, you're a personificator…. My guess is that you've written metamorphoses of yourself so many times, you no longer have any idea what you are or ever were. By now what you are is a walking text.
That last sentence spoken by character to author is nervy enough, but all of Zuckerman's letter seethes with the anxiety of a walking text that is about to be replaced; it is a fierce plea that cries out: Don't kill me!
The "Philip Roth" of Operation Shylock happily turns out to resemble Roth less than Zuckerman did. Indeed, "Philip Roth" is, I think, Roth's most vivid character, surpassing Portnoy, Tarnopol, the protagonist in My Life as a Man, Kepesh, who is the professor in The Professor of Desire, and the long-suffering and charmingly manic Zuckerman. I suspect that much of the reason for this is the presence of Moishe Pipik, the double, the not-so-secret sharer. With Pipik to fend off, "Philip Roth" is given a target, and thus the scope to become the fullest of Roth's characters in the variety of his sympathies. The initial pleasures a reader will take in this book will be its narrative exuberance, moral intelligence, and the high humor manifested throughout. But the most vivid impression, after several rereadings, is of the voice of "Philip Roth."
Moishe Pipik, the double, has a remote ancestor in Alvin Pepler, the discredited TV quiz-kid who plagued the hero of Zuckerman Unbound by alternately praising and attacking him as the celebrated author of Carnovsky. In Pipik, Roth deliberately creates a more Dostoevskian double, at once in love with the idea of "Philip Roth," and helpless to cease his persecution of the writer. Pipik is a zealot, a terminal cancer patient in remission, and something of an idealistic thug. Both of his mad crusades, "Diasporism" and "Anti-Semites Anonymous," are animated by nightmare intimations of a ghastly double scenario: an all-out attack upon Israel by the entire Muslim world, and the inevitable reaction of the Israeli Doomsday Machine, its extensive nuclear arsenal.
Hovering behind Pipik is, of course, the shadow of Jonathan Pollard, the American Jew who spied for Israeli intelligence. But in the tangles of Roth's plot, it is not Pipik who is a Mossad agent, as might be suspected. It is "Philip Roth" who performs that role, in the Mossad's "Operation Shylock," whose purpose is to search out supposed secret American-Jewish financial backers of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Diasporism is Roth's pretext for the operation, and it spurs "Philip Roth" to manic impersonations of Pipik, which invariably improve upon the fantasies of the double who is being redoubled:
No, I didn't stop for a very long time. On and on and on, obeying an impulse I did nothing to quash, ostentatiously free of uncertainty and without a trace of conscience to rein in my raving. I was telling them about the meeting of the World Diasporist Congress to take place in December, fittingly enough in Basel, the site of the first World Zionist Congress just ninety years ago. At that first Zionist Congress there had been only a couple of hundred delegates—my goal was to have twice that many, Jewish delegations from every European country where the Israeli Ashkenazis would soon resume the European Jewish life that Hitler had all but extinguished. Walesa, I told them, had already agreed to appear as keynote speaker or to send his wife in his behalf if he concluded that he could not safely leave Poland. I was talking about the Armenians, suddenly, about whom I knew nothing. "Did the Armenians suffer because they were in a Diaspora? No, because they were at home and the Turks moved in and massacred them there." I heard myself next praising the greatest Diasporist of all, the father of the new Diasporist movement, Irving Berlin. "People ask where I got the idea. Well, I got it listening to the radio. The radio was playing 'Easter Parade' and I thought, But this is Jewish genius on a par with the Ten Commandments. God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave to Irving Berlin 'Easter Parade' and 'White Christmas.' The two holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ—the divinity that's the very heart of the Jewish rejection of Christinity—and what does Irving Berlin brilliantly do? He de-Christs them both! Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow. Gone is the gore and the murder of Christ—down with the crucifix and up with the bonnet! He turns their religion into schlock. But nicely! Nicely! So nicely the goyim don't even know what hit 'em. They love it. Everybody loves it. The Jews especially. Jews loathe Jesus. People always tell me Jesus is Jewish. I never believe them. It's like when people used to tell me Cary Grant was Jewish. Bullshit. Jews don't want to hear about Jesus. And can you blame them? So—Bing Crosby replaces Jesus as the beloved Son of God, and the Jews, the Jews, go around whistling about Easter! And is that so disgraceful a means of defusing the enmity of centuries? Is anyone really dishonored by this? If schlockified Christianity is Christianity cleansed of Jew hatred, then three cheers for schlock. If supplanting Jesus Christ with snow can enable my people to cozy up to Christmas, then let it snow, let it snow, let it snow."
Here the voices of Roth and of "Philip Roth" fuse together. The irony cuts every which way, both celebrating and eviscerating the America of schlock, Gentile and Jewish. When this mock-tirade reaches its apotheosis, there is something to offend nearly everyone, particularly Jews. "Better Irving Berlin than Ariel Sharon. Better Irving Berlin than the Wailing Wall. Better Irving Berlin than Holy Jerusalem! What does owning Jerusalem, of all places, have to do with being Jews in 1988?" This perhaps is "Philip Roth" disengaging from Roth, while surpassing Moishe Pipik in a Diasporism even more extreme than his.
Roth's comic art in Operation Shylock is an aesthetic leap beyond the complexities of The Counterlife in projecting alternate, shifting realities. What are the limits of Roth's assault on the imagination in Operation Shylock? One even begins to wonder whose photograph frowns at us on the dust jacket. Is it Roth or Moishe Pipik or "Philip Roth"? There is not an iota of difference in the quality of portraiture, in the novel, between Roth's friend, the Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld, and Appelfeld's foil or double, the Holocaust survivor, "Philip Roth"'s cousin Apter. Yet while Appelfeld is a real person and Apter is only a convincing fiction, Apter is in Roth's pages as strong a presence as Appelfeld. Operation Shylock ends with a "Note to the Reader" whose final sentence is: "this confession is false," but we are left uncertain just how false it is.
Both Moishe Pipik and "Philip Roth" are preoccupied with the still undecided case of Ivan the Terrible's true identity, itself a reflection of thematic doubling carried over into terrible reality. Roth in his mock preface speaks of "agreeing to undertake an intelligence-gathering operation for Israel's foreign intelligence service, the Mossad," clearly part of the fiction, but shifts abruptly to fact, to the case of John Demjanjuk who has been confused with Ivan Marchenko, the likely real Ivan the Terrible of the Treblinka death camp. Yet Roth adds the further detail: Demjanjuk continues to maintain his total innocence, even though German federal archives prove that he was in fact a guard at the Sobibor concentration camp. However the Marchenko/Demjanjuk case pending before the Israeli Supreme Court is decided, Roth here reinforces his theme of the ambivalence of guilt, even as he also selectively records the events of the Demjanjuk trial, and something of its impact upon Israel.
Moishe Pipik is a somewhat shadowy character, whose lifelong compulsion to become Philip Roth is not adequately explained. Doubles and secret-sharers vex all novelists and story-writers, if only because their quests necessarily involve either forsaking their own identities or an initial, perhaps preternatural, lack of any identity whatever. Pipik is something of the self-hating Jew or Jewish anti-Semite that Roth himself was accused of being in the bad old days. The other founding member of Pipik's Anti-Semites Anonymous is his girlfriend and nurse, a Polish-American enchantress named "Jinx" Possesski. As with Saul Bellow's female characters, Roth's tend not to be very convincing, and Jinx alas is no exception.
Indeed, the most successful characterizations in the novel, after that of the outraged and outrageous "Philip Roth," are not of his double and the double's girlfriend, but of the Palestinian and Israeli antagonists, emblematically presented as George Ziad, "Philip Roth"'s old friend from the University of Chicago Graduate School, and the Mossad officer Smilesburger. Ziad, who is evidently connected with the Palestine Liberation Organization, has an eloquence in his anti-Israeli harangues that rivals even as it satirizes much that I have read by champions of the Palestinian cause:
These victorious Jews are terrible people. I don't just mean the Kahanes and the Sharons. I mean them all, the Yehoshuas and the Ozes included. The good ones who are against the occupation of the West Bank but not against the occupation of my father's house, the "beautiful Israelis" who want their Zionist thievery and their clean conscience too. They are no less superior than the rest of them—these beautiful Israelis are even more superior…. Who do they think they are, these provincial nobodies! Jailers! This is their great Jewish achievement—to make Jews into jailers and jetbomber pilots! And just suppose they were to succeed, suppose they were to win and have their way and every Arab in Nablus and every Arab in Hebron and every Arab in the Galilee and in Gaza, suppose every Arab in the world, were to disappear courtesy of the Jewish nuclear bomb, what would they have here fifty years from now? A noisy little state of no importance whatsoever. That's what the persecution and the destruction of the Palestinians will have been for—the creation of a Jewish Belgium, without even a Brussels to show for it.
Ziad, driven to the verge of breakdown by Israeli oppression, is without parallel in Roth's earlier work. For the first time, we are given a character who suffers outrageous treatment but who is not Roth's surrogate. Ziad's passion, his extraordinary command of irony, go beyond Portnoy's and Zuckerman's in their more domestic and self-deceived struggles for survival. Except for "Philip Roth," Ziad is Operation Shylock's most sympathetic character, more so than the ambiguous Smilesburger, who preaches against strife and slander between Jews, but is also a relentless representative of the Mossad. Smilesburger, although he is a humane and lucid critic of Jewish self-hatred, Jewish self-love, and Jewish feuding, and is keenly aware of Israeli injustice toward the Palestinians, is not in the least inhibited by the sufferings of his victims.
The contrast between Ziad and Smilesburger grants the Arab the pathos and the Israeli a subtle combination of pragmatic ruthlessness and wasted wisdom. Yet Roth is again exploiting the thematic ambivalence that governs his book, since the reader surmises that there is another doubling here. Ziad and Smilesburger, PLO and Mossad, are caught in the dialectic of becoming what each beholds in the other. Smilesburger becomes more passionately inclined to outflank the Palestinians, and Ziad is trapped in fantasies of violent revenge. Neither can attain an unambivalent understanding of the other's dilemma.
The epigraphs to Operation Shylock are from the Yahwist or J writer, the first authors in the Hebrew Bible, and from Kierkegaard, the two great ironic masters of primal ambivalence. "So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak." I read that "man" as the Angel of Death, who represents the possible fate that Jacob fears to confront at the hands of his vengeful brother, Esau. Perhaps Pipik after all is an Esau, and precisely such a threat for Philip Roth. "The whole content of my being shrieks in contradiction against itself," writes Kierkegaard, who adds: "Existence is surely a debate." "Against itself" is Roth's reading of his own nature, of his art, and of life.
Shylock is introduced into the novel by David Supposnik, Tel Aviv rare book dealer and possible Shin Bet (Internal Security) agent. Supposnik, like Aharon Appelfeld a Holocaust survivor, associates "this modern trial of the Jew, this trial which never ends,… with the trial of Shylock." Roth employs Supposnik to cast aside Romantic and modern emphases on the supposed pathos of Shylock, and thus to return us to the stage Jew's "overwhelming Shakespearean reality, a terrifying Shakespearean aliveness." As Supposnik accurately says, because of Shylock: "the savage, repellent, and villainous Jew, deformed by hatred and revenge, entered as our doppelgänger into the consciousness of the enlightened West."
As the ultimate Jew, Shylock has caused immeasurable harm. It is refreshing to hear Supposnik's repudiation of nineteenth- and twentieth-century sentimentalizing of Shakespeare's farcical villain:
The Victorian conception of Shylock, however—Shylock as a wronged Jew rightfully vengeful—the portrayal that descends through the Keans to Irving and into our century, is a vulgar sentimental offense not only against the genuine abhorrence of the Jew that animated Shakespeare and his era but to the long illustrious chronicle of European Jew-baiting. The hateful, hateable Jew whose artistic roots extend back to the Crucifixion pageants at York, whose endurance as the villain of history no less than of drama is unparalleled, the hook-nosed money-lender, the miserly, money-maddened, egotistical degenerate, the Jew who goes to synagogue to plan the murder of the virtuous Christian—this is Europe's Jew, the Jew expelled in 1290 by the English, the Jew banished in 1492 by the Spanish, the Jew terrorized by Poles, butchered by Russians, incinerated by Germans, spurned by the British and the Americans while the furnaces roared at Treblinka. The vile Victorian varnish that sought to humanize the Jew, to dignify the Jew, has never deceived the enlightened European mind about the three thousand ducats, never has and never will.
Is there a more memorable Jewish character in all of Western literature than Shylock? As a critic, not a novelist, I myself am unhappy at confessing that I do not know a stronger Jewish character than Shakespeare's anti-Semitic creation, who has an existence as convincing as Hamlet or Iago even though compared to Hamlet or Iago he speaks only very few lines. It is worth noting that when the virtuous Antonio, generous Christian, proves the authenticity of his piety by spitting and cursing at the Jew, and when he suggests that Shylock be compelled to convert to the true faith, or else face execution, this was Shakespeare's own quite gratuitous invention, and had no previous part in the pound-of-flesh tradition. The play, honestly interpreted and responsibly performed, as it was not in the recent Broadway production with Dustin Hoffman, would no longer be acceptable on a stage in New York City, for it is an anti-Semitic masterpiece, unmatched in its kind.
The strongest of all writers gave us a portrait never quite to be erased, however stage history and critical revisionism have labored to undo it during the last two centuries. Of all American-Jewish writers, Roth seems to know this best. Shylock, Roth intimates, is every Jew's dreaded double. Supposnik's shrewd and bitter tirade is the prelude to "Operation Shylock" proper, the mission upon which Philip Roth will embark on behalf of his Mossad handler who has taken the code-name of Smilesburger, and which brings the novel to its conclusion. The supposed Mossad operation, whose purpose is to unmask hidden Jewish supporters of the PLO, is clearly a fantastic invention, and Roth has "Philip Roth" refuse us any account of the procedure and details of the mission. The explicit justification given is that "Philip Roth" Mossad handlers have insisted on the omission "for security reasons," and the command is followed by the amateur agent.
But the fictive mission that "Philip Roth" undertakes, to Athens and to another, unnamed, city, is also a response to the potent myth of Shylock. For "Philip Roth" secret sharer is not the wretched Moishe Pipik (who is certainly an anti-Semite, and perhaps not Jewish); it is Shylock. "Philip Roth" says he cannot "name for himself what … was impinging on this decision." Was I, he asks, "succumbing … to a basic law of my existence, to the instinct for impersonations which I had so far enacted solely within the realm of fiction"? Yet by accepting Smilesburger's proposal, he leaves the reader free, I think, to decide that, for him, it may also be a mission against Jewish self-hatred, just as it is for Smilesburger.
At sixty, and with twenty books published, Roth in Operation Shylock confirms the gifts of comic invention and moral intelligence that he has brought to American prose fiction since 1959. A superb prose stylist, particularly skilled in dialogue, he now has developed the ability to absorb recalcitrant public materials into what earlier seemed personal obsessions. And though his context tends to remain stubbornly Jewish, he has developed fresh ways of opening out universal perspectives from Jewish dilemmas, whether they are American, Israeli, or European. The "Philip Roth" of Operation Shylock is very Jewish, and yet his misadventures could be those of any fictional character who has to battle for his identity against an impostor who has usurped it. That wrestling match, to win back one's own name, is a marvelous metaphor for Roth's struggle as a novelist, particularly in his later books, Zuckerman Bound, The Counterlife, and the quasi-tetralogy culminating in Operation Shylock, which form a coherent succession of works difficult to match in recent American writing.
At the book's midpoint, "Philip Roth" says to Pipik, "You could have established a chapter of A-SA right in Vatican City. Meetings in the basement of St. Peter's Church. Full house every night. 'My name is Eugenio Pacelli. I'm a recovering anti-Semite.' Pipik, who sent you to me in my hour of need? Who made me this wonderful gift? Know what Heine liked to say? There is God, and his name is Aristophanes." That is Roth's comic Gospel, too. Operation Shylock answer to Shakespeare's Shylock is Aristophanes, whose mode of comedy—exuberant, outrageous, hallucinatory—has found in Roth a living master.
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 Operation Shylock in which Gray contends that the "social and historical range of Operation Shylock is broader than anything the author has attempted before."
Halkin, Hillel. "How to Read Philip Roth." Commentary 97, No. 2 (February 1994): 43-8.
Presents an overview of Roth's works and suggests that the key to interpreting Operation Shylock is related to Roth's habitual blending of truth and fiction.
Kakutani, Michiko. "Of a Roth Within a Roth Within a Roth." The New York Times (4 March 1993): C17, C23.
Remarks that although much of the self-absorbed "talk" by the characters in Operation Shylock is "brilliantly rendered … it throws the book off balance, undermining its ingenious but fragile plot."
Koenig, Rhoda. "Torah de Force?" New York 26, No. 10 (8 March 1993): 83-4.
Provides a mixed review of Operation Shylock. Koenig faults Roth for taking liberties with the lives of real people in the novel but argues that "Operation Shylock is a good deal more vigorous and absorbing than anything Roth has written for a long time."
Louvish, Simon. "Rothology." New Statesman and Society 6, No. 247 (9 April 1993): 57.
Questions the validity of the events Roth describes in Operation Shylock.
Rubin, Merle. "Ironies within Ironies." The Christian Science Monitor (29 April 1993): 11.
Describes Operation Shylock as "an ongoing argument that its author is having with himself" and comments on the question of the novel's factuality.
Thomas, D. M. "Face to Face with His Double." The New York Times Book Review (7 March 1993): 1, 20-1.
Favorable review in which Thomas compares Roth's use of the double in Operation Shylock to that of Alexander Pushkin in his "Egyptian Nights."
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 against Jewry, against wives and against women in general committed in the novels he wrote ten, twenty, thirty years ago. There will be references, veiled or otherwise, to Roth's personal life, to an insurance salesman father and an English actress wife, to a huge heart bypass operation and a beautiful old clap-board hideaway in Connecticut. You know it will be up to some sort of interplay between real life and fiction, author and persona, history and His story. It is as if all that is left for the great American novel to do is to offer up narrative gizmology as a serious contender to portable computer games.
Unlike most of Philip Roth's recent novels, Operation Shylock does not feature Nathan Zuckerman, the celebrity-writer persona Roth adopted for his fiction from The Ghost Writer (1979) to The Counterlife (1987). Instead, Operation Shylock stars Philip Roth. Only there are two of them. One is Roth the famous and universally admired writer who gets bothered in the streets all the time, who lives in a clapboard hideaway in Connecticut and has an English actress wife called Claire. The other also appears to have the name Philip Roth on his passport, and looks enough like Roth I easily to be mistaken for him. Roth II is an American Jew from Chicago who worked as a private detective until becoming ill with cancer, one symptom of which is that he is prone to delusions—which may make him an even more proficient fictionaliser than is his counterpart the professional writer.
Lured to Israel by the apparition of Roth II, Roth I becomes embroiled in a plot which eventually involves him committing himself to work as an undercover agent for Mossad. Although it is not apparent what exactly his mission is, it has something to do with meeting Yasser Arafat and something to do with a conspiracy of rich Jews which, Mossad believes, funds the Palestinian liberation struggle out of guilt. According to various prefaces and afterwords, this is all completely true. And according to various journalists who have colluded with Roth's publicity in writing about this book before publication, Roth in the flesh and several of Roth's friends have verified it. Thus, as often happens with US fiction (remember the rumours that Thomas Pynchon was really J.D. Salinger under another name?), attention is deflected away from the substantive matter of the novel, and onto various gee-whizz discussions of supposedly Post-Modernist authorial behaviour—the adult version of the Phew-It-Was-Only-A-Dream-Or-Was-It metaphysic beloved of primary-school children.
For once you get into it, however, Operation Shylock is a much more interesting book than it appears. For when Roth I, the big-shot Jewish-American writer, comes face to face with Roth II, the minor-league Jewish-American shnorrer, it turns out that Roth II has a really big idea up his sleeve, an idea he calls Diasporism. According to Diasporism, the nation-state of Israel is at best a historically expedient construct which has long outgrown its usefulness, at worst a foolish misinterpretation of what it really means to be a Jew and living in the world. Thus all Israelis of Ashkenazi origin are forthwith to be encouraged to return to their ancestral homes in Europe, the better to fulfil their Diasporist destinies. In this way, a greatly reduced Jewish settlement will cease to be a belligerent presence in Palestine. As Roth II keeps pointing out, everybody thought Theodor Herzl was completely mad too, when he convened the first Zionist Congress in 1897.
Roth II has already visited Lech Walesa to discuss his plans, and fully understands that residual anti-semitism in the old Jewish heartlands of Poland, Lithuania, Germany may be a bit of a stumbling block to the peaceful execution of this exodus. Thus he has also set up an organisation called Anti-Semites Anonymous, complete with a 12-point programme aimed at nipping hate-dependency in the bud. He travels with his companion, Jinx Possesski, a Polish-American oncology nurse who used to be a raving anti-semite until she learned to give her life over to a power greater than herself. And he simply adores Roth I because he sees him as a prime example of modern Judaism's best hope, 'a Jew for whom authenticity as a Jew means living in the Diaspora, for whom the Diaspora is the normal condition and Zionism is the abnormality'.
As with the Israeli episodes of The Counterlife, Operation Shylock is structured as a series of monologues and set-pieces delivered by diversely deranged voices, tenuously linked by the author figure's movements around a crudely sketched-in Middle East. As in The Counterlife, Roth's imagined Israel is a cross between the Purgatorio and a psychotic filmset. But the version of Israel in Operation Shylock is a deeper and darker hellhole even than that of The Counterlife, for two main reasons. One, Roth's ostensible reason for being there is to watch Ivan Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian-American car-worker from Cleveland, being tried for war crimes he will have committed if he is proved to have been Ivan the Terrible, the notorious execution-chamber guard of Treblinka. And two, this is the Israel of 1988, the year of its 40th birthday celebrations, and of the brutal suppression of the Intifada.
Some of Shylock's satirical monologues are souped-up versions of themes Roth has often tackled before. There is Jinx Possesski telling of her past life as a born-again Christian, 'the fucked-up shiksa story, from the Scheherazade of fucked-up shiksas'. There is a phenomenally sly anti-semitic drone masking as a therapy tape from ASA:
Look at Philip Roth, for God's sake. A real ugly buggy. A real asshole…. Now he's coming back into the Jewish fold again because he wants to win the Nobel Prize … Roth. Roth is just a fuckin' masturbator, a wanker, man, in the john, whackin' off.
There is a disquisition on Shylock himself. There is a long salt-cod-rabbinical ramble, as told by a Mossad agent, on why Jews must never commit loshon hora—viz. the telling of cruel stories against themselves.
Much of the material Roth has gathered into the Shylock bundle, however, is nothing short of stunning: fiction fulfilling one of its most honourable roles as a series of thought-experiments, giving voice to tangled, emotionally overdetermined ideas and theories that somebody somewhere is bound to be thinking anyway, and which are safer tried out in a novel than unleashed in their inchoate form on the world outside. There is Roth II on Diasporism, a piece of writing which has to be savoured carefully to be believed. There is an extraordinary tract on Jewish self-hatred as delivered by George Ziad, a wealthy Palestinian who has been driven to espouse the Diasporist cause after years spent watching his people being mowed down by Israeli batons and bullets: the unassuageable guilt of the American émigrés who inadvertently abandoned their poor old parents to Hitler; the utopian folly of the aliyah people who abandoned their ancestral Yiddish to found the modern Hebrew state. There is Roth himself on the greatest modern prophet of Diasporism, Irving Berlin: 'God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, and then He gave to Irving Berlin "Easter Parade" and "White Christmas". The two holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ … and he turns their religion into schlock! But nicely! Nicely! So nicely the goyim don't even know what hit 'em!'
Whether or not these monologues eventually add up to more than the sum of their parts is debatable. For as usual they come embedded in page after page of stuff about writers and writing, tellers and tales, and other boring things like the customary hanky-panky with the fucked-up shiksa. It might be nice if Roth could try for once to do without all this Po-Mo business, but as it was his generation's discovery you can perhaps excuse him for having such an attachment to it. And the same goes for the Lego version of Bakhtinian polyphony by which he manages to write so much and so fiercely about burningly real political issues without ever taking an actual position on anything. Although of course it's Roth's prerogative as author of this novel to keep for himself a cosy little sinecure as the good guy, the fall guy, the one sane consciousness in a landscape littered with clapped-out crazies.
Is Philip Roth telling the truth when he claims already to have been co-opted as an undercover agent of the Zionist state? I would imagine not, and find myself cringing with sympathetic embarrassment at the thought of Roth, sixty-year-old two times winner of the US National Book Award, phoning up journalists, as it seems he really did to the Independent's Mark Lawson, and speaking to them in funny voices. But then again, Roth would not be Roth if he were not clearly a man who knows the value of a gimmick when he sees one.
There are, however, several issues to be discussed around the theme of Roth and his mania for appearing to his audience in his various funny masks. But they are not the ones that people usually get excited about. According to one school of thought, as recently expounded by Mark Lawson, Roth is a gifted comic writer who has self-defeatingly limited the potential scope of his work by abandoning real life to write about celebrity-writer shenanigans, whether under cover of the Nathan Zuckerman persona or that of Roths I and II. Why, Lawson asked, could Roth not have followed John Updike in writing real novels like the Rabbit books, featuring a real fellow like Harry Angstrom? 'So if I'd made Zuckerman a Toyota dealer in Pennsylvania I'd've got away with it?' Roth replies. 'I think John is playing a what-if game. Suppose he had stayed in central Pennsylvania, what kind of life would he have had? So, in the Zuckerman books, I said, what if I were a writer …?' Well, exactly, and nice of him to put it so politely.
Roth is not a writer who invents marvellously autonomous little fictional constructs which go on to interact with each other in a drama in which the author pretends to have no part. He is a writer who lets his personality sprawl openly across, through and around his every sentence: a rare gift, and one which, used wisely, can excuse many lapses into bravura and self-indulgence. This is not of course to say that Roth is necessarily any more 'honest' a writer than are those who choose to build tighter, more deliberately metaphorical fictions, only that he is working on a different plane of illusion. However, within even the world of recent Jewish-American letters, it is interesting to compare the impact of Roth's work with that of his polar opposite, Bernard Malamud. Nobody could accuse Malamud's tight and perfect fables of anything in the slightest bit crude or vulgar or self-advertising. Roth himself admitted as much in The Ghost Writer, whose metahero, the saintly E. L. Lonoff, was read by most readers as a projection of Malamud-envy.
With hindsight and changing times, however, it becomes difficult to look at the cut-off self-enclosed worlds of Malamud's tales and see much going on other than a rather precious sort of Jewish-American kitsch. But Roth, even in his most slapdash and disappointing books, has the intimacy to reach a reader's heart, the force to bounce around and about the world outside the text. Roth, in other words, has voice. And Roth being Roth, he has defined this quality perfectly himself, as 'something that begins around the back of the knees and reaches well above the head'—the very words used by the noble Lonoff to encourage a neurotic young novelist in The Ghost Writer, the first of Philip Roth's famous Zuckerman books.
Everybody who reads Roth's work has something to say about the vexed Roth-Zuckerman relationship. But it isn't clear why everyone feels the need to make such a big deal of it. Pretty well all writers use personae of one sort or another; pretty well all fictional centres of consciousness represent their author's experience in some transformation or another. Imagine Kafka being invaded in Jewish Writers' Heaven by journalists wanting to know why he called his hero K in not one but two novels, and whether or not he had ever really turned into a giant insect! Writers use personae in order to access aspects of their minds unavailable to them except by underhand means. Whatever the subterfuge, it is used to outwit the policemen of the unconscious, and not to pull the wool over trusting readers' eyes.
There is no great mystery to Nathan Zuckerman. His usefulness and significance stare readers in the face. He is the device which has allowed Philip Roth, the self-hating Jewish-American assimilationist who can never take anything seriously, to dig deep into the ramifications of the Jewish experience yawning out in all directions beyond his Forties boyhood hometown of Newark, New Jersey. The first Zuckerman book, The Ghost Writer, allowed Roth to meet up with the archetypally irreproachable Jewish writer he in some ways seems to wish he was, the Malamud-Bashevis Singer cross that he called E. L. Lonoff. And The Ghost Writer also saw Roth first come face to face in fiction with the European Holocaust. It was the Zuckerman mask again that gave Roth the courage to take on contemporary Israel in The Counterlife, a novel which, like Operation Shylock, goes crashing around the country—an ideological bull in a china shop.
Under the fairly transparent cover of his various fictional masks. Philip Roth is doing one of the most ordinary things a person can ever do as he reaches maturity. He is digging deep into his ancestral fold. Moreover, he is doing it with the urgency of a man who, as he never ceases reminding us, has recently experienced two nasty brushes with his own mortality: when he underwent quintuple heart bypass surgery in 1989, as described in the memoir he wrote about his father, Patrimony (1991); and, as terrifyingly delineated in the opening chapter of Operation Shylock, in 1987, when a routine course of the now notorious soporific Halcion threw him headlong into a suicidal depression. Some readers seem to think it funny that Roth spends so much time telling them intimate things about his personal life. But really, the only joke is that a writer who spends most of his time showing himself to be just as attached as is the next guy to his parents, his brother Sandy, his English actress wife, his culture, his body, is treated like some sort of weirdo just because he likes to liven up his anecdotes with a bit of psychosexual hanky-panky and a few unexceptionally skilful authorial pranks.
Philip Roth is an artist whose imagination is inspired and structured by his sense of his own family history. He has never pretended to be anything other than a bright and ambitious lower-middle-class boy of Galician origin born in 1933 in Newark, New Jersey, and at bottom that is what he remains. The problem which motivates his fiction, however, is that it is not easy these days for liberal Diaspora Jews to figure out where exactly their ancestral fold belongs. Back in southern Poland, perhaps, in a nice little condo within easy reach of the Auschwitz railway junction. In a suburb of the new Jerusalem, seized from Egypt in 1967 and kept out of Arab hands only by force? In one of the Jewish retirement enclaves in Florida or someplace, where a sense of communal identity can be kept up only by clinging to an ill-remembered past? The urgency that is driving Roth to return in his writing to the Jewish past, and via Diasporism, to searching for a good sense of potential Jewish futures, is not only personal, but one of explosive political import.
Within a few decades, the Nazi Holocaust will have passed out of living memory. If the world were ever to have been able to wrest some sort of a positive from its experience and memory, there is ample evidence around that the opportunity has been missed. Headline-grabbing comparisons of Serbs to Nazis, or of Israel to the Final Solution, suggest only that some journalists will stop at nothing to make cheap thrills out of mass brutality while everybody else continues to do nothing. In the cultural sphere, writers of the post-war generation are starting to mess around with the image and memory of the Holocaust in a cavalier fashion that would have been unimaginable ten or twenty years ago: Martin Amis in Time's Arrow, D. M. Thomas in his recent Pictures from an Exhibition, the now banned British comic book, Lord Horror. In the States, businessmen are busily attempting to buy up bits of the Polish concentration camps in order to open Holocaust theme-parks.
Nobody, least of all Philip Roth himself, would pretend that Philip Roth, either I or II, has got to grips with the full dimension and scope even of the problems facing the Jewish people across the world towards the end of the 20th century, let alone any realistic solutions. Nobody, least of all Philip Roth himself, would ever expect him to: one of his most likeable qualities as a leading great American novelist across the years has been a calm and lucid refusal ever to make overblown claims as to what imaginative writing can be expected to do. Roth has never been particularly hot on practical politics, but in a way that is all to the good for his writing. It makes him stick with the stuff he really knows. However, as a quick glance through the essays and talks collected in Reading Myself and Others (1975, expanded 1985) will show, this is not to say that Roth is exactly an ivory-tower type mouthing off into hyperspace. For an anti-semitic self-hating rebel, jumped-up intellectual and shiksa-chaser, he appears to have been doing rather a lot of talks for Jewish community organisations, like the B'nai B'nth Anti-Defamation League, and he appears, moreover, to have been doing this sort of thing long before thoughts of heart attacks or the Nobel Prize could have sent him skittering back to the ancestral fold.
Philip Roth remains at bottom a deeply domestic novelist. He is uncomfortable in the savage arena that is Israel, and in great measure this explains the lapses and longeurs which bring Operation Shylock several times close to banality and boredom. That he has taken this risk suggests that he has taken on board the fact that to talk about a future, or even of a present, for the sort of comic Diaspora culture he most enjoys involves a confrontation with the fact of Israel. It is the fiction writer's prerogative that he can pretend to have discussed things which in real life remain almost entirely unaddressed.