Operation Roth

Operation Shylock: A Confession

by Philip Roth
Simon and Schuster, 398 pp., $23.00

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 …

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