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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, 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, which 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.

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