Philip Roth: The Prague Orgy

The Prague Orgy
by Philip Roth (1985)
Vintage (1996)
86 pp

For the first time after reading one of Roth’s Zuckerman book, I don’t feel the uncontrollable urge to read the next one straight away. But wait! That’s not because The Prague Orgy tainted the aura or turned me off at all. On the contrary, I feel like this book was the perfect conclusion — or, rather, the perfect coda — to the previous three books: The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, and The Anatomy Lesson (my thoughts here, here, and here). Even though it turned out to be a bit clumsy, it makes sense that Vintage put these four books together in one volume: Zuckerman Bound, a trilogy and epilogue. Together these books say profound things about literature and how literature seeps into everything — the author, the readers, the culture. Of course, I will still read Exit Ghost soon enough.

This Zuckerman book is stylistically different from the previous three. It is composed of a few days in Zuckerman’s notebook, in the first person. Also, it is quite a bit shorter at only 86 pages. These differences, however, don’t unbalance the series. Rather, these differences set up the shift in perspective that The Prague Orgy effects. This book is still concerned with writing and authorship and how it all affects society, but here the society is very very different, taking place in communist Prague.

The book begins with a short journal entry from New York City where Zuckerman is visited by two exiled artists from Prague: a writer, Zdenek Sisovsky, and his actress girlfriend, Eva. These two discuss how talented Zuckerman is, but underneath it all they express envy that he lives in a culture where he can express his art. In a way, despite his knowledge and his own demons, Zuckerman is still naïve about what literature can do to a society and to a person. Both Zdenek and Eva have a compelling history in which a communist regime has flattened their ability to speak through art, precisely because this regime knows of its true power. Eva provides a clever tie back to The Ghost Writer because she once played, to great acclaim, Anne Frank on stage in Prague. But recently her role, because of its associations, has served only to ostracize her from her own community.

“My dear Mr. Vice-Minister, my family was being persecuted as Protestants in Bohemia in the sixteenth century.” But this does not stop him — he knows this already. He says to her, “Tell me — why did you play the role of the Jewess Anne Frank on the stage when you were only nineteen years old?”

In exile now, it is not likely she will ever be able to act again, at least not with the kind of showcase she had. This also ties back to Zuckerman’s own plight which was the subject of the first three books.

“But everybody understands,” Eva explains to him, “. . . these are only roles. If half the country thinks I’m a Jew, that does not make it so.”

I got the sense, though, that Roth was showing another extreme here. What happened to Zuckerman during his development as a writer was important and deeply profound; however, what happened to him, though similar to what happened to Eva, happened for different reasons and on different scales.

Zdenek’s story serves as the impetus for the rest of the short novel. His father was killed when the Nazis occupied Prague. But before he was killed, he was a prolific writer in Yiddish, even though none of this work was published. This part reminded me of what I’ve recently learned about Imre Kertész, who never got any notice in his native Hungary when it was under a communist regime.

Even if he had published all two hundred of them, no one would have paid attention — not to that subject. But in America my father would have been a celebrated writer.

(not that Kertész has gotten a lot of notice in America . . . yet.)

Zuckerman is deeply interested in Zdenek’s dead father’s work, and he wants to go to Prague to retrieve the manuscripts so they can be published in America. The manuscript is being held by Zdenek’s disgruntled ex-wife in Prague. So there Zuckerman goes. In Prague, Zuckerman uncovers a different world where literature’s incredible power is ironically recognized — and therefore quashed.

I imagine Styron washing glasses in a Penn Station barroom, Susan Sontag wrapping buns at a Broadway bakery, Gore Vidal bicycling salamis to school lunchrooms in Queens — I look at the filthy floor and see myself sweeping it.

Someone stares at me from a nearby table while I continue sizing up the floor and with it the unforeseen consequences of art. I am remembering the actress Eva Kalinova and how they have used Anne Frank as a whip to driver her from the stage, how the ghost of the Jewish saint has returned to haunt her as a demon. Anne Frank as a curse and a stigma! No, there’s nothing that can’t be done to a book, no cause in which even the most innocent of all books cannot be enlisted, no only by them, but by you and me.

It would seem Zuckerman is doing literature a favor by getting the manuscript out. Indeed, Zuckerman’s motives seem pure, at first. In fact, because his motives are so high and noble, he does not fully concern himself with the strange artists (Zdenek’s wife among them) who talk and talk and talk but who don’t write. But what are his true motives? Is he really doing Zdenek’s father a favor? Is he advancing literature? Surprisingly substantial, this short coda to Zuckerman’s first three books is incredible how it recasts the whole series in a new light — as if it weren’t already intricately twisting and turning!

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