Operation Shylock
by Philip Roth (1993)
Vintage (1994)
400 pp

Since finishing Roth’s Zuckerman books and the Nemeses tetralogy, I have found myself unsure what Roth to read next. I had heard great things about his PEN/Faulkner winning Operation Shylock, written at the height of Roth’s experiments with literary doppelgängers. Sure, Roth had been playing with the relationship between an author and his work and had introduced a few literary doubles, but The Counterlife introduced a whole new level, having Nathan Zuckerman’s fragmented and contradictory account reflect the multiple ideas and even personalities of the author. Operation Shylock ups the ante and, so far as I know having read a majority of Roth’s works but still missing some, is Roth’s most stylistic and structurally radical look into the murky boundary between author and subject. Which isn’t to say it is my favorite.

Well, before we get into why this book wasn’t my favorite (far from it, actually), let’s start by looking at how smitten I was by the book’s first half, which is certainly up there with my favorites. In fact, I’ll spend most of this review relating the structure and ideas presented in the first bit because the book’s opening is brilliant.

The central character in Operation Shylock is named Philip Roth (when referring to this character, I’ll call him simply Roth and I’ll call the author Philip Roth). Before the text begins, Philip Roth writes, “For legal reasons, I have had to alter a number of facts in this books.” Or is it Roth who wrote that (remember, I’m calling the now-78-year-old author Philip Roth and the book’s central character merely Roth). From the outset, the line between Philip Roth and Roth is not just blurred but has been nearly erased. In fact, Roth’s back-story tracks much of Philip Roth’s biography. He also wrote Portnoy’s Complaint (not Carnovsky, Nathan Zuckerman’s scandalous book). Indeed, Roth wrote The Counterlife. Roth is now corresponding heavily with Aharon Appelfeld (I’ve reviewed on of Appelfeld’s books here), the results of which will be published in The New York Times as “Walking the Way of the Survivor: A Talk with Aharon Appelfeld” (which was published on February 28, 1988, by Philip Roth). So, right away we have no idea how much of this is Philip Roth’s story and how much of Roth is just part of the Philip Roth’s imagination.

And now, let’s introduce yet another Philip Roth. Here is Roth, opening Operation Shylock, subtitled “A Confession”:

I learned about the other Philip Roth in January 1988, a few days after the New Year, when my cousin Apter° telephoned me in New York to say that Israeli radio had reported that I was in Jerusalem attending the trial of John Demjanjuk, the man alleged to be Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka.

This new Philip Roth is an impostor running around Jerusalem masquerading as Roth. Apter’s name has that little superscript circle to indicate that his name has been changed in this account. And, with his flare for going all out, Philip Roth has this confusion going on around the trial of John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian born in 1920 who migrated to the United States in 1952. More than thirty years later, Demjanjuk was deported to Israel and tried for war crimes. Holocaust survivors testified that he was the prison guard at the Treblinka and Sobibor extermination camps in 1942 and 1943, during which time he executed countless Jews. Of course, with the passage of over 40 years, how could one be sure this wasn’t a case of mistaken identity?

Let’s take this further, says Philip Roth. It turns out that Roth himself has recently had concerns about his own identity. Recently, but before January 1988 when the book begins, Roth had been suffering from severe depression, failing to see his place in the world — no, doubting that he was really in a place in the world. The first few pages describing his state of mind are powerful. He was having a nervous breakdown. It turns out that the culprit to his depression was Halcion, which he’d been taking to combat insomnia. A few more pages of the withdrawal process keep the book moving forward at a masterful pace. Feeling good for some time, when he finds out there is another Philip Roth roaming around Jerusalem he cannot help but be grateful those details didn’t come to him while he was still suffering:

As thoroughly enveloped as I was in the disasater of self-abandonment, it might have furnished corroboratory evidence just unhinging enough to convince me to go ahead and commit suicide.

Still, how can he truly trust that he isn’t still suffering and these reports of another Philip Roth aren’t the remainder of some delusion? He’s fairly certain, though, that Apter’s telling the truth and that he himself is Roth. Now, what to do? His companion (and future wife) Claire Bloom tells him to ignore it. It won’t be worth the trouble. (Incidentally, Philip Roth and Claire Bloom divorced in 1995; a years later, Bloom published a memoir that focused on her troubled relationship with Roth and which says that, yes, Philip Roth did suffer a breakdown, probably due to Halcion). But Roth is going to Jerusalem anyway to talk with Appelfeld. He’d like to see what he can find out, but he assures her he doesn’t want to cause any trouble.

Of course, Roth and the impostor Roth meet. The impostor looks just like Roth, down to the wear of the clothing. I’m going to start refer to the impostor Roth as Moishe Pipik, or Pipik, (Moses Bellybuttom), because that is the made-up silly childhood name that Roth uses for him after a while. Under Roth’s name, Pipik has been actively promoting a new political ideology: Diasporism. To prevent a second Holocaust, get the Jews out of Palestine. The European Jews should leave Israel and return to their homes in the Diaspora. Pipik dreams of the day the Jews return on a train to Warsaw and resettle Poland. This is the way, he argues, the Jews can take hold of their place in the world’s culture again. After all, during the Diaspora, Jewish art and culture flourished  Now, what have the Jews in Israel produced? Of course, at this same time Roth (and Philip Roth) are talking to Appelfeld (who, in their conversation, says fittingly for Operation Shylock: “reality can permit itself to be unbelievable, inexplicable, out of all proportion. The created work, to my regret, cannot permit itself all that.”).

Appelfeld and others like him notwithstanding, Pipik continues to argue that Diaspora is the natural state:

It is a Jew for whom authenticityas a Jew means living in the Diaspora, for whom the Diaspora is the normal condition and Zionism is the abnormality — a Diasporist is a Jew who believes that the only Jews who matter are the Jews of the Diaspora, that the only Jews who will survived are the Jews of the Diaspora, that the only Jews who are Jews are the Jews of the Diaspora.

Using Roth’s Jewish intellectual celebrity clout, Pipik has already spoken to many important individuals and has been receiving funding. Roth is enraged. Not only does he consider Pipik’s idea stupid and naive, he’s offended that his name is being used to prey on the guilt of American Jews. Roth knows, after all, that while his relatives in Europe were being exterminated, he was being raised happily in America (Cynthia Ozick, for one, considers those early years in the 1940s to be among the happiest of her life, a sentiment for which she feels incredible guilt). As Roth says, “The much praised transfigurations concocted by Franz Kafka pale beside the unthinkable metamorphoses perpetrated by the Third Reich on the childhoods of my cousin and of my friend, to enumerate only two.” Pipik argues further that Israel is itself set up by funding from guilty rich American Jews; that the Israelis have exploited the Holocaust. Further reason the authentic Jews should abandon Zion.

One vocal supporter of Pipik’s plan is the Arab Zee, one of Roth’s old friends at the University of Chicago. Zee finds Roth (thinking he’s Pipik (though, of course, thinking Pipik is Roth):

You are shocked to see debonair Zee in a state of blind, consuming rage, and you are too ironical, too worldly, too skeptical to accept with graciousness what I am about to tell you now, but, Philip, you are a Jewish prophet and you always have been. You are a Jewish seer, and with your trip to Poland you have taken a visionary, bold historical step. And for it you will now be more than just reviled in the press — you will be threatened, you will be menaced, you may very well be physically attacked. I wouldn’t doubt that they will even try to arrest you — to implicate you in some criminal act and put you in jail to shut you up. These are ruthless people here, and Philip Roth has dared to fly directly in the face of their national lie.

I promise that this is still relatively early in the book, so, despite the detail above, this review has remained on the surface. The back-and-forth of the arguments, the drama of the Demjanjuk trial, and Roth’s own attempt to impersonate Pipik: all are still to come. Roth will go into depth about becoming “a Jewish Jesse Jackson.” He wonders, “How will you get to Stockholm without your Third World credentials?” And, possibly my favorite, “Mitterrand has Styron, Castro has Márquez, Ortega has Pinter, and Arafat is about to have me.”

There is so much energy in this book and so many criss-crossing strings, it’s a phenomenal read — for a while.  But, just when all the pieces were laid out, it slows down to give extensive back-story to Pipik and Pipik’s lover. I still can’t quite see why so much detail was necessary for the book, and I didn’t find it all that interesting on its own either. And then again, the book slowed down to consider itself and then reconsider itself — and then consider itself again. We read a passage, perhaps one that describes and event or an idea, then we read it again from a different angle as Roth considers its meaning, and then we’ll read it again when Roth discusses it with one of the characters in the book — and then we get some of it again when Roth recaps before plunging in deep again. And, sadly, much of the end of the book is quite a slow down, though purposefully, I believe. Still, as interesting as the ending was, it pales in comparison with the beginning of the book when Roth has his frenetic energy working as fast as ever. As much as I loved the first half, the second half brought my esteem back down, where it settled on medium.

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By | 2016-08-09T16:05:01+00:00 April 1st, 2011|Categories: Book Reviews, Philip Roth|Tags: , |4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Lee Monks April 5, 2011 at 7:46 am

    This and Sabbath’s Theatre seem to be everyone I know that’s a Roth fan’s favourites. And I’m pretty sure the same goes for other writers. So it’s refreshing to hear a bit of contention on this. I personally find even his weaker efforts hypnotic and masterly to the extent that I find it hard to put them down, despite my inherent understanding of what’s wrong with them.

  2. Trevor April 5, 2011 at 10:59 am

    I can understand the sentiment. In fact, for the first half I found myself largely in agreement, thinking it was one of the best Roth books I’d read. I do know that I’m not the only Roth fan who was a bit disappointed in this book, though.

    That said, I totally agree with you — it was still, relatively, a great read. Anything by Roth is worth the time.

  3. Trevor May 12, 2011 at 10:25 am

    Today a German court found Demjanjuk guilty of Nazi war crimes. For the New York Times article, click here.

  4. Trevor March 18, 2012 at 9:51 am

    John Demjanjuk died yesterday, his case never fully over.

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