Nicely! Nicely!

Jenny Turner

  • Operation Shylock by Philip Roth
    Cape, 398 pp, £14.99, March 1993, ISBN 0 224 03009 4

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 clapboard 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 after-words, 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 film-set. 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 PoMo 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 meta-hero, 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 psycho-sexual 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.