Alan's Reviews > Novels, 1993-1995: Operation Shylock / Sabbath's Theater

Novels, 1993-1995 by Philip Roth
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Aug 15, 12

Recommended to Alan by: His body of work
Recommended for: Menschen and schmucks alike
Read in August, 2012, read count: 1

My recent interest in and exploration of Philip Roth's work continues, with another handsome and sturdy Library of America edition. These two novels, both from the mid-1990s, are unmistakably the product of the same giant of American literature, but otherwise don't seem to have much in common.

Operation Shylock is a piercing investigation of identity, the primal myth of the doppelgänger, told from an ever-shifting first-person perspective. Despite his excellent foray into alternate history (The Plot Against America), Roth is not known as a writer of sf (speculative fiction, that is); even so, Shylock brings to my mind another Philip, sf author Philip K. Dick.

Sabbath's Theater, on the other hand, is a longer and much more straightforward third-person narrative of sex, death and introspection.

Together, these disparate books turned out to be an excellent and engrossing traveling companion, as I took an unexpected trip Back East.


Operation Shylock (read 8/8/2012)
"Are his stories accurate and true? I myself never inquire about their veracity. I think of them instead as fiction that, like so much of fiction, provides the storyteller with the lie through which to expose his unspeakable truth."
—p.48
Roth could be speaking about his own work here, although the paragraph in question actually addresses his Israeli cousin Apter.

Philip Roth is on his way to Israel when he discovers that he's already there—or, at least, a man calling himself "Philip Roth" and bearing a strong physical resemblance to the author is already traveling through Israel and Eastern Europe, making public appearances as Roth, trading on Roth's reputation to meet with leaders like Lech Walesa, and all the while advocating a... counterintuitive, let's say, solution to Israel's precarious position as a tiny Jewish state surrounded by Arab nations.

Narratively speaking, this is a brilliant way for Roth (or "Roth") to simultaneously advance and distance himself from the notion of a new Jewish Diaspora—a voluntary dispersal this time, in which Jews are to move into Europe, resettling the conquered shtetls and abandoned ghettos, in order to reconstruct the pre-Holocaust Yiddish culture of Poland, Germany, Romania... insulated from another Shoah, this time, by Europe's memory of the previous one.

Of course, this is not a idea that is going to get much traction in the real world... but reading Roth's various reactions to his impostor's antics, it's hard to avoid a certain amount of sympathy for this doomed position. And, also of course, Roth doesn't make a simple detective story out of the situation; the richness of his prose comes, in large measure, from Roth's digressions and asides, his frequent alarums and excursions, his asseverations on the human condition in general and on being a Jew from New Jersey in particular. Having just watched A Dangerous Method, for example, I was strongly affected by Roth's observations regarding Freudianism vs. Jungianism, the "uncontrollability of real things" (pp.68-69). Roth's altercations with his impersonator feel very real—and quite uncontrollable.

A forty-page Epilogue helps turn Operation Shylock into even more of a self-subverting text. Despite the book's subtitle ("A Confession"), there's simply no way to tell what was real and what was fiction, and Roth is no help at all. Fortunately, I don't demand that authors tie up every loose end... as long as the journey is worthwhile. Which, in this case, it was.
"...[T]his was not the first time, or the last, when, powerless before the uncertainty at hand, I looked to print to subjugate my fears and keep the world from coming apart."
—p.295
Reading these words while my mother was going through a serious health crisis, powerless before uncertainty, I believe I understood at least some of what Roth was aiming for.


Sabbath's Theater (read 8/12/2012)

Both explicit and intimate, yet distanced by its third-person perspective, this novel makes an odd contrast to Operation Shylock. Starting with its very first sentence, Sabbath's Theater pulls no punches whatsoever:
"Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over."
—p.373
Mickey Sabbath and Drenka Balich are sexual adventurers in a long-term adulterous relationship—though Roth makes it clear that their adventures are to be seen in the past tense.
"Something horrible is happening to Sabbath."
—p.443
As in—and yes, this is a facile comparison—Alasdair Gray's 1982 Janine, an inevitable but unforeseen disaster prompts deep and painful introspection of a life lived for lust.
"Anyone with any brains knows that he is leading a stupid life even while he is leading it. Anyone with any brains understands that he is destined to lead a stupid life because there is no other kind. There is nothing personal in it."
—pp.557-558
Sabbath's Theater is less focused than Gray's novel, perhaps, less constrained in time and in space—but they cover much the same territory.

It seems to me now that there must be at least three kinds of sexual writing (though I'm willing to believe there are more): pornography, crude and direct, descriptive without using much metaphor or style; erotica, which is often merely pornography with a higher tone and better proofreading, still aimed at exciting interest rather than quelling it; and whatever the hell it is Roth is writing here, which revels, even wallows in pornographic details while never really trying to arouse the so-called baser emotions.

Okay, okay... there's some porn in Sabbath's tale—but it's relegated to an extended footnote, spread-eagled (heh) across several pages (pp.567-585, to be precise, if you want to go looking—that's some footnote!), and presented in a sordid context—so it's not really either porn or erotica, to continue using that taxonomy.
"The great god Pan is dead."
—Notes, p.837
Roth quotes Plutarch's Morals in a way that brings to mind Lawrence Durrell's The Black Book, another transgressive work which I recently read. And indeed Sabbath's Theater explores the same pleasures of the flesh, of thighs, breasts and cocks—but in the end, it turns out to be not so much about la petite mort as it is about la grande mort. Death itself is the subject.

I guess that's not really surprising—Roth is (exactly) 30 years older than I am—but what he's talking about here is universal. And I guess the word for what Roth is up to here is... literature.
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