April 10, 2008

Philip Roth: The Prague Orgy

Posted in Roth Philip at 8:05 am by John Self

Here we are then with The Prague Orgy (1985), the fourth part of what Vintage clumsily calls “the trilogy and epilogue” Zuckerman Bound.  (You can read my thoughts on the others here, here, here and here.) How will they refer to it when Exit Ghost, the last instalment, is published in their paperback edition? “The trilogy, epilogue and appendix” perhaps? It is beginning to sound like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: a Trilogy in Five Parts.

The Prague Orgy

I don’t want to stretch a point but perhaps Zuckerman books have more in common with Douglas Adams than they appear to. Philip Roth, in a 1986 interview reprinted in Reading Myself and Others, cites a stage direction in The Prague Orgy: “Enter Zuckerman, a serious person.” This, Roth says, “could have been the trilogy’s title. … what’s laughable in Zuckerman Bound is his insatiable desire to be taken seriously by all the serious men…” OK, so not quite Arthur Dent, but it’s refreshing to be reminded, among all the hushed respect for Roth as the Great American Novelist (a view I’m more and more coming to agree with), that comedy – “the soul sinking into ridiculousness even as it strives to be saved” – is at the heart of these books.

It would be easy to overlook The Prague Orgy in favour of other Roths, not least on value for money grounds (84 pages for a standard paperback price?), but it turns out to be a scintillating distillation of everything I have (gradually and then suddenly) come to love about Roth. His mastery of his fiction is apparent on every page. Right at the start he’s showing us how he could be a ‘normal’ fine writer, with Zuckerman’s impressions of two people he’s just met:

A woman of about forty, pale eyes, broad cheekbones, dark, severely parted hair – a distraught, arresting face. One blue vein bulges dangerously in her temple as she perches at the edge of my sofa, quite still. In black, like Prince Hamlet. Signs of serious wear at the seat of the black velvet skirt of her funereal suit. Her fragrance is strong, her stockings laddered, her nerves shot.

He is younger, perhaps by ten years: thick-bodied, small, sturdy, with a broad, small-nosed face that has the ominous potency of a gloved fist. I see him lowering the brow and breaking doors down with it.

Many writers would kill to have that compact descriptive gift and nothing else. The two Zuckerman has just met, Eva and Sisovsky, are Czech emigrants who want Zuckerman – in his position as “the American authority on Jewish demons” – to go to Prague and bring back Yiddish stories written by Sisovsky’s father. Sisovsky, a writer himself, curries favour with Zuckerman:

“I don’t wish to compare our two books. Yours is a work of genius, and mine is nothing. When I studied Kafka, his fate in the hands of the Kafkologists seemed to me to be more grotesque than the fate of Josef K. I feel this is true also with you.”

This is the first inkling in the book of that long-running obsession of Roth’s, of the relationship between “the written and the unwritten world.” The Prague Orgy is full of it. Once in Prague, then still under Soviet occupation, Zuckerman discovers that writers there are treated even more disrespectfully than they are back home:

The workmen at their beer remind me of Bolotka, a janitor in a museum now that he no longer runs his theatre. “This,” Bolotka explains, “is the way we arrange things now. The menial work is done by the writers and the teachers and the construction engineers, and the construction is run by the drunks and the crooks. They get along better with the Russians.” 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.

Sweeping his own floor for dirt – and making money out of it between hard covers – is what Zuckerman has been accused of back home by his Jewish family and critics, so maybe this doesn’t seem such a bad deal. Is it worse to be misread, as Zuckerman (and Roth) so often feels he is, or not to be read at all because the censor won’t allow it out? “The police are like literary critics: of what little they see, they get most wrong anyway.” And he is reminded too of Eva’s fate, an actress whose role as Anne Frank was used by the authorities as ‘proof’ that she was a Jewish subversive:

They have used Anne Frank as a whip to drive her from the stage … the ghost of the Jewish saint has returned 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 books cannot be enlisted, not only by them, but by you and me.

The story proceeds by comedy and character, as Zuckerman is subjected to the temptations of Olga, the widow of the author and guardian of the stories Zuckerman wants to smuggle back home; her dialogue has the livid life of Roth at his best. Zuckerman is also under surveillance, and is led to believe that he is about to be jailed unless he leaves the country immediately. But what can he do but keep telling his story?

One’s story isn’t a skin to be shed – it’s inescapable, one’s body and blood. You go on pumping it out till you die, the story veined with the themes of your life, the ever-recurring story that’s at once your invention and the invention of you.

In the same 1986 interview mentioned above, Roth says, “I’ve had two audiences, a general audience and a Jewish audience. I have virtually no sense of my impact upon the general audience, nor do I really know who these people are.” Well, here’s one right here. And the impact is enormous.

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19 Comments »

  1. JRSM said,

    This sounds wonderful. I’ve only read the first ‘proper’ Zuckermann book–I like your Douglas Adams comparison. Most people don’t seem to mention the comedy threaded through Roth’s work.

    Have you read Jiří Weil’s ‘Life with a Star’, an amazing (and heart-breaking) Czech novel. Roth has done an introduction to it. One of the best books I’ve ever read.

    On a completely other topic: where did the Christopher Priest quote about Asylum come from? I’m intrigued.

  2. Stewart said,

    JRSM, the quote is on this blog. It’s a response to John’s review of John Wyndham’s Chocky..

  3. John Self said,

    Have you read Jiří Weil’s ‘Life with a Star’, an amazing (and heart-breaking) Czech novel. Roth has done an introduction to it. One of the best books I’ve ever read.

    Damn you, JRSM, I was trying to forget about wanting this book after I discovered recently that the now out-of-print Penguin Modern Classics edition is ridiculously expensive on Amazon Marketplace! Back to the credit card, sigh

    Thanks Stewart. I still have the Priest novel I picked up out of curiosity after that: The Glamour. Must get around to it soon.

  4. Stewart said,

    John, another option is knowing someone in certain areas. The Waterstones site lists its availability in these stores. If you know someone in one of those places, perhaps they could pick it up for you and send it on.

  5. John Self said,

    Thanks Stewart – I never would have thought of that!

  6. John Self said,

    Have picked up Jiří Weil’s Life with a Star on JRSM’s recommendation (sadly I don’t know anyone near the Waterstoneses which had copies, so I had to pay through the nose on Amazon, but managed to get a reduction in the price after the condition left something to be desired). Sadly, as the Roth introduction was at least one third of my reason for buying it (the other thirds being JRSM’s recommendation, and its Penguin Modern Classic status), the intro is only two pages long, and spends most of its time talking about how Weil is like Isaac Babel, and then describing another Weil novel which isn’t Life with a Star. This is the second time Isaac Babel has come into my literary consciousness in the past week. I sense a further shopping trip coming.

  7. Roth’s sentences are dense and lovely as jewels, but he manages to make them seem conversational; I’ve always marveled at that.

  8. John Self said,

    Thanks Steven, that’s it exactly. Despite the intelligence and complexity on display, there’s a real fluency which I find both seductive and enviable.

  9. Not to mention eminently re-readable, eh? I have very nearly every of Roth’s novels in my library, and not a one has been read less than twice (and some, like Sabbath’s Theater, I’ve probably been through five times or more). It’s a very companionable tone Roth writes in, mostly, and it conjures a comfy chair in a gentleman’s club (plus the requisite snifter of Brandy…laugh) and a generous respect for the listener’s intelligence and knowledge of the world. I can understand why women don’t always enjoy reading him, though… exactly as my lovers didn’t always get along with my best friends. I also notice that I didn’t really begin to “get” him until I eased (prematurely, and backwards!) into middle age, which is when I began to appreciate, and accept, the beauty of lost battles.

    (I think I’ve used up my comment-quota for the day…)

  10. Stewart said,

    Good, good. As someone starting out on a Roth odyssey based on reading his books in order (Goodbye Columbus out of the way, Letting Go up next) it’s great to hear just how good he is. Or since I’m one early book in, how good he gets.

  11. John Self said,

    Absolutely Stewart. Steven, your enthusiasm is contagious! As I am technically now middle-aged, having turned 35 last week, perhaps that explains why I too enjoy Roth so much now. ‘Interestingly’, my first Roth was Sabbath’s Theater, which I read when it came out; I was in my early 20s. I hated it and it put me off Roth for years. I don’t doubt that if I reread it now, I would be like a cat having its tummy tickled. Can’t wait to find out.

  12. After reading this one, John, I have to agree – fantastic! It was amazing how, in a series that already has gone deeper and deeper and twisted around to different perspectives again and again that Roth could somehow make another entirely new shift, recasting all three books in a deeper light. I noted on my review that I don’t feel a strong desire to read Exit Ghost yet because this felt like the perfect conclusion. I don’t know when I would have visited these books were it not for your site, so once again thanks!

    Now I’ll be joining you on a Booker longlist run, but only eight of the titles are readily available in the U.S. (and after your review of A Fraction of the Whole I may just have to wait to see if that one makes it to the next round before giving it my own look.

  13. [...] will always want to blog about fantasy novels, and literary folk will always want to blog about Philip Roth. Neither am I thinking about old-versus-new books, which again is down to the blogger’s [...]

  14. [...] Self (This is the third book in the Zuckerman series. See also The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, The Prague Orgy and Exit [...]

  15. [...] (This is the second book in the Zuckerman series. See also The Ghost Writer, The Anatomy Lesson, The Prague Orgy and Exit [...]

  16. [...] hell. So I’ll be leaving out the bigger names: no Philip Roth (even though his Patrimony and The Prague Orgy would easily have qualified) or James Kelman (whose extraordinary How Late It Was, How Late hardly [...]

  17. Carolyn Jacobson said,

    I would like to read the Zuckerman series from start to finish. Can someone direct me as to where to start and how to proceed.

  18. John Self said,

    Yes Carolyn, it’s The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson, The Prague Orgy and Exit Ghost, in that order. There are also other Zuckerman books where he narrates or has another role – The Counterlife, American Pastoral, etc – but they aren’t part of the ‘Zuckerman series’ as such.

  19. […] hell. So I’ll be leaving out the bigger names: no Philip Roth (even though hisPatrimony and The Prague Orgy would easily have qualified) or James Kelman (whose extraordinary How Late It Was, How […]


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