The Prague Orgy

The Prague Orgy

by Philip Roth

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Overview

The Prague Orgy by Philip Roth

In quest of the unpublished manuscript of a martyred Yiddish writer, the American novelist Nathan Zuckerman travels to Soviet-occupied Prague in the mid-1970s. There, in a nation straightjacketed by totalitarian Communism, he discovers a literary predicament, marked by institutionalized oppression, that is rather different from his own. He also discovers, among the oppressed writers with whom he quickly becomes embroiled in a series of bizarre and poignant adventures, an appealingly perverse kind of heroism.

The Prague Orgy
, consisting of entries from protagonist Nathan Zuckerman's notebooks recording his sojourn among these outcast artists, completes the trilogy and epilogue Zuckerman bound. It provides a startling ending to Roth's intricately designed magnum opus on the unforeseen consequences of art.

This Vintage edition is the first paperback publication of the epilogue.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780679749035
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/28/1996
Series: Nathan Zuckerman Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 96
Sales rank: 377,794
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.25(d)

About the Author

In 1997 Philip Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral. In 1998 he received the National Medal of Arts at the White House and in 2002 the highest award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Gold Medal in Fiction. He twice won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He won the PEN/Faulkner Award three times. In 2005 The Plot Against America received the Society of American Historians’ Prize for “the outstanding historical novel on an American theme for 2003–2004.” Roth received PEN’s two most prestigious awards: in 2006 the PEN/Nabokov Award and in 2007 the PEN/Bellow Award for achievement in American fiction. In 2011 he received the National Humanities Medal at the White House, and was later named the fourth recipient of the Man Booker International Prize. He died in 2018.

Hometown:

Connecticut

Date of Birth:

March 19, 1933

Place of Birth:

Newark, New Jersey

Education:

B.A. in English, Bucknell University, 1954; M.A. in English, University of Chicago, 1955

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

... from Zuckerman's notebooks

New York, Jan. 11, 1976

"Your novel," he says, "is absolutely one of the five or six books of my life."

"You must assure Mr. Sisovsky," I say to his companion, "that he has flattered me enough."

"You have flattered him enough," she tells him. 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. Yet the longish hair is the hair of the heartthrob, heavy, silky hair of an almost Oriental darkness and sheen. He wears a gray suit, a faintly luminous fabric, the jacket tailored high under the arms and pinching a little at the shoulders. The trousers cling to a disproportionately powerful lower torso — a soccer player in long pants. His pointed white shoes are in need of repair; his white shirt is worn with the top buttons open, Something of the wastrel, something of the mobster, something too of the overprivileged boy. Where the woman's English is heavily accented, Sisovsky's is only mildly flawed, and articulated so confidently — with oddly elegant Oxonian vowels — that the occasional syntactical contusion strikes me as a form of cunning, an ironical game to remind his American host that he is, after all, only a refugee, little more than a newcomer to the tongue mastered already with so much fluency and charm. Beneath all this deference to me, I take him to be one of the strong ones, one of the stallions who has the strength of his outrage.

"Tell him to tell me about his book," I say to her. "What was it called?"

But on he continues about mine. "When we arrived in Canada from Rome, yours was the first book that I bought. I have learned that it had a scandalous response here in America. When you were so kind to agree to see me, I went to the library to find out how Americans have perceived your work. The question interests me because of how Czechs perceived my own work, which also had a scandalous response."

"What was the scandal?"

"Please," he says, "I don't wish to compare our two books. Yours is a work of genius, and mine is nothing. When I studied Kafka, the fate of his books 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 scandalous response gives another grotesque dimension, and belongs now to your book as Kafkologine stupidities belong to Kafka. Even as the banning of my own little book creates a dimension not at all intended by me."

"Why was it banned, your book?"

"The weight of the stupidity you must carry is heavier than the weight of banning."

"Not true."

"I am afraid it is, cher maître. You come to belittle the meaning of your vocation. You come to believe that there is no literary culture that matters. There is a definite existential weakening of your position. This is regrettable because, in fact, you have written a masterpiece."

Yet he never says what it is about my book that he likes. Maybe he doesn't really like it. Maybe he hasn't read it. Much subtlety in such persistence. The ruined exile will not be deflected from commiserating with the American success.

What's he want?

"But it's you," I remind him, "who's been denied the right to practice his profession. Whatever the scandal, I have been profusely — bizarrely — rewarded. Everything from an Upper East Side address to helping worthy murderers get out on parole. That's the power a scandal bestows over here. It's you who's been punished in the harshest way. Banning your book, prohibiting your publication, driving you from your country — what could be more burdensome and stupid than that? I'm glad you think well of my work, but don't be polite about cher maître's situation, mon cher ami. What made what you wrote such a scandal?"

The woman says, "Zdenek, tell him."

"What is there to tell?" he says. "A satirical smile is harder for them than outright ideological fanaticism. I laughed. They are ideologues. I hate ideologues. That is what causes so much offense. It also causes my doubt."

I ask him to explain the doubt.

"I published one harmless little satire in Prague in 1967. The Russians came to visit in 1968 and I have not published anything since. There is nothing more to say. What interests me are these foolish reviews that I read in the library of your book. Not that they are foolish, that goes without saying. It is that there is not one which could be called intelligent. One reads such things in America and one is struck with terror for the future, for the world, for everything."

"Terror for the future, even for the world, I understand. But for 'everything'? Sympathize with a writer about his foolish reviews and you have a friend for life, Sisovsky, but now that this has been achieved, I'd like to hear about your doubt."

"Tell him about your doubt, Zdenek!"

"How can I? I don't even believe in my doubt, frankly. I don't think I have any doubt at all. But I think I should."

"Why?" I say.

"I remember the time before the invasion of Prague," he says. "I swear to you that every single review of your work could not have been published in Prague in the sixties — the level is too low. And this in spite of the fact that according to simplified notions we were a Stalinate country and the U.S.A. was the country of intellectual freedom."

"Zdenek, he wants to hear not about these reviews — he wishes to hear about your doubt!"

"Calm down," he tells her.

"The man is asking a question."

"I am answering it."

"Then do it. Do it. He has told you already that you have flattered him enough!" Italy, Canada, now New York — she is as sick of him as of their wandering. While he speaks her eyes momentarily close and she touches the distended vein in her temple — as though remembering yet another irreversible loss. Sisovsky drinks my whiskey, she refuses even a cup of tea. She wants to go, probably all the way back to Czechoslovakia, and probably on her own.

I intervene — before she can scream — and ask him, "Could you have stayed on in Czechoslovakia, despite the banning of your book?"

"Yes. But if I had stayed in Czechoslovakia, I am afraid I would have taken the way of resignation. I could not write, speak in public, I could not even see my friends without being taken in for interrogation. To try to do something, anything, is to endanger one's own well-being, and the well-being of one's wife and children and parents. I have a wife there. I have a child and I have an aging mother who has already been deprived of enough. You choose resignation because you realize that there is nothing to be done. There is no resistance against the Russification of my country. The fact that the occupation is hated by everyone isn't any defense in the long run. You Americans think in terms of one year or two; Russians think in centuries. They know instinctively that they live in a long time, and that the time is theirs. They know it deeply, and they are right. The truth is that as time goes by, the population slowly accepts its fate. Eight years have passed. Only writers and intellectuals continue to be persecuted, only writing and thinking are suppressed; everybody else is content, content even with their hatred of the Russians, and mostly they live better than they ever have. Modesty alone demands that we leave them be. You can't keep clamoring about being published without wondering if it is only your vanity speaking. I am not a great genius like you. People have Musil and Proust and Mann and Nathan Zuckerman to read, why should they read me? My book was a scandal not only because of my satirical smile but because in 1967 when I was published I was twenty-five. The new generation. The future. But my generation of the future has made better peace with the Russians than anyone. For me to stay in Czechoslovakia and make trouble with the Russians about my little books — why? Why is another book from me important?"

"That isn't Solzhenitsyn's point of view."

"Good for him. Why should I pay everything to try to publish another book with a satirical smile? What am I proving by fighting against them and endangering myself and everyone I know? Unfortunately, however, as much as I mistrust the way of reckless vanity, I suspect even more the way of resignation. Not for others — they do as they must — but for myself. I am not a courageous person, but I cannot be out-and-out cowardly."

"Or is that also just vanity?"

"Exactly — I am totally in doubt. In Czechoslovakia, if I stay there, yes, I can find some kind of work and at least live in my own country and derive some strength from that. There I can at least be a Czech — but I cannot be a writer. While in the West, I can be a writer, but not a Czech. Here, where as a writer I am totally negligible, I am only a writer. As I no longer have all the other things that gave meaning to life — my country, my language, friends, family, memories, et cetera — here for me making literature is everything. But the only literature I can make is so much about life there that only there can it have the effect I desire."

"So, what's even heavier than the weight of the banning is this doubt that it foments."

"In me. Only in me. Eva has no doubt. She has only hatred."

Eva is astonished. "Hatred for what?"

"For everyone who has betrayed you," he says to her. "For everyone who deserted you. You hate them and wish they were dead."

"I don't even think of them anymore."

"You wish them to be tortured in Hell."

"I have forgotten them completely."

"I should like to tell you about Eva Kalinova," he says to me. "It is too vulgar to announce such a thing, but it is too ridiculous for you not to know. It is personally humiliating that I should ask you to endure the great drama of my doubt while Eva sits here like no one."

"I am happy to be sitting like no one," she says. "This is not necessary."

"Eva," he says, "is Prague's great Chekhovian actress. Go to Prague and ask. No one there will dispute it, not even the regime. There is no Nina since hers, no Irina, no Masha."

"I don't want this," she says.

"When Eva gets on the streetcar in Prague, people still applaud. All of Prague has been in love with her since she was eighteen."

"Is that why they write on my wall 'the Jew's whore'? Because they are in love with me? Don't be stupid. That is over."

"Soon she will be acting again," he assures me.

"To be an actress in America, .you must speak English that does not give people a headache!"

"Eva, sit down."

But her career is finished. She cannot sit.

"You cannot be on the stage and speak English that nobody can understand! Nobody will hire you to do that. I do not want to perform in more plays — I have had enough of being an artificial person. I am tired of imitating all the touching Irinas and Ninas and Mashas and Sashas. It confuses me and it confuses everyone else. We are people who fantasize too much to begin with. We read too much, we feel too much, we fantasize too much — we want all the wrong things! I am glad to be finished with all my successes. The success comes to the person anyway, not to the acting. What good does it do? What does it serve? Only egomania. Brezhnev has given me a chance to be an ordinary nobody who performs a real job. I sell dresses — and dresses are needed more by people than stupid touching Chekhovian actresses!"

"But what," I ask, "do Chekhovian actresses need?"

"To be in the life of others the way they are in a play, and not in a play the way they are supposed to be in the life of others! They need to be rid of their selfishness and their feelings and their looks and their art!" Beginning to cry, she says, "At last I am rid of mine!"

"Eva, tell him about your Jewish demons. He is the American authority on Jewish demons. She is pursued, Mr. Zuckerman, by Jewish demons. Eva, you must tell him about the Vice-Minister of Culture and what happened with him after you left your husband. Eva was married to somebody that in America you have never heard of, but in Czechoslovakia the whole country loves him. He is a very beloved theatrical personality. You can watch him on television every week. He has all the old mothers crying when he sings Moravian folk songs. When he talks to them with that dreadful voice, the girls are all swooning. You hear him on the jukeboxes, you hear him on the radio, wherever you go you hear this dreadful voice that is supposed to be a hot-blooded gypsy. If you are that man's wife you don't have to worry. You can play all the great heroines at the National Theater. You can have plenty of room to live. You can take all the trips you want abroad. If you are that man's wife, they leave you alone."

"He leaves you alone too," she says. "Zdenek, why do you persecute me? I do not care to be an ironical Czech character in an ironical Czech story. Everything that happens in Czechoslovakia, they shrug their shoulders and say, 'Pure Schweik, pure Kafka.' I am sick of them both."

"Tell me about your Jewish demons," I say.

"I don't have them," she replies, looking furiously at Sisovsky.

"Eva fell in love with a Mr. Polak and left her husband for him. Now, if you are Mr. Polak's mistress," Sisovsky says, "they do not leave you alone. Mr. Polak has had many mistresses and they have never left any of them alone. Eva Kalinova is married to a Czechoslovak Artist of Merit, but she leaves him to take up with a Zionist agent and bourgeois enemy of the people. And this is why they write 'the Jew's whore' on the wall outside the theater, and send poems to her in the mail about her immorality, and drawings of Polak with a big Jewish nose. This is why they write letters to the Minister of Culture denouncing her and demanding that she be removed from the stage. This is why she is called in to see the Vice-Minister of Culture. Leaving a great Artist of Merit and a boring, sentimental egomaniac like Petr Kalina for a Jew and a parasite like Pavel Polak, she is no better than a Jew herself."

"Please," says Eva, "stop telling this story. All these people, they suffer for their ideas and for their banned books, and for democracy to return to Czechoslovakia — they suffer for their principles, for their humanity, for their hatred of the Russians, and in this terrible story I am still suffering for love!"

"'Do you know,' he says to her, our enlightened Vice-Minister of Culture, 'do you know, Madam Kalinova,'" Sisovsky continues, "'that half our countrymen believe you really are a Jewess, by blood?' Eva says to him, very dryly — for Eva can be a very dry, very beautiful, very intelligent woman when she is not angry with people or frightened out of her wits — very dryly she says, '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?' Eva answers, 'I played the role because I was chosen from ten young actresses. And all of them wanted it more than the world.' 'Young actresses,' he asks her, 'or young Jewesses?'"

"I beg you, Zdenek, I cannot hear my ridiculous story! I cannot hear your ridiculous story! I am sick and tired of hearing our story, I am sick and tired of having our story! That was Europe, this is America! I shudder to think I was ever that woman!"

"'Young actresses,' he asks her, 'or young Jewesses?' Eva says, 'What difference does that make? Some were Jewish, I suppose. But I am not.' 'Well then,' he says to Eva, 'why did you want to continue playing this Jewess on the stage for two years, if you weren't, at the least, a Zionist sympathizer even then?' Eva replies, 'I have played a Jewess in Ivanov by Anton Chekhov. I have played a Jewess in The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare.' This convinces him of nothing. That Eva had wanted to play a Jewess even in a play by Anton Chekhov, where you have to look for one high and low, does not, in the opinion of the vice-minister, strengthen her position. '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. They once said I was part gypsy too; probably there are as many people who still believe that because of the ridiculous film I made with Petr. But, Mr. Vice-Minister,' Eva says, 'what everybody knows, what is true and indisputable, is that I am none of these things: I am an actress.' He corrects her. 'An actress, Madam Kalinova, who likes to portray Jewesses, who portrays them masterfully — that is what everyone knows. What everyone knows is that no one in all of our country can portray a Jewess better.' 'And if that is even true? Is that also a crime in this country now?' By then Eva is shouting and, of course, she is crying. She is shaking all over. And this makes him nice to her suddenly, certainly nicer than before. He offers brandy to calm her down. He explains that he is not talking about what is the law. He is not even speaking for himself. His heart happens to have been greatly moved in 1956 when he saw Eva playing little Anne Frank. He wept at her performance-he has never forgotten it. His confession causes Eva to become completely crazy. 'Then what are you talking about?' she asks him. 'The feelings of the people,' he replies. 'The sentiments of the great Czech people. To desert Petr Kalina, an Artist of Merit, to become the mistress of the Zionist Polak would have been damaging enough, but to the people it is unforgivable because of your long history of always playing Jewesses on the stage.' 'This makes no sense,' Eva tells him. 'It cannot be. The Czech people loved Anne Frank, they loved me for portraying her!' Here he removes from his file all these fake letters by all the offended members of the theatergoing public-fake, just like the writing on the theater walls. This closes the case. Eva is dismissed from the National Theater. The vice-minister is so pleased with himself that he goes around boasting how he handled Polak's whore and made that arrogant Jew bastard know just who is running this country. He believes that when the news reaches Moscow, the Russians will give him a medal for his cruelty and his anti-Semitism. They have a gold medal just for this. But instead he loses his job. The last I heard he was assistant editor of the publishing house of religious literature. Because the Czechs did love Anne Frank — and because somebody high up wants to be rid of the stupid vice-minister anyway — he is fired for how he has handled Eva Kalinova. Of course for Eva it would have been better if instead of firing the vice-minister they would restore her position as leading actress with the National Theater. But our system of justice is not yet so developed. It is stronger on punishment than on restitution."

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "The Prague Orgy"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Philip Roth.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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The Prague Orgy 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
RyanMecklenburg More than 1 year ago
This is the most sparse in the Zuckerman series. Still, Roth delivers with the usual humor and ridiculousness expected from his alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman. Nathan travels to Prague, where he delves into an under world of, to say the least, eccentrics. As his friend's ex-wife pursues him for marriage, Nathen comes to realize his privilaged life as an American Jew. The only disapointing thing about the book is that it is short. Of the books in the series, this is probably the funniest, with antics that echo books such as Catch-22 and A Confederacy of Dunces. The book is erotic slapstick with a point. Although it is the shortest in the Zuckerman series, Zuckerman grows the most in this book, and comes to one of his greatest revelations up to this point in the series. For any reader who enjoyed the other books in the series, this one is just as enjoyable, if not for the pleasure of traveling with Zuckerman once more, then for the books poignant depth.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is one of Roth's worst . Skip it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Lillian where are you i miss you if you got kicked out go up