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Reading Lessons

Jonathan Levi is a contributing writer to Book Review

Philip Roth spent much of the ‘90s writing a series of sharp-edged novels that probed the darker dynamics of American life. “Shop Talk” arrives not so much as a coda to this project but da capo --a return to the first measures of his writing life, a playing through from the beginning of the obsessions of a 40-year career. The 10 conversations, letters and essays that make up the book not only give fascinating glimpses of some of the deans of postwar literature but also provide a working diagram of the very engine that makes Roth run.

A reader of Roth’s 1993 novel, “Operation Shylock,” who watched the protagonist (the fictional Philip Roth) interview a Holocaust survivor, will not be surprised to learn that a decade before, the writer Philip Roth interviewed Aharon Appelfeld in Israel, Primo Levi in Italy and Ivan Klima in Czechoslovakia, three direct witnesses to the atrocities of World War II. In the case of Appelfeld, Roth’s interest is not in the moral puzzle of whether one can write about the Holocaust or the mechanical how. Rather the reader of “Shop Talk” can watch the writer siphoning another character into his pen.

“At 55, Aharon is a small, bespectacled, compact man with a perfectly round face and a perfectly bald head and the playfully thoughtful air of a benign wizard. He’d have no trouble passing for a magician who entertains children at birthday parties by pulling doves out of a hat--it’s easier to associate his gently affable and kindly appearance with that job than with the responsibility by which he seems inescapably propelled: responding, in a string of elusively portentous stories, to the disappearance from Europe--while he was outwitting peasants and foraging in the forests--of just about all the continent’s Jews, his parents among them.”

Conversations with Klima and his comrade, Milan Kundera, also provide Roth with an entree into the Mitteleuropa of writers that he collected in translation as editor of the Penguin series “Writers From the Other Europe.” Together they discuss the work of Polish writer Bruno Schulz (also drawn out in the 1976 interview with Isaac Bashevis Singer) as well as the work of the multitude of great Czech writers who flourished under Soviet occupation, from current President Vaclav Havel to Josef Skvorecky and Bohumil Hrabal. And, of course--this being Philip Roth--talking with Czechs and talking in Prague means talking of Franz Kafka.

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Roth has swum in Kafka ever since he first dived with Brenda Patimkin into the pool at the Green Lane Country Club in his 1959 debut novella, “Goodbye, Columbus.” For Roth, every man’s home is his Castle, and every Roth man is a K.--if maybe a quantum level more sexually voracious. The Czech conversations display Roth as a Kafka-lover who is enamored of Klima’s politics and Kundera’s eroticism. Is it any wonder, then, that this combination would provoke the 1977 metamorphosis of Roth’s “Professor of Desire,” David Kepesh, not into a giant cockroach but a giant breast and, later, inspire his dream of rooting out the essential Kafka on a trip to Prague through an examination of an 80-year-old woman who claims to have been Kafka’s prostitute?

Conversations with Bernard Malamud and Edna O’Brien, letters exchanged with Mary McCarthy and a rumination on his neighbor, painter Philip Guston, lead “Shop Talk” to a fitting conclusion. In the final piece, Roth rereads the works of an American writer, Saul Bellow, his most immediate precursor, “the ‘other’ I have read from the beginning with the deepest pleasure and admiration,” as he wrote in the dedication to his 1975 collection of essays, “Reading Myself and Others.”

Bellow, after all, is the Columbus who pointed Roth toward the Promised Land of assimilation, where a Jewish American writer could imagine, as Bellow did, a fictional Augie Marsh, a man who could assert his own bona fides not by conceding, “‘I am a Jew, the son of immigrants’

But it is the opening 1986 conversation of the collection with Levi that is the jewel of the collection, perhaps because Levi, who once worked as the manager of a paint factory, responds to the probing of Roth--one of the great craftsmen of American letters--with an understanding of both the analytical and the aesthetic elements of shop talk. “On our way to the section of the laboratory where raw materials are scrutinized before moving to production,” Roth writes as they stroll through Levi’s former job site, “I asked Levi if he could identify the chemical aroma faintly permeating the corridor: I thought it smelled like a hospital corridor. Just fractionally he raised his head and exposed his nostrils to the air. With a smile he told me, ‘I understand and can analyze it like a dog.”’

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Like a dog, Roth approaches these writers and sniffs, in part to analyze what makes them the stunning and important writers they are. But like a dog, Roth is also capable of reveling in pure enjoyment of the craft of his colleagues, lying down and rolling around in it, showing us who he is and what gives him pleasure, simply because he can.

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From “Shop Talk”

Philip Roth: In “Malone Dies,” your compatriot Samuel Beckett writes: “Let us say before I go any further, that I forgive nobody. I wish them all an atrocious life in the fires of icy hell and in the execrable generations to come.” This quotation stands as the epigraph of “Mother Ireland,” a memoir you published in 1976. Did you mean to suggest by this epigraph that your own writing about Ireland isn’t wholly uncontaminated by such sentiments? Frankly, I don’t feel such harshness in yourwork.

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Edna O’Brien: I picked the epigraph because I am, or was, especially at that time, unforgiving about lots of things in my life, and I picked somebody who said it more eloquently and more ferociously than I could say it.

Roth: The fact is that your fiction argues against your unforgivingness.

O’Brien: To some extent it does, but that is because I am a creature of conflicts. When I vituperate, I subsequently feel I should appease. That happens throughout my life. I am not a natural out-and-out hater any more than I am a natural, or thorough, out-and-out lover, which means I am often rather at odds with myself and others!

Roth: Who is the unforgiven creature in your imagination?

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O’Brien: Up to the time he died, which was a year ago, it was my father. But through deatha metamorphosis happens: within. Since he died I have written a play about him embodying all his traits--his anger, his sexuality, his rapaciousness, et cetera--and now I feel differently toward him. I do not want to relive my life with him or be reincarnated as the same daughter, but I do forgive him. My mother is a different matter. I loved her, over-loved her, yet she visited a different legacy on me, an all-embracing guilt. I still have a sense of her over my shoulder, judging.

Roth: Here you are, a woman of experience, talking about forgiving your mother and father. Do you think that still worrying those problems has largely to do with your being a writer? If you weren’t a writer, if you were a lawyer, if you were a doctor, perhaps you wouldn’t be thinking about these people so much.

O’Brien: Absolutely. It’s the price of being a writer. One is dogged by the past--pain, sensations, rejections, all of it. I do believe that this clinging to the past is a zealous, albeit hopeless, desire to reinvent it so that one could change it. Doctors, lawyers, and many other stable citizens are not afflicted by a persistent memory. In their way, they might be just as disturbed as you or I, except that they don’t know it. They don’t delve.


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