In search of the unpublished manuscript of a martyred Yiddish writer, American novelist Nathan Zuckerman travels to Soviet-occupied Prague in the mid-1970s.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 an institutionalised oppression that is rather different from his own. He also discovers, among the subjugated writers with whom he quickly becomes embroiled in a series of bizarre and poignant adventures, an appealingly perverse kind of heroism. The Prague Orgy ...
In search of the unpublished manuscript of a martyred Yiddish writer, American novelist Nathan Zuckerman travels to Soviet-occupied Prague in the mid-1970s.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 an institutionalised oppression that is rather different from his own. He also discovers, among the subjugated 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 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.
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Philip Roth wrote three novels at three different times, "The Ghost Writer" (1979), "Zuckerman Unbound" (1981), and "The Anatomy Lesson" (1983) which, in 1985, he grouped together as a trilogy, "Zuckerman Bound". Roth also wrote and added a considerably shorter work to the trilogy, "The Prague Orgy" which he described as an "Epilogue". Usually printed as part of "Zuckerman Bound", "The Prague Orgy" was published as a stand-alone work in 1996.
The primary character in each of these four works is Nathan Zuckerman, a novelist from Newark, New Jersey who bears resemblances to Roth himself. Each of the three full-length novels take place in the United States as Zuckerman at various points in his life reflects upon his writing, the relationship between imaginative writing and experience, and sex. The series pivots on Zuckerman's successful novel "Carnovsky" which garnered both high praise and sharp criticism. On his deathbed, Zuckerman's father cursed his son for the book. "Carnovsky" is a thinly-veiled reference to Roth's own "Portnoy's Complaint".
"The Prague Orgy" extends its predecessors but differs from them as well. Roth sets most of the book in Prague, 1976, when Czechoslovakia was in the midst of the Soviet Union's communist domination. Much of the book turns on the plight of the writer under a ruthless communist regime and thus shifts from Zuckerman's preoccupation with his own writing and its relationship to his experience in the United States. The tension between the character Zuckerman and the author Roth also seems of less importance in this Epilogue than in the three books of the trilogy.
Roth tends to be an inconsistent writer with his strong and weak moments. Readers frequently disagree about the merits of his various works. With respect to "The Prague Orgy" Harold Bloom has praised the work highly as the climax of "Zuckerman Bound" while many other readers are puzzled by the book and find it a trifle. While the book is short, funny, and sharply written, I found it the most difficult work to read in "Zuckerman Bound". It is disjointed and episodic, deliberately so, and "Kafkaesque" to use an overworked term. The justification for the trite term is the prominent role given to Kafka and his Prague in the story.
Roth presents the story as drawn "from Zuckerman's notebooks" which gives it its rambling, draft-like character. Zuckerman speaks in the first person. The book is in three sections, the first of which is set in New York City in January, 1976, while the two subsequent sections take place over two turbulent days in Prague on February 4-5, 1976.
There is a tendency to rush over the New York section of the book as a prelude to what follows, but it is important in its own right. Zuckerman meets two Prague emigres,a man named Sisovsky and his female companion Eva Kalinova. Sisovsky wrote a book in 1967 which the communists suppressed, destroying his literary career. Kalinova was a renowned actress who left her husband for Sisovsky. The trio engage in much discussion about Zuckerman and the reception of "Carnovsky" while contrasting it with readers and the fate of writers under the communists. As the conversation progresses, Sisovsky says that his father had written several hundred stories in Yiddish that are hidden away with Olga, Sisovsky's ex-wife. He claims that his father had been murdered by the Nazis and asks Zimmerman to try to retrieve the stories so that they may be saved and published.
The remainder of the book recounts Zimmerman's efforts in Prague. The book opens with the "orgy" as disinherited and rejected writers and intellectuals meet clandestinely every week to commiserate and to engage in various forms of sex. Zimmerman meets Olga who immediately wants to sleep with him. In his brief sojourn, Zimmerman sees a society full of repression of thought, imposed conformity, but, apparently modest material prosperity on behalf of the populace. He is also followed and under immediate suspicion from the regime which deports him "back to the little world around the corner."
There is much in the story about the differing role of the artist in the United States and under communism, much surrealistic conversation among the many characters in this cluttered book, and much reflection by Zuckerman himself. The book is tinged with layers of irony. As the Czech minister of culture is about to throw Zuckerman out of the country he lectures on the nature of literature:
"In this small country the writers have a great burden to bear; they must not only make the country's literature, they must be the touchstone for general decency and public conscience. They occupy a high position in our national life because they are people who live beyond reproach. Our writers are loved by their readers. The country looks to them for moral leadership. No, it is those who stand outside of the common life, that is who we all fear. And we are right to."
This is the voice of totalitarianism stifling thought and criticism. The irony, however, is that the culture minister's discussion of the function of literature has a good deal to commend it in a free democracy. The book suggests that American writers, with their freedom, tend to be too quick to criticize their country without trying to appreciate the virtues of a free, open culture. In his experience in Czechoslovakia, Zuckerman learns somehow about both the nature of communist repression and about the role of the writer in a free society, a subject which is implicit in the three books of the trilogy.
This is my understanding of the short, elliptical Epilogue to "Zuckerman Bound". The work seems to me best read as initially intended as an epilogue to the three Zuckerman books rather than as a separate work in its own right.
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