Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Smilesburger's Russian Antecedents

American literature is full of Russian literature. I don't know if anyone has written about how much Philip Roth's Operation Shylock owes to Russian lit, in particular to Crime and Punishment. The most interesting character, Smilesburger, is a reincarnated Porfiry Petrovich, the police investigator.

Woody Allen's film "Match Point" also borrows heavily from Dostoevsky, periodically re-staging scenes from Crime and Punishment, but the movie is superficial, even negligible in comparison to the Roth novel, which is written in a kind of white heat (so typical of Dostoevsky), bordering on insanity.

All sorts of Russian themes show up in Roth's novel; prominent among them is the theme of fathers and sons. Turgenev wrote the novel (actually the title is Fathers and Children in the original), but he, of course, has no patent on the theme.

At one point (p. 245) the action is stated to be "unconvincing," and the narrator suggests that the story has been conceived as a prank, "and a nasty prank at that." See also, p.361, "the sacrosanct prank of artistic transubstantiation." Probably the greatest "prank" story in all of world literature is Nikolai Gogol's "The Nose."

But Roth, first and foremost, had Dostoevsky in mind when he wrote this book teeming with red-hot tirades. The book recalls Porfiry Petrovich's telling Raskolnikov how no fact can really be grasped, because everything "cuts both ways." In Russian the expression is "a stick with two ends."

In Dostoevsky's great novels he allows an airing to all sorts of opinions. In fact his spokesmen for the Christian point of view (ostensibly his own view) often take a back seat in the dialectic to others who make a convincing case for atheism. The same sort of dialectic is operative in Operation Shylock, in which a Jewish author goes out of his way to let characters spout anti-Israeli and even anti-Jewish messages. "Did the Six Million Really Die" (p.253-60) is the most flagrant example of this.

The critic Bakhtin famously called Dostoevsky's novels "polyphonic," meaning that competing voices rage and roil throughout the books, propagating competing messages. The struggle is never resolved in favor of one voice or another. Roth's Operation Shylock is precisely such a novel.

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