Zuckerman Bound: a Trilogy and Epilogue Story by Philip Roth, 1985

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Story by Philip Roth, 1985

Philip Roth begins and ends Zuckerman Bound: A Trilogy and Epilogue (1985) with a story that references the Holocaust. To a large extent the positioning of all four stories is relevant to Nathan Zuckerman's chronological age, and each one describes the problems a writer has to face, but their respective placement also is driven by a broader examination of the relationship between life and art. For example, to what degree does the novelist draw on his own life for thematic material? Although all of the Zuckerman novels respond to that question, The Ghost Writer (1979) and Epilogue: The Prague Orgy (1985), the stories framing the collection, bring into focus the thematic relevance of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism for a Jewish American writer. They suggest Roth's awareness that although he remained geographically distant from the Holocaust, as a writer he became deeply linked to it in ways that he could never have predicted.

Roth's more solipsistic approach, The Ghost Writer, fictionalizes the latent effect of the Holocaust on the negative way some of Roth's Jewish audience read his work. The defensive tone of that earlier work, however, is replaced in Epilogue: The Prague Orgy. Here Roth expresses his appreciation of the crucial tie-in between politics and art: in America a Jewish writer gets the chance to be criticized or praised, but in Czechoslovakia a Jew's writing gets imprisoned in layers of anti-Semitic bureaucracy.

Roth has set up the story as three journal entries from Zuckerman's diary, starting with one on 11 January 1976, the day Zuckerman meets Sisovsky, a Czech émigré who fawn-ingly flatters Zuckerman's writing in an effort to persuade Zuckerman to smuggle out his father's Yiddish manuscripts about the Holocaust. According to Sisovsky, his father produced 200 stories about Jewish life in Czechoslovakia. His father, he claims, was the Yiddish Flaubert whose stories, especially the ten little gems relating to life of the Nazis and Jews in 1941, deserve an audience. After Sisovsky tells the tragic circumstances of his father's death at the hands of a drunken Gestapo officer, Zuckerman feels compelled to try and rescue the stories. The remaining journal entries recount what takes place on two days in February of the same year when Zuckerman unsuccessfully attempts to bring the manuscripts to freedom.

As Zuckerman is pursuing the manuscripts, he hears from Sisovsky's alcoholic wife that the authenticity of the stories is suspect. What they describe, she says, did not happen to Sisovsky's father but rather to his friend. She implies that Zuckerman's zealous mission can best be explained as another "shallow, sentimental, American … Jew" drawn to a Holocaust story—an analogous accusation to Zuckerman's feelings about the general response of Jews to Anne Frank's diary. This theory particularizes the discussion of the relationship between life and art. To what degree have American Jews considered Anne Frank's story a martyr's tale, a holy book by virtue of its place in the encyclopedia of Jewish suffering? Do Jews immediately elevate and favorably judge any story of the Holocaust without regard to its literary value?

By placing The Prague Orgy at the end, Roth can revisit certain issues he began in The Ghost Writer. Anne Frank's life takes on a whole other meaning for a non-Jew, Eva Kalinova, Sisovsky's Gentile mistress. As Zuckerman reflects, "They [the Czech regime] have used Anne Frank as a whip to drive her from the stage, … Anne Frank as a curse and a stigma!" Kalinova has played so many Jewish parts that she is believed to be Jewish. Like her lover, Sisovsky, she suffers from a strain of anti-Semitism that is reflected in a widespread suffocation of artistic expression. In America she is no longer a Czech actress, and he isn't a Czech writer. Thus, Roth suggests, Anne Frank's story, the story of political, religious, and artistic repression, is metaphorically speaking a legacy from the Holocaust that continues to threaten freedom in ways that Americans often never learn about. Ultimately the story of Anne Frank is not just a Jewish story. The anti-Semitism of the Nazis becomes a symbol of other repressive regimes and the ruin they wreak on the human spirit. Roth implies that to bring these stories to light is a form of resistance.

—Ellen Gerstle

Daniel Walden