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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Prague Orgy

Philip Roth

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To purchase The Prague Orgy

Title: The Prague Orgy
Author: Philip Roth
Genre: Novel
Written: 1985
Length: 86 pages
Availability: The Prague Orgy - US
in Zuckerman Bound - US
The Prague Orgy - UK
The Prague Orgy - Canada
The Prague Orgy - India
in Zuckerman enchaîné - France
Die Prager Orgie - Deutschland
L'orgia di Praga - Italia
in Zuckerman encadenado - España

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Our Assessment:

B : vivid and theatrical, if not entirely fleshed-out

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
London Rev. of Books . 21/11/1985 D.A.N.Jones
The NY Times . 15/5/1985 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. A+ 19/5/1985 Harold Bloom
The Times . 24/10/1985 Andrew Sinclair
Times Literary Supp. . 18/10/1985 Clive Sinclair

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Prague Orgy is free of the shrillness and self-pity that mar earlier sections of this volume, and it also possesses a new range and density of ambition. Roth fans can only hope that instead of merely marking the end of the Zuckerman saga, it marks another beginning." - Michiko Kakutani. The New York Times

  • "(A) wild short novel, The Prague Orgy, which is at once the bleakest and the funniest writing Roth has done. (...) With The Prague Orgy, Roth has transcended himself, or perhaps shown himself and others that, being just past 50, he has scarcely begun to display his powers. I have read nothing else in recent American fiction that rivals Thomas Pynchon in The Crying of Lot 49 and episodes like the story of Bryon the light bulb in the same author's Gravity's Rainbow. The Prague Orgy is of that disturbing eminence: obscenely outrageous and yet brilliantly reflective of a paranoid reality that has become universal." - Harold Bloom, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(T)his is a scabrous, gutsy and scathing book. (...) This story is an intellectual's visit abroad instead of living there." - Andrew Sinclair, The Times

  • "For me the most overrated book of the year was Philip Roth's The Prague Orgy. So weak and emaciated that the only possible diagnosis of what is wrong with it is the literary equivalent of AIDS" - Francis King, The Spectator (30/11/1985)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Prague Orgy is a sliver of a book, presented as the Epilogue to the Zuckerman Bound-trilogy of novels that began with The Ghost Writer. It is presented as: "... from Zuckerman's notebooks" -- , though it feels less like diary-noted recollection than a more full fleshed-out recreation of the scenes. Written in the present tense, there's an immediacy to the action -- though this voice also has a flatness to it (which is less noticeable when dialogue -- a significant portion of the story -- dominates).
       The story takes place in early 1976. It begins with Roth's alter-ego protagonist, Nathan Zuckerman, meeting Czech writer Sisovsky, who has gone into exile, and his mistress, Eva Kalinova, a famous actress in the old country, in New York. A month later, Zuckerman travels to Prague, where he meets Olga, Sisovsky's wife. She still has a collection of Sisovsky's father's unpublished Yiddish stories, which Sisovsky hopes Zuckerman can bring back to the United States for him.
       Sisovsky and Zuckerman have both achieved some fame, but Zuckerman's rests on a large body of work that has found a large readership, nudged along by a touch of scandal; Sisovsky's is closer to pure (if, in substance, very different) notoriety: he's only published: "one harmless little satire in Prague in 1967" -- a book whose title Zuckerman can't even remember. But Zuckerman admires the exile; his own fame seems to him to have come relatively easily, while Sisovsky is thwarted in his very essence as a writer in his homeland.
       Sisovsky sums up his difficult position:

There I can at least be 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.
       Jewish issues also figure in the stories of Sisovsky and his companion. Sisovsky compares his father to Zuckerman:
My father was a Jew. Not only a Jew, but but like you, a Jew wriing about Jews; like you, Semite-obsessed all his life.
       Sisovsky describes father's death at the hands of the Nazis, which Zuckerman doesn't recognize as an appropriated one: the tragedy Sisovsky describes is how Bruno Schulz was murdered. (Only in Prague does Sisovsky's wife clue him in that Sisovsky wasn't truthful; she also suspects Sisovsky would similarly appropriate his father's stories should he get his hands on them.)
       Eva's fall from grace in her homeland also has an ugly anti-Semitic element to it, as she left her husband -- an admired and beloved figure -- for a Jewish man, leading to her being regarded as: "no better than a Jew herself".
       In Prague, Zuckerman is warned that he -- like every foreigner and intellectual -- is constantly under watch, and most places that he goes bugged. There's a sense of the threatening regime, lurking always in the shadows, and while the threat to Zuckerman himself should not be one he should be too concerned about -- as he correctly notes, his American citizenship and high international profile make it difficult for the authorities to take direct action -- he is nevertheless clearly cowed and worried. The locals he encounters, meanwhile, try to help him navigate in various ways -- even as it's difficult for him to get a sense of whom to trust and believe. With histrionic-seeming Olga, in particular, it's difficult for him to sense how much of it is an act -- some certainly, as a note she scribbles making clear that she is also playing to another (hidden, official) audience proves -- but much of her over-the-top behavior also seems entirely, horribly genuine.
       Among the amusing observations someone makes to Zuckerman about the absurd situation is:
And don't credit the secret police with so much. Of course the hotel clerk is a cop. Everybody is in that hotel. But the police are like literary critics -- of what little they see, they get most wrong anyway. They are the literary critics. Our literary criticism is police criticism.
       Zuckerman is introduced to a world in stark contrast to the free West, where he finds:
     Here where the literary culture is held hostage, the art of narration flourishes by mouth. In Prague, stories aren't simply stories; it's what they have instead of life. Here they have become their stories, in lieu of being permitted to be anything else. Storytelling is the form their resistance has taken against the coercion of the powers that be.
       Once again, Roth excels in characterization, beginning with slippery Sisovsky and then especially the two women, Eva and Olga -- even as he veers dangerously close to the overly histrionic at times. And The Prague Orgy even has a bit of the international-intrigue thriller to it, with a candy box (!) full of manuscripts that Zuckerman wants to smuggle out, and officials closing in on him -- a part of the novella Roth handles well in outline but ultimately feels too insubstantial.
       Roth is at his best in the set pieces of direct dialogue -- not least in a scene that finds Zuckerman with the Czech Minister of Culture, who asks him about the enormously successful American author whose work he admires -- Betty MacDonald. Zuckerman can't even place the name when the minister first mentions it, but the title of her bestseller, The Egg and I brings it back -- a reminder (pointed, it appears -- the minister is no fool) of just how strange and fleeting some forms of literary success can be.
       Yet ultimately the debates and Zuckerman's observations and experiences only scratch surfaces -- and fairly lightly at that. The intentional vulgarity -- of language and action -- at times threatens to drown out some of the finer points, as well: it's part of the point, but it comes across as very loud. Still, Roth makes many of his points well -- but The Prague Orgy remains more of a sketch of engagement than a full-blown one. That said, in its function as epilogue, a coda to the Zuckerman Bound-trilogy, it doesn't feel as inadequate. And even as a stand-alone volume, it is a fine piece of work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 July 2018

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The Prague Orgy: Reviews: Philip Roth: Other books by Philip Roth under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author Philip Roth (1933-2018) wrote many highly acclaimed works and won numerous literary prizes.

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