Ron Rosenbaum, Writer

April 15, 2007

Surprising Roth Revelation

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 9:30 am

I enjoyed my two hour conversation with Milt Rosenberg on WGN, the classic Chicago radio station which is located in the Tribune Building.

I was reminded of one of the Tribune Building features I’d forgotten about. That it features a piece of stolen from Hamle’t castle. Or so it’s labelled. Not just Hamlet’s castle but the Great Pyramid of Cheops, the Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, the Alamo, the Taj Mahal, the Parthenon, Fort Sumter, The Colisseum, St.Peter’s, the Mosque of Suleiman the Magnificent.

Alegedly. It seems that eccentric Tribune founder Col. Robert McCormick ordered his far flung world wide correspondents, to carve pieces out of the world’s great landmarks–global vandalism in effect–to bring back these pieces of stone embedded in the facade of the Tribune Building. There are also reports that some of the lazier or more honorable of the reporters just shipped in random blacks of rock labeled as pieces of famous places like “Hamlet’s castle”.

We’ll probably never know. But it’s a kind of prescient warning to be skeptical about what newspapers present as history.

Anyway inside the Tribune Tower Milt Rosenberg, a U. of Chicago emeritus professor, and certainly the most erudite talk radio host I’ve encountered, has presided over an increasingly influential and uniquely thoughtful two hour block of talk for more than a quarter century (he played a clip of a multiply intoxicated Don Imus appearing on his show back in 1981!). And book publicists all say his audience are intense book-buyers.

Our conversation ranged from Shakespeare to Hitler to the question of a Second Holocaust. In connection with this latter grim subject I made reference to Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock a reading of which had first set me thinking, back in 2002, about the potential for a second Holocaust. Thinking and writing and setting off a fierce controversy.

Milt Rosenberg remembered something about Operation Shylock I’d forgotten: that Roth maintained it wasn’t a novel. That this insanely complicated tale of Rothian doppelgangers, Israeli and Arab espionage agents and a secret Mossad misssion Roth purportedly engaged in was all true.

And that in an interview on Milt’s show when the novel came out inthe mid 90s, Roth maintained an absolutely straight face about this claim. Insisted it was a memoir not a novel. It demosntrates how the climate has changed that I don’t recall much controversy over this, perhpas because no body beleived such a wild tale could be true and Roth had played with fiction and non fiction before. I’m not sure what to make of this, what it says about Roth about the boundaries between fiction and non fiction, whether we look at it through the lense of fiction or memoir makes a difference. Is it like one of the sphinx like fake-or-real stones in the Tribune Tower facade ? Now I want to know. Will somebody please ask Philip Roth what the deal is?



  1. There’s a halcyon days / Halcion daze joke to be made about that Roth novel / memoir, but I’m not making it until I’ve had some more coffee.

    Comment by Gil Roth — April 15, 2007 @ 11:22 am | Reply

  2. Not billed as a memoir but as a “confession.” Don’t forget the disclaimer at the end:

    “This confession is false”

    Which makes his claim to a large audience that it was true, all the more surpizing, mysterious and/or duplicitous.

    Comment by Shmuel — April 15, 2007 @ 2:24 pm | Reply

  3. Right. And even the disclaimer is intended to be ambiguous. Does it imply that the entire book as a “confession” is false or is the disclaimer alone false (which itself follows the publisher’s disclaimer in legalese).

    Anyway, nobody will ever get a straight answer because that would ruin the fun. Roth is the wisest of the wiseasses.

    I think that the fiction/nonfiction ambiguity issue didn’t raise a (moral) fuss back then just because Roth is so good at it and takes it very seriously while making it seem so riduculous. He *is* the mystery.

    It sounds pretentious and cliche but his life really is art. Compare this to the Sedaris (non) flap. Maybe the weight and tone of a literary controversy tends to suit a writer’s character.

    Comment by Shmuel — April 15, 2007 @ 2:59 pm | Reply

  4. I didn’t know that about this particular book. Like others familiar with Roth’s work, you wonder if it wasn’t memoir turned into ‘Higher Autobiography’. (I got that term from Martin Amis’ autobiography Experience.) With Roth especially, you never know. I haven’t read the book in question, but whatever Roth says about the book, I would take it with a grain of salt. (This is not to diminish the work. My point (probably poorly made) is that it’s a very fuzzy line and Roth’s past interest hasn’t been to make it less so.)

    Comment by Ed Hawkes — April 16, 2007 @ 11:40 pm | Reply

  5. Um, you might want to put another “s” in there on the “Surprizing” in your headline.

    Pretty much every word processing program now has spell check features.

    It’s odd: I do use (Safari) spell check, but perhaps it didn’t include title copy. There are actually 100,000+ google entries for surprizing and I think it may be a Brit variation, as I recall the z form was found in e.g. Henry Fielding novels and other lit. from the 18th century which was an undergrad . concentration of mine and probably gave me life-long trouble with the word. But I’ve made the change and thank you for calling it to my attention.

    Comment by Bill Bradley — April 18, 2007 @ 10:19 pm | Reply

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