Philip Roth’s crusade to help Czechoslovak dissident writers under Communism

Philip Roth in 2008, photo: ČTK/AP/Richard Drew

Towering Jewish-American author Philip Roth has died at the age of 85. And while most of the tributes will rightly focus on his many prize winning works over 60 years, there was another aspect to his life as well: the timely help he gave to dissident Czechoslovak writers after 1968 and the crushing of the so-called Prague Spring.

Philip Roth in 2008,  photo: ČTK/AP/Richard Drew
Philip Roth made a name for himself with critical acclaim, controversy, and commercial success stemming from the 1969 novel Portnoy’s Complaint, whose protagonist is plagued by lust and ever more elaborate masturbatory acts.

But in the early 1970’s he was still teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, writing, and exploring the wider literary landscape. And, given his Jewish background, it’s not surprising that at one stage he was gripped by the works of the early 20th century Czech-German writer Franz Kafka.

And it was in a bid to get closer to Kafka that Roth decided to visit the writer’s home city, Prague, for the first time as part of a broader trip to Europe. He recalls the date as being around 1973 but some reports put the visit earlier.

Roth had a publisher in Prague and set up a meeting. A reception with the publisher and editors followed. But later one woman took Roth aside and explained that these were all the lackeys who had been put in place by the normalisation regime after the Soviet-led invasion of 1968. Most of the previous staff had been sacked and been given menial jobs. That launched Roth’s rapid learning curve about Czechoslovakia and his crusade to help the literary dissidents.

Back in New York, Roth met up with Czech exiles and these included figures from the film world, Jiří Weiss, Ivan Passer, Miloš Forman. And in return trips to Prague over the following years he met with dissident writers, Ivan Klíma, Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, Ludvík Vaculík. And Roth put his mind to trying to help them with their everyday needs as well as boosting their reputations abroad.

Philip Roth,  photo: Public Domain
Roth described how he helped his growing group of dissident friends and contacts by launching a book series with the well known publisher Penguin called ‘Writers from the Other Europe.’ The books had already by been published in English but had disappeared. The idea was they would be brought together and noticed.

The Czech experience helped provide the background for Roth’s 1985 novel ‘The Prague Orgy’ in which his alter ego, Nathan Zukerman, travels to communist Prague to seek out the manuscript of a Yiddish author.

Roth’s efforts did not go unmissed by the Czechoslovak communist secret police, the StB, and he was refused visas to visit Czechoslovakia from 1977 until after the regime fell in 1989. Roth’s efforts were later recognised in post-communist Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic with a series of literary awards – including the first Franz Kafka prize in 2001.