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Philip Roth Liked to Czech Out the Ladies

A tale of love, literature, and 1970s totalitarianism

Adam Chandler
May 01, 2013

One of the many reasons why Philip Roth is deserving of the Nobel Prize in Literature is that Roth long served as a champion for the work of writers from Eastern and Central Europe, long overlooked by Western audiences.

One upshot of his proselytizing was a four an 18-volume set of stories called Writers from the Other Europe, which introduced readers to written stylings of Milan Kundera, Bruno Schulz, and others.

But as it turns out, Roth’s cultural missions in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s (which were also a pilgrimmage of solidarity) aroused the suspicions of the authorities. This was a topic at last night’s PEN gala, where Roth received the PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award and recounted a story from his friend Ivan Klima, who was once questioned about Roth’s repeated visits to Prague.

As Ivan later told me in a letter, he had only one answer to give them: “Don’t you read his books?” Ivan asked the police. As might be expected, they were stymied by the question. But Ivan quickly enlightened them: “He comes for the girls.”

As the crowd cheered and erupted in laughter, Roth walked offstage.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.