Book Review of:
by PHILIP ROTH
(Jonathan Cape, 1969, then Penguin Books,
1986 ISBN: 0-14-005521-5)
‘seeing as I had no choice,
I became honest…’
What is this thing called Portnoy’s Complaint? The title suggests a kind of medical condition. An exotic ailment with highly specific symptoms and side-effects. And the novel takes the form of analysis divulged to a psychiatrist who is sometimes addressed in pleading tones of frustrated incomprehension as ‘Doctor’ Spielvogel. But a complaint is also a protest against perceived injustice. You take your flawed purchases along to the Complaints Department and list your grievances in expectation of a refund or at least a sympathetic hearing. And the novel is that too. A long howl of protest against the condition of being Alexander Portnoy in his time, place and body. We read sympathetically, up to a point, but no – there will be no refund.
The key to its text is ‘the key to what determined my character, what causes me to be living in this predicament.’ It’s not chronological. It leaps around in time as the narrative accumulates, like a string of anecdotes or routines running chaotically into each other, triggered by theme rather than sequentially. Showing the long shadow that childhood and confused infant sexuality casts across adult behaviour, so that ‘my right mind is simply that inheritance of terror I bring with me out of my ridiculous past.’
It’s a beautifully written novel, with exactly the correct leavening of coarseness and truth (‘I pledge my allegiance to the twat of the United States of America’). There are literary and cultural references, to ‘Joseph K’ – Kafka, to Jack Benny and Tom Paine, but most of all to Freud. I first read ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ many years ago, when, due to the illegitimate circumstances of my birth I also considered myself something of the social outsider. I, too, had the secret that must never be uttered. Is that the same as Portnoy’s ‘whining edge of permanent disgruntlement and grievance’? No – obviously not, but sufficient to chime. Close enough for resonance. At least it seemed that way, to me.
I remembered the sex-humour of this self-confessed ‘Raskolnikov of jerking off’ well. The bathroom masturbation scene where the arcing spurt of jism hits the light-bulb, where it sizzles and bubbles. As well as the comic scenario of excess that anticipates by some decades the scurrilously-iconic scene in the movie ‘American Pie’ (1999), featuring the sexual assault on the apple pie. Here, Alex discovers some raw liver in the family fridge on arriving home from school. It was ‘rolled round my cock in the bathroom at three-thirty – and then had again on the end of a fork, at five-thirty, along with the other members of that poor innocent family of mine.’ Yet although Alex’s masturbatory high-jinks take on dimensions of Jewish guilt, they’re also universal enough to be instantly recognisably true. Yes, that’s how it is. Exactly. This book should be a compulsory primer for every pubescent female, as a glimpse into the way the male psyche really works, as a corrective to all the soapy Rom-Com TV movie-stuff, and all the sensitive metro-sexual New Man posturing. Here, read this!
In what purports to be a confessional psychoanalytical monologue there’s an obligation to a core of truth, even if it’s a variety of fictionalised truth. Even if it’s a sometime’s squeamish kind of veracity, as in the uncomfortably disturbing truths of… say, Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ (1959). Something that pokes at areas of the psyche that provoke unsettling responses. And the tale Roth tells is recognisably part of human experience, and hence a valid ingredient for narrative portrayal. Yet the fact that Roth kicked off a seismic controversy on its first publication, was due not only to its pruriently detailed wank-sequences, as much as its irreverent depiction of Jewish identity. I remembered those sex scene, I’d forgotten, or failed to pick up on the Jewish presence. Suddenly, now, I know more about ‘shikses’ and ‘goyim’ than I ever need to know.
There are many ethnic communities making up the greater New York melting pot. From Italian and Afro-American to Hispanic and Puerto-Rican. Jewish is but one. And Philip Roth captures every nuance of its distinctiveness to perfection. Even ‘the terror bred into my bones’, the fear and guilt, particular to the Jewish family, is readily accessible and empathic. Isn’t Catholicism based around original-sin guilt? The moral policeman inserted into the back of the brain monitoring behaviour. But then again, if those two great and opposing religions both inculcate guilt, isn’t that also preying upon the essential good conscience that’s common to all humans? If there was no conscience, there would be no guilt. Which is not to claim that Jewish guilt is in any way comparable to Catholic guilt, or any other brand of guilt.
Philip Milton Roth was born 19th March 1933, and grew up in Newark, New Jersey. As he later documents in an ‘Observer’ item promoting his novel ‘I Married A Communist’ (1998), ‘I was eight when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour… twelve when Germany surrendered… and Japan surrendered on 14 August 1945’. In 1941 the fictional Portnoy family move from Jersey City – because of anti-Semitism, to Newark. Making the ‘Schnoz’ Portnoy a ‘child of the forties, of network radio and World War Two.’ Hiroshima and Nagasaki ‘went up in a puff, one week when I was twelve.’ The autobiographical parallels scarcely need underlining. But more personally significant, young Alex sees himself as one of ‘the sad and watery-eyed sons of Jewish parents, sick to the gills from rolling through these heaving seas of guilt.’ His parents, Sophie and Jack, are ‘the outstanding producers and packagers of guilt in our time!’ A double-act subtly eroding him, their parental manipulation game expertly charted.
His insurance salesman father’s constipation makes him ‘the patron saint of self-sacrifice’, with ‘his intestinal tract in the hands of the firm of Worry, Fear and Frustration.’ Yet he’s more dominated by his mother’s supernatural ubiquity, ‘scolding, correcting, reproving, criticising, fault-finding without end.’ She plots her loving blackmail, poopie-dramas and inquisitions, as well as supervising the correction of Alex’s undescended testicle in a world ‘dripping with germs fraught with peril.’ Roth’s transcription of their push-pull dialogue that conspires towards trapping him inescapably is both recognisably true, and laugh-out-loud funny. A confusion of desires. As a result ‘I am marked like a road map from head to toe with my repressions.’
The narrative ranges across the full breadth of his life up to now, that now being 1966. The Civil Rights struggle and the Sexual Revolution are said to be happening all around him. And he’s opportunistically ready to take personal advantage of both. His adult sexual conquistadoring – ‘another gentile heart broken’, with the ‘unsullied thrill of sadism’ is part of his revenge. A manifest symptom of his ‘complaint’ against the world. He’s ‘the tantrum kid’, and what he’s doing with the girls he refers to as The Pumpkin, The Pilgrim or The Monkey, is ‘I don’t seem to stick my dick up these girls, as much as I stick it up their backgrounds.’ They are scores to settle, ‘having your goy, and eating one too’. It’s his self-serving manipulation of these women under the guise of the new morality that, to me, is more offensive than his honesty about adolescent tossing-off.
There’s some doubt about the girlfriend he calls ‘The Monkey’ – Mary Jane Reed, who he picks up on Lexington Avenue. She seems to be the epitome of, and answer to, every teenage boy’s wank-fantasy. Can she really be true? He suggests that she’s been emotionally damaged by her dysfunctional West Virginian family background, she is ‘this brutalised woman, this coarse, tormented, self-loathing, bewildered, lost, identity-less’ woman. Suggesting all families can be equally toxic, in their own way. That her rapacious sexual appetite, even if it’s not faked, is in part a device to lure him into commitment, into marriage. A move he is determinedly not about to make. That he is commitment-phobic is both a result of, and a reaction against his infant moral programming. His fight against the claustrophobic restrictions of his boyhood.
When he declares himself an atheist, his father’s response is charged with deliberate insinuation, ‘what do you know about the history of the Jewish people, that you have the right to call their religion, that’s been good enough for people a lot smarter than you and a lot older than you for two-thousand years – that you can call all that suffering and heartache a lie!’ And his sister Hannah articulately refutes his need to be seen as not just Jewish, but human – ‘you could have screamed all you wanted that you were not a Jew, that you were a human and had nothing whatever to do with their stupid suffering heritage’ but in Nazi Europe ‘you would have been taken away to be disposed of…’ In spite of which he rehearses chat-up lines in which he introduces himself as ‘Alton Peterson – totally goy’.
He spends a weekend in Davenport, Iowa, with the blonde girl he calls The Pumpkin. The experience delineates his separation, his alienation as part of a community within – but different from the world he knows. It is November 1950. He is seventeen years old. And on an Elm Street that might have been painted by Norman Rockwell, he – the insurance salesman’s son, can’t believe he’s in the same America. ‘Why then can’t I believe I am eating my dinner in America, that America is where I am, instead of some other place.’ It’s here he discovers ‘conversation isn’t just crossfire where you shoot and get shot at.’ That the English language can be a form of interactive conversation, in which words can be ‘little gifts, containing meanings.’
The long howl of protest against the condition of being Alex Portnoy finally comes together in escape to Israel, where – with post-modern awareness, Naomi skewers the core of the novel, ‘everything you say is somehow always twisted, some way or another, to come out ‘funny’… in some little way or other, everything is ironical, or self-deprecating. Self mockery.’ This is Philip Roth laying out the ‘key’ of the novel exactly as it is, where ‘self-laceration is never more than a memory away.’
In his final desperation he attempts to sexually force himself on Naomi – and there’s no way rape can ever be passed off as humour, except in the irony that Portnoy, ever-priapic in the American diaspora of blonde ‘shikses’, fails to achieve erection in the supposed heart of the promised Jewish homeland. Leaving him stricken with impotence.
The novel ends with a long five-line scream. And a punchline.
‘GOODBYE COLUMBUS’ (Houghton Miffin, 1959) the title novella, originally published in ‘The Paris Review’ (and filmed in 1969, with Ali MacGraw as ‘Brenda Patimkin’, and Richard Benjamin as ‘Neil Klugman’), plus five short stories, ‘The Conversion Of The Jews’, ‘Defender Of The Faith’, ‘Epstein’, ‘Eli, The Fanatic’ and ‘You Can’t Tell A Man By The Song He Sings’
‘LETTING GO’ (Random House. 1962) a novel in seven sections, charting Gabe Wallach’s attempts to find ‘the world of feeling’
‘PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT’ (Jonathan Cape Ltd, 1969, Penguin Books, 1986)
‘WHEN SHE WAS GOOD’ (Random House, 1967) Roth’s only novel with a female protagonist, Lucy Nelson, a Midwestern girl in the 1940’s wounded by life and wild with righteousness, she sets out to make the men of her world do their duty by their wives and children. ‘With unerring fidelity, Roth records the flat surface of provincial American life, the look and feel and sound of it, and then penetrates it to the cesspool of its invisible dynamism’ (‘Newsweek’)
‘OUR GANG’ (Random House, 1971) a political satire about ‘Trick E Dixon’, a thinly disguised ‘Tricky’ Richard Nixon
‘THE BREAST’ (Houghton Miffin, 1972) the first of Roth’s three ‘Kapesh’ novels (the other two being ‘The Professor Of Desire’ and ‘The Dying Animal’ in 2001), which – in deliberate reference to Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ and Gogol’s ‘The Nose’, a man turns into a 155-pound female breast. It ‘picks up where ‘Portnoy’ left off and carries the main issue to an imaginary extreme that turns out to be the far edge of certain human realities, including some unanalysable ones, such as the reality of strangeness… the best example yet of Roth’s astonishing prowess when he is at the top of his talent and control’ (Ted Solotaroff, ‘Esquire’) ‘Roth’s prose is, as ever, elegant and intelligent, delicate even when at its most crude. It sent me… back to Kafka – a brave thing to do, but he stands the comparison well’ (Margaret Drabble, ‘The Listener’)
‘THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL’ (Holt, Rinehart And Winston, 1973) Baseball as a slapstick symbol of America, the adventures of the ‘Patriots’ – the only homeless big-league team in American history – hilarious, bizarre, and strangely poignant. ‘A comic extravaganza… parody, burlesque, and verbal ingenuity’ (‘The times Literary Supplement’). ‘Genuinely Rabelaisian, word-rich, in the great tradition, and it is gloriously funny, moving, revealing about what twentieth-century life is all about’ (Anthony Burgess)
‘MY LIFE AS A MAN’ (1974) the savage, sometimes lurid story of the all-out battle waged between the young writer Peter Tarnopol and the wife who is his nemesis, his demon and his muse. In this novel, Roth comes to grips with the wild inconsistencies of life and art, and exposes them to his relentless comic touch and electric prose. ‘One of the most fiercely engaged, incisive, funny and tormented American novelists… has told it like it was – like it is – for him, and it makes his book a scalding, unique addition to the lasting literature about men and women’ (Seymour Krim, ‘Newsday’)
‘READING MYSELF AND OTHERS’ (1975) a collection of essays
‘THE PROFESSOR OF DESIRE’ (1977) the story of David Kepesh, an adventurous man of intelligence and feeling who makes his way through a world of sensual possibilities as he tries to find both pleasure and dignity. ‘Philip Roth is a great historian of modern eroticism. After the lyrical exultation of sexuality that we know from such as Henry Miller, Roth speaks of a sexuality that questions itself; it is still hedonism, but it is problematic, wounded, ironic hedonism. His is the uncommon union of confession and irony. Infinitely vulnerable in his sincerity and infinitely elusive in his irony’ (Milan Kundera, ‘Le Monde’). ‘A thoughtful, even gentle, stylistically elegant novel… a fine display of literary skills’ (‘The New York Times Book Review’)
‘THE GHOST WRITER’ (1979) the first of Roth’s four ‘Zuckerman’ novels (with ‘Zuckerman Unbound’, ‘The Anatomy Lesson’, and ‘The Prague Orgy’), a celebrated blend of sympathy and pitilessness were the trademarks of EI Lonoff’s work. And it was to this great American-Jewish writer that Nathan Zuckerman turned for support and inspiration. Only to find, when he visited Lonoff’s rural retreat, that the disturbing presence of an enigmatic house-guest haunted his imagination. It has seemed impossible that America’s most famous literary ascetic should keep a mistress. But there she was. The beautiful, gifted, desirable Amy Bellette… or was she Anne Frank? ‘it all adds up to a beautifully written story, admirably terse and restrained’ (‘Sunday Telegraph’)
‘A PHILIP ROTH READER’ (1980)
‘ZUCKERMAN UNBOUND’ (1981) hero of ‘The Ghost Writer’ Nathan Zuckerman is now the author of his own bestselling novel. The comic-erotic masterpiece ‘Carnovsky’ has rocketed him onto the cover of ‘Life’ magazine – and into the arms of the great American public. Now Zuckerman can’t even get on a bus without being recognised, he’s hounded by gossip columnists and ominous phone calls and, worst of all, by Alvin Pepler, would-be novelist and one-time celebrity on the TV-quiz ‘Smart Money’… fame, fortune or fiction? Something seems to be dealing the death-blow to Zuckerman’s marriage, his family and his former life. ‘A rollicking read’ (Martin Amis, ‘Observer’). ‘Crammed with good jokes and penetrating observations of life and fiction’ (Francis King, ‘Spectator’)
‘THE ANATOMY LESSON’ (1983) the hilarious tale of Zuckerman, now a famous forty-year-old writer, who decides to give it all up and become a doctor – and a pornographer, instead. ‘The finest, boldest and funniest piece of fiction which Philip Roth has yet produced’ (‘Spectator’). ‘The old story of low, piggish, real life undermining high ideals. This is daring, first-rate stuff’ (‘Punch’). ‘The Anatomy Lesson shows Roth at his peak. The book is possessed by an exuberant desperation. Scorchingly funny, gravely discomforting’ (Harold Pinter, ‘Observer Books Of The Year’)
‘THE PRAGUE ORGY’ (1985)
‘THE COUNTER-LIFE’ (1986)
‘THE FACTS: A NOVELIST’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY’ (1988)
‘SABBATH’S THEATRE’ (1995)
‘AMERICAN PASTORAL’ (Houghton Miffin, 1997) critic Bernice Rubens calls it ‘a classical novel in the sense that it can be read over and over again, and promises to enrich the reader anew. It has many layers, domestic, political, psychological, and each layer magically merges into the other. I must not omit the industrial layer which concern a glove factory (dysfunctional family business) and its details of sewing, cutting, shaping of various fabrics. This layer of the novel is as seductive as any other. On the domestic and political front, the novel concerns itself with (Seymour ‘Swede Levov)’s daughter, a ‘weatherman’ of the sixties, who, pursued by the police, goes underground. Her family have lost sight of her for years; it is the father’s search for his daughter, dogged by his own guilt, his rage, and his heartbreak, that forms the core of this wonderful novel’ (in ‘Guardian’, 17 October 1998)
‘I MARRIED A COMMUNIST’ (Cape, 1998) as told to Nathan Zuckerman by Ira’s brother, Murray, Tim Adams explains, this is ‘the concluding part of a trilogy that began with ‘Sabbath’s Theatre’ (1995) and continued with ‘American Pastoral’ (1997). Taken together, these three books are likely to stand as the significant fictional achievement of our decade. Each of the novels explores as its tragedy the ways in which a formidable American soul is broken on a particular historical moment. The soul in question here belongs to Ira Ringold – aka Iron Rinn, giant of Newark, New Jersey; miner turned radio-star; Abe Lincoln impersonator, charismatic communist. The events that overwhelm him are the McCarthy trials of the Fifties, to which he is indicted by his film-star wife’ (‘Observer, 18 October 1998). He adds that ‘one reading of the novel’ could be seen as ‘nothing more than a badly concealed account of Roth’s own ‘betrayal’ by his partner of twenty years, the actress Claire Bloom, whose brutal memoir of her life with the writer ‘Leaving A Doll’s House’ was published last year’ In the book she is ‘Eve Frame’. But as Linda Grant points out Roth ‘has always deliberately muddled the distinction between the true and the false to dazzle and entertain’ (‘Guardian’ 3 October 1998)
‘THE HUMAN STAIN’ (2000) Zuckerman observes retired Professor of Classics Coleman Silk – played by Anthony Hopkins in the 2003 movie, with Nicole Kidman
‘THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA’ (2004)
‘THE HUMBLING’ (2009)
‘NEMESIS’ (Houghton Miffin, 2010) Roth told an interviewer that this account of a polio epidemic in Summer 1944's Newark – his thirty-first novel, would be his last. We shall see...!