Monday, May 5, 2014

1969: Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth

The Author:

Philip Roth (1933-    ) was born in the Weequahic neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, and was the son of first-generation Eastern-European Jewish immigrants.  He graduated Weequahic High School in 1950, and went on to receive a degree in English from Brucknell University.  From there, he received his Masters in Literature from the University of Chicago in 1955.  He met Margaret Martinson the following year, and married her in 1959. During this time, he taught college English courses at institutions including the University of Chicago, University of Iowa, and later Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania.

In 1959, he published his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, a collection of five stories and a novella, which received considerable critical and popular acclaim, and won the National Book Award.  Roth and Martinson split up in 1963.  Roth's next to novels, Letting Go (1962) and When She Was Good (1967), were given less attention than his first book.  Then he published Portnoy's Complaint. The explicit masturbation throughout the novel made the book incredibly controversial: the book was banned in many U.S. libraries and Australia declared the importation of the book to be illegal.  This made Roth a public figure in a way he'd never been before.

In 1990, Roth married his long-time partner, Claire Bloom.  The two split up in 1994, and Bloom published an unflattering memoir of their relationship, titled Leaving a Doll's House.  Roth's novel I Married a Communist (1998) is seen as being partially based on, and in refutation to, Bloom's accusations.  

Roth has published 27 books of fiction and four books of non-fiction.  He's won two National Book Awards (Goodbye, Columbus 1959 and Sabbath's Theater 1995), the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (American Pastoral 1997), two National Book Critics Circle Awards (The Counterlife 1986 and Patrimony: A True Story 1991) and is the only writer to win three PEN/Faulkner Awards (Operation Shylock 1994, The Human Stain 2000, and Everyman 2007).

The Book:

Portnoy's Complaint, as defined by the novels de facto preface:
"A disorder in which strongly-felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature... neither fantasy nor act issues in genuine sexual gratification, but rather in overrideing feelings of shame and the dread of retribution."

The eponymous Alexander Portnoy, like Roth, is the son of Jewish parents living in a Jewish community in Newark.  The story is told as a long monologue, delivered by Portnoy to his psychoanalyst, Dr. Spielvogel. The novel focuses on Portnoy's attempts to reconcile or move past his ethnic background as a twentieth-century American, and his sexual development and obsessions, and how the former affects the latter.  

Portnoy is critical of his Jewish culture in the novel, in a way that is self-aware and very frank.  He points out many hypocrisies and idiosyncrasies of Jewish American culture, all of which are exhibited by Portnoy's family.  Portnoy declares "This is my life, my only life, and I'm living it in the middle of a Jewish joke!  I am the son in a Jewish joke -- only it ain't no joke!" (39-40).  The Jewish mother stereotype is the most prevalent, with Portnoy's mother alternately lavishing praise on young Alexander and disowning him for any failures.

This last plays into the psychoanalysis aspect of the story, where many of the tropes of psychoanalytic theory (e.g. "Tell me about your mother...") blown to ridiculous proportions.

Portnoy at one point declares "I am the Raskolnikov of jerking off -- the sticky evidence is everywhere!"  Even when discussing masturbation (which Roth does, a lot), there is a strange and effective combination of the high brow and the vulgar.  The narrative voice, with its extreme self-consciousness and self-analysis, is one of the major attributes of Portnoy's Complaint that save it from being merely well-written smut.  I won't go into great detail on the sexual escapades of Alexander Portnoy.  To merely summarize them would take a couple thousand words.  Besides the masturbation and the psychological havoc caused by Portnoy's guilt over it, the most important aspect would be Portnoy's relationship with a girl nicknamed "The Monkey."  

Through this relationship, Porntoy's background (as a Jew dating a shikse), his sexual obsessions, and his current status (as a successful lawyer-turned-public-figure dating a semi-literate former model) come to a head and lead to near catastrophe.

This is a fantastic book, but it's easy to get distracted by the convoluted sexual fantasies and weird masturbation.  While some authors try to make sex and masturbation beautiful, Roth pushes it in the other direction (not violent and horrifyingly depraved as in something like American Psycho, more of a reveling in the filth kind of way).  

Roth's previous success with Goodbye, Columbus, combined with the controversy surrounding Portnoy, guaranteed its commercial success.

Portnoy's Complaint was given a film adaptation in 1972, which met with largely negative reviews.  According to a review by Roger Ebert: "How could Philip Roth's saga of masturbation have been made into anything but an X-rated movie?...To be sure, Roth's subject and approach was in bad taste -- but in magnificently bad taste...When you try to handle bad taste in good taste, you almost always wind up with something truly obscene."   

Portnoy's Complaint has since been added to Modern Library's list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century and TIME magazine's list of the 100 best novels since 1923.  

If copious amounts of masturbation and long rants about sex and Jewish mothers liable to offend you, you probably shouldn't read this novel.  Otherwise, I recommend it highly.

Bestselling novels of 1969:

1. Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth
2. The Godfather by Mario Puzo
3. The Love Machine by Jacqueline Susann
4. The Inheritors by Harold Robbins
5. The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton
6. The Seven Minutes by Irving Wallace
7. Naked Came the Stranger by Penelope Ashe
8. The Promise by Chaim Potok
9. The Pretenders by Gwen Davis
10. The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier

Also published in 1969:

The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin
Ada or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou


"Philip Roth." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2012. Literature Resource Center. Web.
Roth, Philip. Portnoy's Complaint. 1969. New York: Bantam Books, 1970. Print.

1 comment:

  1. That's a great quote from Roger Ebert. Ebert spent the last 20 to 30 years of his life going through the motions, dishing out a lot of plot summary in his reviews. I think he was trying to hang on to his distinction as the critic who saw ALL the films in a given year. It's easy to forget how sharp-eyed and pithy he was back in the day.