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Louis Greenberg

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Portnoy’s Complaint: help me please

I’ve just finished reading Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth. Some decades late, it seems. When I was at school, my friends encouraged me to read it, and regaled each other with convivial break-time rehashings the oft-thumbed dirty bits. There are a lot of those. Quite saucy, too, not all darkened by clouds of politics or violence as most dirty bits tend to be. Alex Portnoy seems to have no superego controlling his desire to copulate with his schlubby sister’s underclothes or with the family dinner. There are so many synonyms offered for whacking off that I can see why my pubescent friends so highly recommended it. Back then, during high school, I was entering a self-repressive phase which is another story, but am glad I finally experienced those scenes for myself.

But the book is one of two halves: the hilarious adventures of a hand-cramped little boy which I am sure will be enjoyed by most humans who were little boys, and the splenetic ragings of the adult that boy has become. Sure, if your mother tickles your bits to encourage you to make sis, you might turn out with issues. That’s not my issue. My issue was that I found myself cringing at the awful misogyny of this novel which everyone thinks is one of the greatest comic feats ever. There I was, laughing along, really getting the joke. Then the laughter became hollower, I thought maybe it was me missing something, but finally it stopped being funny.

The lead woman character – apart from Alex’s mum – is Alex’s underwear-model girlfriend who he calls The Monkey. She’s an insatiable shikse and far too sexy for a Jewish do-gooder like him. But she’s also clingy, hysterical, an uneducated back-country hick who can’t even write. This is our heroine. After some time of wondering why he’s actually with this woman of his dreams and nightmares, all the while referring to the women in his life in the vilest of four-letter terms, Alex leaves The Monkey on a window ledge in Athens and hies to Israel, meets an army girl and tries to rape her to prove some point about his rootlessness. GI Naomi leaves him, as is fitting, squirming on the floor. The problem is, Alex doesn’t really see that his problems are of his own making, not that of his mother or all the world’s sexy shikses. And I think the reader is encouraged to be on his side in this.

I need some help here. Why does this trouble me? I’ve read plenty of books with anti-heroic characters, with baddies and wrongies and misguideds. The book is still shockingly subversive when it comes to religion. I was impressed that a 40-year-old book could make me – veteran lapser – giggle guiltily. Is its take on gender issues intended to be subversive or is it simply reflective of its time? Why can’t I just be happy to read about Alex’s troubled exploits, laugh a bit, cringe a bit, then move on? Is it because I so related to the little boy, and even understanding what made him a messed-up adult, I cannot accept that man’s behaviour? Is it because Roth is one of our greatest novelists – someone young novelists are encouraged to emulate – and Portnoy’s Complaint is still seen as one of his best novels, not a dated relic with a couple of fab dirty bits?

Because the novel was first published in 1967, and you just can’t write about women like that anymore. Or can you? Do books now have to have a polically correct moral? Do authors have some sort of duty, and why the hell should they? In the past 40 years have we become more conservative or more evolved? Is Portnoy the reason some of my schoolfriends still can’t get a third date?


Recent comments:

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    July 26th, 2007 @11:49 #

    Some of us are more conservative, Louis, and some more evolved, which leaves a rather barren tract in-between. But Roth - thank heavens! - hasn't lost his carnal touch. Can I suggest that you skip ahead in his oeuvre to Sabbath's Theatre? It's almost as salacious as Portnoy, much better written, and utterly unforgettable in its non-PC sexual depravity. (Picture this: a man goes to the grave where his lover is buried - and proceeds to fornicate with it!)

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    July 26th, 2007 @12:16 #

    I'm not sure if I agree with your relativist position, Ben. Parhaps instead of "have we become more conservative or more evolved?" I should ask "have the moral norms of society as reflected by what publishers and reviewers consider acceptable become more conservative or more liberal?"

    Vastly more books are published because they reflect their sliver of society than because they challenge it. Writers, consciously or not, are pressured to write work that matches their publishers' understanding of the way society is, of the way books should be written. So doesn't it reflect some sort of change in moral climate if I can't publish a 'cunt'-spattered novel these days?

    The key question is what Roth's protagonist in Sabbath's Theatre called his lover as he was indulging in her grave!

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Karina</a>
    July 27th, 2007 @15:09 #

    I have read a few of Roth's novels, but do not really feel competent enough to comment on your question myself. However, I was just re-reading a review of Roth's Everyman, written by Gordimer, and I thought this might help a bit:

    "Professor of Desire." One may so name Philip Roth, writer, without disrespect and in admiration, with an epithet that was the title of one of his earlier novels. Roth has proved by the mastery and integrity of his writing the difference between the erotic and the pornographic, in our sleazy era of the latter. The premise of his work is that nothing the body offers is denied so long as it does not cause pain. With rather marvelous presumption he seems unknowingly to have written the Kama Sutra of the 20th and 21st centuries. He asserts the joy of loving sexual intercourse, the splendid ingenuity of the body. His men are not disciples of de Sade, though it may be difficult to accept (in "The Dying Animal") the man licking a woman's menstrual blood off her legs as not exploitation of the privacy of a bodily function, quite different from the evocation of "the simplicity of physical splendor" which is manifest in sexual desire, and beautifully celebrated for all of us in his latest novel.
    If Portnoy has never been outgrown, only grown old, he is, in his present avatar, an everyman whose creator makes the term "insight" something to be tossed away as inadequate. What Roth knows of the opposition/apposition of the body and the intellect is devastatingly profound and cannot be escaped, just as Thomas Mann's graffiti on the wall of the 20th century cannot be washed off: "In our time the destiny of man presents its meaning in political terms."

    This is a link for the entire review:


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