Today's column for the Sunday Guardian.
I remember laughing out loud when first reading Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, about "a lust-ridden, mother-addicted young Jewish bachelor", and wondering at the same time: “How can he write like that? Is that even allowed?” In this, I wasn’t alone, as pointed out by Bernard Avishai in his new book, Promiscuous: Portnoy’s Complaint and our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness. Roth’s funny, salacious novel was an immediate bestseller in 1969 but its content also meant that it was dismissed by many as a masturbatory fantasy, a work of no worth by a “self-hating Jew”. The author was pilloried and hounded -- in ways that were ultimately to shape his future fiction.
Much water has flowed under the Brooklyn Bridge since then and the book has survived and thrived, listed in more than one best-of-century list. It was followed by a body of work that, in a just world, ought to have won Roth the Nobel by now.
This is why one initially wonders what the point of Promiscuous is. Surely Portnoy needs no further defence? However, the merit of Avishai’s book is that it puts Portnoy in a social and literary context, offers interesting ways of reading it and contrasts it with the work of other writers accused of subversion, such as Joyce and Lawrence.
Avishai is a friend of Roth’s, and he says the author helped “to test ideas, telling stories”, although “he did not endorse the result or interfere in any way with the composition”. One of the more interesting things in Promiscuous is the inclusion of Roth’s own teaching notes on the novel, for a class he took in Bard College in 1999. Roth mentions that “the grotesque conception of [Portnoy’s] life and of the lives around him” is what’s being dramatized; this grotesqueness permeates “the satiric conception of a Jewish family, the son included”. Those last three words are crucial: the object of satire was not simply other Jews but also Portnoy himself, a nuance lost on those who savaged the book.
Related to this is the novel’s form, that of rambles in a psychiatrist’s office. This gave Roth the freedom to write his sustained rant: “the rule here is no restraint, the rule here is no decorum”. On the couch, Portnoy mocks his family, his relationships, his heritage –all the while mocking himself too. Here, Avishai makes another important distinction: “A novel in the form of a confession is for God’s sake not a confession in the form of a novel”.
He doesn’t shy away from discussing charges of misogyny against Roth, at that time and ever since. Vivian Gornick wrote that Roth, along with Bellow and Mailer, “hated women”, and Hermoine Lee, during a Paris Review interview, observed that “nearly all the women in the books are there to obstruct, to or help, or to console the male characters”. There is some truth to this, but in defence, Avishai says that Portnoy does not “objectify women until after he has objectified himself…misanthropy is not misogyny, except by implication”. He adds for good measure: “Grace Paley once told me that she didn’t trust women who refused to read Roth”.
The novel is also discussed in terms of being a satire of psychoanalysis; here, one feels Avishai goes a bit too far. Dr Spielvogel’s neutrality is seen as a “frightened holding back”, a comment on the entire profession, when it could well be that Roth simply uses it as a container for Portnoy’s diatribe. This also makes Portnoy’s Complaint very much a book of its time; as Adam Gopnik says, “Nowadays, Portnoy would go to Spielvogel and the doctor would… give him Prozac and Viagra and send him home”.
In a 1983 interview, Herman Roth, the author’s father, touchingly said: “It was a story about a boy and his conscience. They blew it out of all proportion”. Blowing things out of all proportion can also lead to fates worse Roth’s, as is evident from the former predicament of another allegedly satanic writer whose memoirs were published this week.