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30 March 2021

From the NS archive: Staying human

18 April 1969: Julian Mitchell reviews Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.

By Julian Mitchell

In this review of Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint”, Julian Mitchell recognised a writer who had come into his own. The book had arrived, he said, “flaunting its reputation ahead of it like the bloated phallus of a Greek comedian” – but nevertheless lived up to it. “Alexander Portnoy is a great comic character” and Roth a writer with wit and skill in abundance. Of course, the novel would be discussed because of the flagrant onanism of Portnoy, but “perhaps it’s worth insisting that the book is still an artistic success however many copies it sells, and that it isn’t purely about sex”. It is about all the great Roth themes: Jewishness, America, fitting in, yearning and resistance against caste and upbringing too. The novel, reckoned Mitchell, was an important book, not least because “the Jewish tragicomic mother’s boy tradition from which Alex furiously bounces can never be the same again now”.

***

Sorry, but speaking purely (?) as a gentile, I get the impression that being a Jew is a bit like being a US marine. The human material is systematically broken down on induction by mothers (sergeants), then reshaped during training, often with physical and always with mental violence, till it can give the required 24 hours of attention every day to the business of being Jewish. “Look,” says Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy, “am I exaggerating to think it’s practically miraculous that I’m ambulatory? The hysteria and the superstition! The watch-its and the be-carefuls! You mustn’t do this, you can’t do that – hold it! Don’t! you’re breaking an important law!” Staying human, at least staying your own kind of human, under such circumstances requires either total insensitivity or furious underground resistance.

Portnoy, whose Complaint arrives here flaunting its reputation ahead of it like the bloated phallus of a Greek comedian, is a resister. More, as Assistant Commissioner on Mayor Lindsay’s Commission on Human Opportunity, he helps others to resist, too. But he has been wounded in combat; he wears a purple heart. According to The Puzzled Penis, the authoritative work by Dr Spielvogel, the analyst to whom Alex ceaselessly and uproariously complains, he is suffering from “a disorder in which strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature.” The Assistant Commissioner couldn’t put it better himself.

His first retreat from the pressures of his family was to the bathroom, where his defiant semen bombarded everything in sight – the lightbulb, Alex’s shoes, eyes and hair, even, on one unforgettable occasion, the liver for the evening meal. And there, in a sense, Alex still is, whacking off, beating his meat, firing his wad, with his mother hammering at the door and his seed asserting itself in every conceivable way except actual conception. Of course Alex has girls now – sometimes two at a time. But his campaign of resistance has left him incapable of love. Autoeroticism has left his psyche even more puzzled than his penis.

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Alexander Portnoy is a great comic character, fit to stand (and he does) beside Svevo’s Zeno. He is not, perhaps, as original a creation as Zeno (whose author hoped for a grateful telegram from Freud, thanking him for introducing psychoanalysis into Italian literature); but then comic characters do usually spring, slightly larger than life, from a tradition. The Jewish tragicomic mother’s boy tradition from which Alex furiously bounces can never be the same again now – which may not in itself prove his greatness, but certainly establishes his literary importance. Not that many readers are going to worry about his critical placement – they’re going to be too busy enjoying the book.

[see also: From the NS archive: The work of Freud]

Roth announced himself as a very good writer with Goodbye, Columbus, and though Letting Go was too long, When She Was Good definitely wasn’t – indeed, it gave one the feeling that Roth was deliberately keeping things in reserve. They were worth reserving. The engagement with character and subject here is total, and so, almost, is the success. Almost, because the very last section of the book, with Portnoy impotent in Israel, isn’t quite up to the rest – the inevitable tristia, perhaps? Anyway, anyone who writes a perfect book can never write again, so a slight lapse is rather welcome.

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For the rest, Roth manages to be extremely frank without being either mawkish or nauseating; this requires both skill and wit, and he has them in abundance. I’m afraid the inevitable commercial success of Portnoy’s Complaint will bring out those dumbfounding English reviewers who recently treated Why Are We in Vietnam? to their condescending dismissal. (Francis Hope NS, 4 April, found “virtually unreadable” what I found impossible to put down.) So perhaps it’s worth insisting that the book is still an artistic success however many copies it sells, and that it isn’t purely about sex.

Roth has set the Portnoy family in a carefully detailed, specifically Jewish area of Newark, New Jersey. But this area is itself set in a basically unJewish America. Alex’s ambition to be his own kind of human being is, on another level, an ambition to escape into this America of softball games and New England falls and blonde shiksas, where peace seems, comparatively, to reign. He yearns, in fact, for the great American melting-pot over which he hangs, his mother’s hand firmly gripping the seat of his pants. There is a serious point here, delicately made, about the American dream and the reality of a deeply divided society. And another about the whole business of being Jewish, with all that implies of European ghetto attitudes, in the hedgeless, open-plan American suburbs. Below the traditionally Jewish surface, Roth is showing traditional Jewish life in the process of breaking up.

If nothing else, this wildly funny and brilliantly clever book should hurry that process along. Alexander Portnoy, the Raskolnikov of jerking off, is going to be for many readers what his mother was to him: The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Met.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)