I’d read Portnoy’s Complaint years ago but there wasn’t much on offer at the library last time I was browsing for an audio book for the daily commute, so I thought ‘why not’? After all, I couldn’t remember anything about it except that it was scandalous in its day…
Picture if you will, a respectable middle-aged primary school teacher in the school car park. In the moment between killing the motor and removing the keys the sound system blares out in the quiet of the early morning and… the adolescent Alex Portnoy is trying to liberate himself from his mother’s tyranny by reciting a four-letter-word still not used in public discourse even in 2010. At the top of his voice!
Schools are fighting a losing battle against bad language. It’s everywhere in the media and people no longer shield small children from it. Nevertheless schools are expected to teach restraint, and teachers themselves must act with decorum. My journey with Portnoy’s Complaint was thenceforth undertaken with discretion, with a furtive flick to respectable classical music as soon as the school was in sight. Just in case!
It wasn’t just the bad language that made authorities ban this book in Australia when it was first published in 1969. There are also graphic descriptions of Portnoy’s sexual adventures from which the good citizens of Australia needed to be protected. I read it some time in the early 70s. Was it an illegal copy? I can’t remember now where it came from. I wish I’d kept a reading journal then.
Portnoy’s Complaint is Philip Roth’s third novel and the one that made him a celebrity. It’s an hilariously funny satire on Jewish guilt, and it’s very rude, with coarse language and frank sexual themes not for the faint-hearted. It explores Jewish identity in America and in particular, the secular Jewish son trying to escape the tyranny of tradition and find a place for himself outside suffocating family expectations.
Alexander Portnoy is a 33-year-old Jewish lawyer who is Assistant Commissioner of Human Opportunity in New York. He is in therapy and the novel is the monologue from the psychiatrist’s couch. His mother Sophie is the quintessential Jewish mother satirised in stand-up comedy routines. His father is an uptight insurance salesman; he has a ‘perfect’ sister. The house is pristine; the kosher rules are inviolable. Alex is the Only Son and has a Destiny: he will be successful, he will marry, he will have more perfect Jewish children.
But Alex is a lust-ridden bachelor. He is obsessed by sex and none of his girlfriends – not The Pumpkin, not The Pilgrim, and especially not The Monkey - could possibly be taken home to meet mother. His quest is to outrun the guilt and the destiny but of course it’s doomed.
Author: Philip Roth
Title: Portnoy’s Complaint
Narrated by Ron Silver
Publisher: Caedmon 2009
Source: Kingsston Library