Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 24, 2010

Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth, read by Ron Silver

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.    

Portnoy’s Complaint was made into a film in 1972 but not surprisingly it was a dud.   The original review from the NY Times is available online (but it has spoilers).  

Author: Philip Roth
Title: Portnoy’s Complaint
Narrated by Ron Silver
Publisher: Caedmon 2009
ISBN: 9780061986413
Source: Kingsston Library


Responses

  1. ahhh thanks for the memories :) I had forgotten that Portnoy’s Complaint was briefly banned in this country since the publishers had no problem publishing the book and the readers had no trouble reading the book. How pathetic our censorship laws were, back in 1969.

    • Hello, Helen, how nice to meet you, and what an intriguing blog you have yourself!
      According to Wikipedia, Portnoy’s Complaint was printed in secret by Penguin and trundled around in trucks. As silly as that nonsense with Michelangelo’s David which you may also remember!

  2. I am sort of going back in time with Roth, but you’ve made me want to skip to the beginning. Loved this post.

  3. Oh, and I am happy to be reminded that Americans are not the only ridiculous prudes in the “civilized western” world…..

  4. Lisa: What a great review! I’ve read so many academic reviews of Portnoy’s Complaint that have put me off rereading it — this was a reminder of why I liked it so much the first time (too many decades ago to recount).

    And I love the image of switching the sound system to classical music when you get near school. Where, of course, all the students are chanting **** in the schoolyard, but let’s overlook that.

  5. *chuckle*, Well, Kerry, I have to admit that there were some bits that had me blushing and glad that my days in an open-top sportscar were over! Imagine pulling up at the traffic lights where adjacent pedestrians could hear the sound track too …

    Thank you too, Kevin, I was fascinated to see that apart from the NY Times one, there are no reviews of this book that I could find online – but there were some of those study-guide-for-cheats sites. I cannot imagine setting this book for a bunch of callow undergraduates!

  6. I’m trying to imagine what a ‘spoiler’ for Portnoy’s Complaint would consist of.

    • *chuckle* Yes, Tony, I know I’ve been coy!


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