Thursday, 16 June 2011

PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT by Philip Roth


This gentleman just won the International Booker, so despite this blog's last painful experience with that award (the dire Finkler Question) I decided it was time for some Roth. I am not sure I will ever be the same again.

The entire book is a monologue, delivered from one Alexander Portnoy to his psychiatrist. It is 300 pages of one man's self-centred whining, and, incredibly, it works.

As he explains early on “Doctor Spielvogel, this is my life, my only life, and I'm living it in the middle of a Jewish joke! I am the son in the Jewish joke – only it ain't no joke” His family is full of neurotics: his mother is controlling, his father is constipated, and he himself his obsessed with masturbation. It all goes down hill from there, as he finds people to have sex with and thus becomes obsessed with sex. Essentially, it's Adrian Mole, but dirty.

This is such an odd novel, that I think the best way to give you an idea of how it works is to quote. Now, skip this if you have a delicate constitution, as I regret to inform you that it is all about masturbation:
I once cored an apple, saw to my astonishment (and with the aid of my obsession) what it looked like, and ran off into the woods to fall upon the orifice of the fruit, pretending that the cool and mealy hole was actually between the legs of that mythical being who always called me Big Boy when she pleaded for what no girl in all recorded history had ever had. Oh shove it in me, Big Boy, cried the cored apple that I banged silly on that picnic. Big Boy, Big Boy, oh give me all you've got, begged the empty milk bottle that I kept hidden in our storage bin in the basement, to drive wild after school with my vaselined upright. Come, Big Boy, come, screamed the maddened piece of liver that, in my own insanity, I bought one afternoon at a butcher shop and believe it or not, violated behind the billboard on the way to a bar mitzvah lesson.

And it's pretty much all like this. Sex, sex sex. Literary though it is, I bet it's hidden under lots of teenage boys matresses.

I found it a hilarious and technically accomplished work, the greatest feat being the narrative voice: always whining but somehow also always interesting. He did lose me a little at the end, when he goes to Israel - perhaps I dont understand enough about Jewish life in the 1960, or something - but it struck me as a something of a damp squib.

As a side point, much though I admire Philip Roth, I have to let you know I won't be seeking to date him. I'm pretty sure he doesn't see much of a women beyond her bits.

8 comments:

  1. Yeah, I've only read one novel by Roth (Nemesis) and really didn't like it. May try something else at some point. Glad to hear you enjoyed this but I'm not sure if I would or not. I would agree that I don't think he sees much of women besides 'her bits'! haha

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  2. I think you might enjoy it - if you can get into the massively male viewpoint, it is hilarious. But then, I have heard that all his books are very similar,and if you've read one you've read them all . . .

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  3. Remind me not to read this book!

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  4. Oh come on Hayden, don't be such a prude. You know you want too . . .

    I am here blogging in my pyjamas pondering whether to read another Roth right off, but somehow I am not sure either I or my reputation as a nice lady would survive it x

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  5. I am new to your blog, Sarah, and it looks wonderful! I enjoyed reading your review of 'Portnoy's Complaint'. I haven't read any of Philip Roth's books before. I liked very much your observation - "I found it a hilarious and technically accomplished work, the greatest feat being the narrative voice: always whining but somehow also always interesting". Thanks for this interesting review :)

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  6. I forgot to mention two more things. I love the Marcel Proust quote on the top right :) I also love the way you have introduced yourself - "Reading is a very private thing. I thought it'd be interesting to make it public" :)

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  7. Oh hi Vishy, thanks very much! I just came across your blog today too, and enjoy it very much. Yes, I have to say, I have never read a more sexual 'literary'book in my life. If I found it kind of shocking, I cant imagine what a fuss must have been kicked up in the 1960s, when it was published!

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  8. Have not read Roth and I believe I should, having won the Man Booker International amidst some controversy.

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