Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 10 Jun 2018

Rereading Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint

Philip Roth’s death on the 22nd May 2018 has prompted many to return to his novels, and I have been amongst them. I decided to go for one that I had a strong general impression of but little recollection of detail – his 1969 novel, and the one that catapulted him to notoriety, Portnoy’s Complaint.

Even amongst those who have never read Portnoy, there will probably be few who don’t know its general idea. Alex Portnoy, a compulsive masturbator (on what can only be described as an industrial scale), bemoans his Jewishness, the hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness of the Jewish people, the superiority and glamour of non-Jewish WASP America, and especially the stifling and oppressive upbringing he has received from his Jewish parents. Published as the 60s drew to a close, Portnoy became closely associated with the sexual and social liberation of that time. (But that is to mistake the purpose of this book, I think, because the 60s zeitgeist as much as anything else is subjected to Roth’s withering satire.)

That, at any rate, is how I recollected the book, and as far as it goes it contains strong elements of truth. But – as ever – Roth confounded my expectations. While Portnoy is all of the things I describe it is also far more than that. Anyone familiar with the marvellously expressive Yiddish word ‘kvetch’ – to complain bitterly, to whine, to be chronically resentful – will understand if I say that Portnoy’s Complaint (and the double pun is of course in the title) is kvetching raised to symphonic levels. It is an obscene, transgressive aria of kvetching, a bitter and impassioned monologue, the confessions of thirty-three year old Alex Portnoy, assistant commissioner for equal opportunity in New York City, as made to his psychoanalyst.

And make no mistake: it remains as shocking and as filthy as the day it was published. It will make you laugh out loud as frequently as it will make you wince with discomfort (surely, surely, he can’t say that!), and even as you wonder whether you can possibly keep reading to the end (how much more of this is there?!), this strangely euphoric book will keep you turning the pages.

Portnoy is an audacious book, then, and there can be no doubt that Roth was only too aware of the calumnies it would bring down on his own head. (Indeed, it has been said that he spent the next three books trying to get rid of the audience that Portnoy accrued.) But what is less frequently commented on and makes the book more interesting is the fact that it is also more sophisticated and more experimental than it first appears. For example, it is a long, unbroken monologue, a howl of rage and frustration that brings to mind Beckett as well as later practitioners of the unrelenting monologue form, such as Thomas Bernhard. It takes the unreliable narrator conceit to unprecedented levels and at times seems to weld together High Literature and avant-garde stand-up. The other novel that Portnoy has some kinship with is Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, a book which similarly brought its author infamy rather than acclaim and like Portnoy has lost none of its power to shock and divide opinion.

Writing about Roth in The Guardian recently (here), Martin Amis referred to Portnoy’s Complaint as “the diamond in the crown”, notable not just for its “corrosive” humour but for being a sort of primer in which all of Roth’s most important themes and preoccupations are already present – Jewishness (for and against), sex, womanhood, parents, the male libido, discrimination and anti-semitism, consumerism and American materialism… These, along with huge helpings of sometimes thinly veiled and sometimes trickily post-modernised autobiography, were Roth’s ammunition for the rest of his writing life.

In The Ghost Writer, published ten years or so after Portnoy, Roth puts an astonishingly apposite wish into the mouth of his alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman, an aspiring young writer. Zuckerman has just met his hero, a largely ignored American-Jewish writer called E. I. Lonoff, and this is what he sees Lonoff as exemplifying: “Purity. Serenity. Simplicity. Seclusion. All one’s concentration and flamboyance and originality reserved for the gruelling, exalted, transcendent calling…this is how I will live.”

And of course this is pretty much the life that Roth did make for himself. Indeed, the more Roth wrote, the more he came to resemble one of his own literary creations – which is perhaps fitting as in almost every respect he was one of his own literary creations. All this and more is evident in embryo in the furious, raging Portnoy’s Complaint. This is the novel in which he experimented to the full with outrage and repetition and in which, in a casually accomplished high-risk strategy, he would put his bitterest truths into the mouth of his most deluded and awful creation, Alexander Portnoy. Roth would write better and more elegant books, but few more savagely satirical. Portnoy is one way – and thank God there are so many and so varied – of marking the passing of this great, dissatisfied talent.


Alun Severn

June 2018


More elsewhere on the Letterpress website about Philip Roth:



The Frightening Lessons Of Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” by Richard Brody