Lucy and Todd

Promiscuous – Bernard Avishai

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 10, 2012 at 6:27 pm

‘He eats French fries – he goes after school with Melvin Weiner and stuffs himself with French-fried potatoes. Jack, you tell him, I’m only his mother. Tell him what the end is going to be.” When Philip Roth’s liberating, groundbreaking, thrilling, excruciating Portnoy’s Complaint burst upon the reading public in 1969, his apologist Bernard Avishai writes, “mothers flinched, Jews howled, psychiatrists sighed”. Never was a novel more immediately misunderstood by so many. Boobus Americanus took Portnoy to be a novel about masturbation – much in the same way some thought Lolita celebrated child molestation. Like all great novels, Portnoy is about many things. It is also one of the most vigorous treatments of repression ever written, a real cri de coeur. And it is hard to think of a modern novel that is funnier.

Portnoy changed our lives forever. It told us it was OK to feel all that runs through your body and head in adolescence: what Holden Caulfield could not bring himself to say. Roth’s life changed too, in many ways he did not enjoy. Jacqueline Susann said on television that she’d never met him but wouldn’t want to shake his hand; people would creep up behind him in restaurants and ask if he was having the liver (a reference to Alexander Portnoy’s innovative use of the family dinner).

The reaction that Roth might not have expected, however, came from the New York Jewish intellectual community: they hated it. Avishai writes that Roth “sailed into a perfect storm of Jewish literary power”. The debate over whether Portnoy exposed American Jews to ridicule and worse – made them even more vulnerable to attack from anti-Semites – is perhaps still going on. But most of these Portnoy-haters – notably Alfred Kazin, Bruno Bettelheim, Irving Howe (who should have known better) and Diana Trilling (who didn’t) – are gone, along with their reputations, and Portnoy is still here. About the last professional antiportnoyist is Norman Podhoretz, a so-called ‘thinker’ who actually wanted Sarah Palin to be president.

Squabbling was these intellectuals’ stock-in-trade, and if any book was ever built to be squabbled over, Portnoy was it. Woody Allen, in many respects Roth’s equal, but with better punchlines, encapsulated the whole left-wing magazine scene in Annie Hall: “I heard Commentary and Dissent had merged and formed Dysentery.”

Yet, as Avishai says, “the dirtiest secret of Portnoy’s Complaint was not masturbation but ordinary brutality” – for example, when Alexander’s cousin Heshie is beaten by his father for going out with a shikse.

Roth said he wasn’t indebted to abrasive, boundary-breaking comics such as Lenny Bruce, but to “sit-down comics like Franz Kafka”. Yet it’s hard to believe there could ever have been a Portnoy’s Complaint without Bruce, who had to endure much more in the way of censorship and suppression than Roth ever did. The voice of Portnoy is a stand-up voice. And Avishai reveals that Portnoy’s Complaint was born in satirical sketches – “shtick” – that Roth performed at dinner parties, “imagining what an analysis of a particular, mythological Jewish man would really sound like”.

Time to kvetch. There is more than a little woolly thinking and writing here. Too often Avishai, by trade an economist, sounds like a man in a book club who’s finally got hold of Freud and, by God, he’s going to explain it to you. More dispiritingly, he does the same with John Locke and even Thomas Hobbes, who can’t really ever be explained by anyone. And when Avishai attempts to communicate something about ‘perception’ and the role it plays in Portnoy, it frankly sounds like some college kid’s essay he stole off the internet.

He’s self-effacing to the point of crippling his own arguments. Many of his ideas about the novel are amusing and thought-provoking, yet he suffers from an amazing amount of insecurity. He ran around cocktail parties asking his friends what they thought of Portnoy’s Complaint, and gathered almost nothing of value.

He starts off the book not being sure at all that he should be writing it; later he fears he will be mocked and even pitied for suggesting that Portnoy will be read as a political document. Why not? A perfectly logical idea, man. Calm down.

Avishai tells us he has read every word of Roth and of Karl Marx (huzzah!), but it doesn’t feel as though he has read widely enough in fiction to tell us much about what Roth is really up to in Portnoy. He just doesn’t have the literary chops. He worries and worries about the narrative stance, and whether the famous interjection by Portnoy’s psychiatrist is a metafictional technique.

This is not useful. When you go to a Marx Brothers movie you don’t stop the film and ask the audience exactly why Groucho is wiggling his eyebrows. He’s also too concerned about the last part of the novel, where Alexander travels to Israel and finds to his surprise that he can’t get it up. Roth wrote this chapter at a writers’ colony, where predictably he became self-conscious and substituted plot for comedy. But it is funny – how about just leaving it at that?

It would have been nice if Avishai had undertaken to communicate more of the sheer joy and bumptiousness of Portnoy’s Complaint.

I wonder if his book is meant as a talisman against forces that might one day deprive us of Roth, or any liberal or contrarian voices in fiction. If this is what was meant, it’s not good enough. But, 43 years later, it is good to be reminded that someone had the chutzpah to describe what it’s like to suffocate of familial love, to wish to denounce your parents, to see your own semen dangling from the bathroom lightbulb – and to wonder what kind of achievement this is.

On the other hand, and always there is the other hand with Portnoy, Roth’s own father Herman said, “it was a story about a boy and his conscience. They blew it all out of proportion.”


The Herald, June 16, 2012
  1. ‘Let me shake the hand that wrote Ulysses…’

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