Lucy and Todd

Posts Tagged ‘Portnoy’

Orhan Pamuk — A Strangeness in My Mind

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on October 2, 2015 at 1:15 pm

The title for Orhan Pamuk’s novel comes from Wordsworth’s The Prelude, continuing with the famous ‘A feeling that I was not for that hour, Nor for that place.’ It’s somewhat grandly subtitled ‘Being the Adventures and Dreams of Mevlut Karatas, a Seller of Boza, and of His Friends, and Also a Portrait of Life in Istanbul Between 1969 and 2012 from Many Different Points of View.’

Boza is one of those mild old alcoholic drinks fast disappearing from the world – seems everyone wants to get blootered and go clubbing. For many years sold by street vendors, now it is made in factories and offered in supermarkets, one of many changes observed and lamented by Mevlut in the course of his life. Not because there’s anything wrong with factory-made boza, but because the disappearance of the street vendors and their cries is one more historical impoverishment in the life of a city which is, if anything, an embodiment of history.

Pamuk attempts to place us in a recognizably ‘big’ novel: Mevlut is a poetic, painterly icon as much as he is the protagonist, crying his “booozaaa” like a Papageno. He continually reminds his customers, most of whom are getting on and appreciate the old ways, that it’s the voice, the emotion of the boza seller that matters. Boza is woven into the fabric of the book, along with corruption, Kurds, Anatolia, Kemal Ataturk, cigarettes, the wares of other street hawkers, political posters, electrical power thieves and capitalists little and large. This is a city where the brand of cigarette you smoke lets everyone know exactly what government department you work in; the way you cut your moustache advertises your politics.

Mevlut is a plain person, possessed of the calm of the honest. He watches life slowly pass, even as oppressive governments, coups and earthquakes try to dent his existence, and the neurotic excesses of globalism swallow up his family and friends. He remains an extremely hard-working small businessman, selling at various times not just boza, but yogurt, chickpeas, chicken and rice, and ice cream in summer. He has a profound fear of dogs, which becomes an amusing leitmotif in the life of a peddler. When still a schoolboy, he takes to selling lottery prizes with an edgy pal called Ferhat, who becomes a Communist, and later, a government inspector too upright for his own good. Mevlut tries all his life to steer clear of the deep ideological pits of Turkish life – in this he mostly succeeds, too. There’s a funny side and a grim political one to each development in his existence.

Things start to get interesting when he’s tricked into marrying. At a wedding, he and his cousin Suleyman become infatuated with the same girl. Mevlut’s not sure of her name (of course he can’t ask her) and Suleyman fools Mevlut into writing letters to the girl’s sister. These billets doux are based on some mouldering guides to writing love letters, and the sister falls for them. Again with Suleyman’s help, the pair elope. When Mevlut realizes he’s now in possession of the girl he didn’t want, an extraordinary thing happens: he decides to love his bride as determinedly as he goes out to sell his goods. She returns his passion and they live extraordinarily happily, much more so than other couples in the story. They even make love through Ramadan.

This is where this novel succeeds, in examining compassionately and thoroughly the bad state of affairs between men and women in the western/nonwestern place that Turkey is. Girls and women literally cannot be apprehended; they are completely mysterious, alien beings. They are, in fact, only barely tolerated. This of course leads to trouble: when Mevlut is young, all he can do is masturbate to an extent worthy of Alexander Portnoy. He can barely imagine or even guess at women. He also develops a serious stalking habit.

Hadji, one of the grosser depressing businessmen in the book, puts it this way: “There are two kinds of love in our land. The first kind is when you fall in love with someone because you don’t know them at all. In fact, most couples would never fall in love if they got to know each other even a little bit before getting married. This is why our Blessed Prophet Muhammad did not think it was appropriate for there to be any contact between the boy and the girl before marriage. There is also the kind that happens when two people get married and fall in love after that, when they have a whole life to share between them, and that can only happen when you marry someone you don’t know.” So part of the purpose of A Strangeness in My Mind is to argue that this kind of union can work, perhaps almost as often as not.

However, one isn’t always convinced that Pahmuk himself is blameless on this. For every stab he takes at the enormous, sad gulf between men and women in Turkey, he relishes icky characterizations of women by men (another effect of having no contact with them, of course). 1961 Opels “looked like spiteful women whose mouths had turned to stone in the middle of an evil cackle.” Women are allowed to grouse about men, a little, but the effect isn’t the same.

One delight in reading this is to encounter, to a slight extent, the Turkish alphabet, a charming and useful thing. The novel unfolds chronologically, but in order to vary this Pamuk resorts to an odd formula. There are occasional breaks in the narrative in which the major characters quibble with minor aspects of the action. It’s very hard to tell how these utterances are meant. Could they be notes on the novel in Pamuk’s own pocket? A scolding of himself? Is the reader being addressed? Why aren’t these the springboards for real digressions? Most of the time it’s no surprise to learn what we do when these characters take us aside. Too often for comfort, promising figures appear who don’t amount to much, and at times it can all feel less like a novel than a lecture.

In the end, Mevlut stubbornly sells his stuff, loses a wife, gains another, tries to live honourably and, on balance, succeeds in these things. He’s lived infinitesimally against the background of Istanbul, which you might have expected to be more frightening and interruptive than it appears here. Pamuk’s novel only attempts occasionally to convey the essential life of the place.

Is Mevlut anything other than a nostalgic? Valuable old things everywhere are disappearing; any resident of the UK will readily identify with his feelings of loss. This isn’t Ulysses, or even Gone with the Wind, yet its fighting weight is about the same: I had to tear my proof copy in half in order to read it without hurting myself. You wonder in the end why this huge stage, containing lots of Asia and most of the twentieth century, had to be claimed just in order to relate a little life.


(This review first appeared in The Herald, Sept. 26, 2015)

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