I nitially banned in Australia, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) is Philip Roth’s early, bestselling, satirical tour de force. Alexander Portnoy addresses a long monologue to his analyst, Dr Spielvogel. Among other things, the monologue tackles Portnoy’s erotic and ethical shortcomings, lingering in particular over his father’s familial and economic emasculation, his mother’s overbearing cleanliness and affection, his fraught relationship to Jewishness, and a selection of doomed love interests. Portnoy’s Complaint is by turns comedic, tragic, confronting, illuminating, anguished, and jubilant. As with all of Roth’s best novels, it is imbued with a compelling vitality, and aggressively tackles wide-ranging concerns, not the least of which is the complex nature of ‘the human’ (contrasted with ‘types’). Portnoy – a dedicated human rights lawyer – is afflicted with apparently ‘animalistic’ sexual compulsions; his concern for impoverished people and minorities is matched only by his neurosis; he is socially productive, but his private self is obsessively masturbatory (‘I am the Raskolnikov of jerking off’); his relationships with women are coloured by an apparently misogynist streak; and his hostility toward aspects of Jewishness verges on anti-Semitism. These and other conflicts (‘Doctor, what should I rid myself of, tell me, the hatred … or the love?’) doom Portnoy to sexual and emotional impotence.
Bernard Avishai: Promiscuous
Promiscuous: Portnoy’s Complaint and Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness
by by Bernard Avishai
Yale University Press (Inbooks), $32.95 hb, 230 pp, 9780300151909
Shannon Burns is a freelance writer and member of the J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice. He is a former ABR Patrons'...
If you are a single issue subscriber you will need to upgrade your subscription to view back issues.If you are already subscribed, click here to log in.
Leave a comment
Please note that all comments must be approved by ABR and comply with our Terms & Conditions.
NB: If you are an ABR Online subscriber or contributor, you will need to login to ABR Online in order to post a comment. If you have forgotten your login details, or if you receive an error message when trying to submit your comment, please email your comment (and the name of the article to which it relates) to email@example.com. We will review your comment and, subject to approval, we will post it under your name.