Sunday, July 01, 2007

Portnoy's Complaint, Philip Roth

I've read a fair amount of Philip Roth's fiction (13 novels) and have liked a lot of it. Sabbath's Theater, for example, is one of my favorite novels. But he's quite patchy, I think, and annoyingly, his books that appear to be about something "important" (American Pastoral) or can be read as commenting on current events (The Human Stain; The Plot Against America) are the ones that seem to receive the most praise. When he's on, he's very good, and even in those books that I think are over-praised there are astonishing passages in which that voice kicks into overdrive and it becomes clear to me, again, why Philip Roth is worth reading (I excerpted one such passage from American Pastoral here).

Of the 13 Roth novels I've read, however, only two date from the first two decades of his publishing life--his debut, the National Book Award-winning Goodbye, Columbus (from 1959), and Portnoy's Complaint (1969) Portnoy was the first Roth book I ever read. I was underwhelmed by it at the time but liked enough in it to continue reading him. I re-read the book last week, and found more to appreciate this time around but also more to question. It's funnier than I found it the first time (and, of course, that's it's rep: it's supposed to be fucking hilarious) and there are those brilliant flights of the Roth voice. But it has some troubling aspects, some of which may be generational, some of which are, in a sense, political. The book is in the form of Alexander Portnoy's sessions with his psychiatrist. We only read what Portnoy says. He weaves in and out of reveries about his childhood, complaints about his parents, his hard-working, constipated father, his ubiquitous mother (a lot of Oedipal business--it is in part a parody of Freudian psychosexual theories), his obsession with masturbation (admittedly very funny), his fixation on gentile women.

In his generally unfavorable review of Sabbath's Theater, which appears in the essay collection The War Against Cliché (I was looking for a specific line I thought I'd remembered--something to the effect of "Roth has always been a transgressive writer"--but of course I was unable to find such a line, though the word "transgressive" appears in the review), Martin Amis writes the following:
Erotic prose is either pallidly general or unviewably specialized. Universality crumbles into a litter of quirks. After a while it provokes in the reader only one desire: the desire to skip. You toil on, looking for the clean bits.
I differ with Amis about Sabbath's Theater (though he's quite right that it's very dirty), but his point, I think, is true enough. I'm not a prude, I'm not offended by the presence of sex in a book, certainly not by profanity, but I do tend to find an abundance of scenes like this off-putting. Aside from being often very boring, they are tiring. Or, rather, the frequency is tiring. And here's where I come to the generational point. Reading Portnoy's Complaint again, I was reminded of something I've observed in other male writers of a similar age--for example, John Updike or David Lodge--that is, how often the characters in these writers' books fuck, how much they are fixated on finding women, primarily to fuck. (I use the word "fuck" with purpose, and in a particular way: sex is "fucking" and is what is done to women.) The passages in the books that actually describe sexual acts are, as mentioned, often boring or embarrassing, but it's the passages (or the accumulation of such passages) about the obsession that are mysterious to me. I ascribe much of it to the fact that these writers were beginning their writing lives in the 1950s and 1960s, when, the story goes, sexual matters were loosening up, culturally. It's very difficult to imagine the more straight-laced mores of popular memory, difficult to imagine the milieu in which these writers were first coming of age and then writing. It must have felt liberating to be able to actually write explicitly about sexuality, but it can make for some tiresome reading.

I have a bigger problem with Portnoy's Complaint than the occasional bit of tiresome reading. While leafing through The War Against Cliché, I noticed Amis' review of The Counterlife. To Amis, this is the great Philip Roth novel, the book in which Roth finally fulfilled his early promise. It's hard to argue; it is indeed one of Roth's finest works, probably second to Sabbath's Theater in my estimation. In the review, Amis argues the following:
The agent, the catalyst, is unquestionably Israel. Here is a subject all right, and it may even be that Roth has spent half his life readying himself to take it on. He went there before, carrying Portnoy's passport, and the place defeated him: the Israel section was the only major weakness of Portnoy's Complaint, and that is a measure of how far we have come [in Roth's fiction]. Set against The Counterlife, the earlier book looks regressive and dead-ended; for all its savage splendours, Portnoy was a farewell to youth, and Roth had to say goodbye to all that. Yet Jewishness in one form or another--and the more obsessive the better--has always been the real goad to his eloquence. [...] In any event, Roth has now come home, artistically. 'Jews Jews', 'Jew-engrossed, Jew-engorged', 'JewJewJew': this is the front line of the talent.
I think Amis is dead-on here. Certainly the best parts of Portnoy's Complaint (most of the book, in truth, including the sex) consist of his riffing on Jewishness--what it means to be a Jew, growing up Jewish, and American, among the goyim, exploited by those perfect Protestants, with their ridiculous, comical Christianity. Amis is also right about the weakness of the Israel section, though perhaps not entirely for the reasons he might name. Towards the end of the book, Portnoy recounts the events of his trip to Israel, having fled his latest goyische girlfriend in Greece after a nasty fight. Arriving in Israel, he notices something: "I am in a Jewish country. In this country, everybody is Jewish." (It perhaps goes without saying that Portnoy, or Roth, does not see--or does not notice--Arabs. This I find, well, interesting, to say the least. But I won't delve into what that absence represents.) Throughout the novel, he has been obsessed with his Jewishness and how it measures up against the mainstream American culture. He has been fixated on sex ("Crazy for Cunt" as he puts it), obsessed with shikses. He has been the good little boy, getting the good grades, growing up to do good, to in fact be good (he becomes a lawyer who works for the city on behalf of the downtrodden), yet forever drawn to ever more perverse sexual relationships, inevitably--he thinks--unsatisfactory relationships, which he looks on with shame, conflicting as they do with his received notions of what constitutes "goodness"--amidst reveries in which he realizes that he really only wants the life his parents had. Again, the Freudian stuff has been laid on intentionally thick (in a passage explaining why he doesn't need dreams since his real life is "disproportionate and melodramatic" enough, he says: "Who else do you know whose mother threatened him with the dreaded knife? Who else was so lucky as to have the threat of castration so straight-forwardly put by his momma?").

Against this backdrop, Portnoy arrives in Israel, astonished to find Jews comfortable in their own skin. He tries to take Israeli women to bed (as he inevitably must, or else he wouldn't be in a Roth book), but is unable to perform. He finally meets a woman, recently done with her Army service, who grew up within the kibbutz movement, and who in his "hysterical" condition he decides, virtually instantly, he must marry:
Right off we began making serious talk about mankind. Her conversation was replete with passionate slogans not unlike those of my adolescence. A just society. The common struggle. Individual freedom. A socially productive life. But how naturally she wore her idealism, I thought. Yes, this was my kind of girl, all right--innocent, good-hearted, zaftig, unsophisticated and unfucked-up. Of course! I don't want the movie stars and mannequins and whores, or any combination thereof. I don't want a sexual extravaganza for a life, or a continuation of this masochistic extravaganza I've been living, either. No, I want simplicity, I want health, I want her!
In fact, she looks just like his mother. Yes, and Portnoy is well aware of how ridiculous it is that the simplistic Oedipal drama seems to be unfolding in the most vulgar form in his real life. But that's not my problem. My problem is what he does with this. Up till this point, at least in Portnoy's version of events (which is all we have, obviously), Portnoy may have acted like an insensitive jerk with many of the women he involved himself with, but he doesn't appear to clearly be the villain. But in Israel it's different: He wants to marry the good Jewish girl who looks like his mother. She, naturally, thinks he's insane. He tries to persuade her to have sex with him. She refuses. He persists. She tries to leave his hotel room. He tackles her. He tries to rape her (his "mother"). He is unsuccessful because he can still not maintain an erection in Israel. And in his telling he expresses no regret for trying to force himself on her, but only regret that he was unable to succeed. These paragraphs are particularly ugly and left a bad taste in my mouth.

The Israel section seems tacked on and unconvincing after the more assured parts of the rest of the book. But they also lay bare the ugliness underlying the basic attitude towards women throughout which holds that women owe men sex, or that they are merely the pawns moved about in the lives of men, the medium on which men work out their psychosexual problems, unable themselves to escape the simplistic Madonna/whore dichotomy. My point here is not to be yet another person accusing Roth of "hating women". Unfortunately, it can be argued all too accurately that his fiction, in this respect, simply reflects the wider misogynist societal attitudes. The point is also not that Roth should be conforming to my own sense of political correctness, but rather that a literary weakness is revealed. Returning to Martin Amis' Counterlife review, in which Amis praises Roth's ability to render a particularly clandestine--and to the English Amis, dismayingly accurate--form of English anti-Semitism. Amis says: "Roth did well to hear it, to catch it; but that is how he interprets the world--he listens to it." In large part, this observation is correct. But Roth evinces a certain tone-deafness, a certain inability to listen when it comes to women, and the degree to which this is true--even as his response that he is a man and therefore writes about men makes a certain degree of sense to me--amounts to a weakness in his art. It is definitely a weakness in Portnoy's Complaint.

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Anonymous Mark Thwaite said...

Really good post Richard. I've read only one Roth (Everyman), so I can't comment on particulars, but I think you are right to review the notion of misogyny in his work not as a failure of political correctness but as a failure of his art. Nice one.

July 02, 2007 3:56 AM  
Blogger Foilwoman said...

Richard: Your post on Roth was much more well-though out and written than mine, and it almost makes me want to read more of his stuff. But no. I can tell you the basic themes of his next book and the one after that, already summarized in the post of mine you commented on. Thanks for dropping by Foilwoman's Diary, and do drop by again.

This is the line that tells me you get it: "Roth evinces a certain tone-deafness, a certain inability to listen when it comes to women, and the degree to which it is true -- even as his response that he is a man and thereore writes about men makes a certain degree of sense to me -- amounts to a weakness in his art."

That's it. He's a man, he writes about men's things, or what he perceives them to be. But over half the human race is female, and he just sees us when he wants something from us, and not as full human beings.

July 05, 2007 8:38 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

Foilwoman - thanks for the comment.

Interestingly, if memory serves (and it's been quite a while), The Counterlife and Operation: Shylock do not deal with the same basic themes. Not that you necessarily should read them, just that, if you were at all interested, I think those two would be the ones to go for on that score. On the other hand, I can't guarantee that there isn't a scene here or there that reveals the same sort of problems.

I think the problem is, if anything, even bigger with Updike...

Anyway, thanks for coming by!

July 05, 2007 7:03 PM  
Blogger Casey said...

Richard--what did you think about the afterword of this book? If I remember right, he explains that the first lines of all of his novels were sort of cosmically given to him when he was a young man... seems very metafictional to me. I would even compare it to "The Custom House" intro. in The Scarlet Letter.

Unless you think that he really found a slip of paper with 19 "first lines" on it (?!?).

July 08, 2007 12:20 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

Hi Casey -

Oddly, I've come across at least one reference from somebody who believed Roth actually did find such a slip of paper.

When I read the Afterward after the first time I read the book, I thought the "first lines" conceit was weird, but the idea that now, having written what the lines said he had to write, he was free to write his own--that was interesting.

This time I had a difficult time making it through the Afterward at all. In any event, it's definitely very meta, but to what purpose at this point, I'm not sure.

July 08, 2007 11:21 AM  

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