Philip Roth: Portnoy’s Complaint

December 10, 2014

411hzc7VY7L._AA160_I’ve had a tatty, ancient secondhand copy of this for years; finally I decided I ought to read it before I got rid. And what a disappointment.

A young male American Jew on a psychiatrist’s couch talks about his childhood, his sex life and his hangups. His Jewish parents are overbearing and overprotective, his mother especially. He experiences discrimination. Puberty is described in great detail, as are his sexual obsessions. The whole is interlarded with large amounts of American Yiddisher slang, which I couldn’t be bothered to look up.

It went on rather, and I suspect was rather too American for this English reader; it was also, I think, intended to be rather more humorous than I found it..

When I thought more seriously about it, I came back to an idea that I’ve explored before on this blog, that certain books should be read at certain ages or stages in one’s development, and this is probably an adolescent’s novel, though not in the same way that I felt that, for instance, the novels of Hermann Hesse were best first encountered in one’s teenage years. It’s just that a novel can explore a theme or an idea that speaks more to one’s condition at one stage of life rather than another. At my age I found Portnoy’s Complaint tiresome and repetitive.

A further point occurred to me as I thought about when it was written and first published – 1969. It is also a novel of its time. Then I compared it with another novel – also of its time, and of the same time – Joseph Heller‘s Catch-22. Why is that novel so much better, still constantly in print, studied in school? Catch-22 is about unchanging, permanent themes: war, life and death. Portnoy’s Complaint is about unchanging, permanent themes: sexuality, growth and development (though I wouldn’t honour it with the appellation ‘bildungsroman’). Heller’s canvas is broader; Heller moves out from the Second World War to wider ideas and issues; Heller creates a range of character-types that are ‘representative’ in some way; Heller’s humour questions, and makes his readers uncomfortable. Heller isn’t self-indulgent. Enough said.

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