Portnoy's Complaint

Portnoy's Complaint

"Portnoy's Complaint" (1969) is American writer Philip Roth's most popular novel, with many of its characteristics (comedic prose; themes of sexual desire and sexual frustration; a self-conscious literariness) having gone on to become Roth trademarks.

Time Magazine included the novel in its "TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005". [http://www.time.com/time/2005/100books/the_complete_list.html]

tructure and themes

Structurally, "Portnoy's Complaint" is a continuous monologue as narrated by its eponymous speaker, Alexander Portnoy, to his psychoanalyst, Dr. Spielvogel. This narration weaves through time and describes scenes from each stage in Portnoy's life, with every recollection in some way touching upon Portnoy's central dilemma: his inability to enjoy the fruits of his sexual adventures even as his extreme libidinal urges force him to seek release in ever more creative (and, in his mind, degrading and shameful) acts of eroticism. Roth is not subtle about defining this as the main theme of his book. On the first page of the novel one finds this clinical definition of "Portnoy's Complaint", as if taken from a manual on sexual dysfunction:

: Portnoy's Complaint: A disorder in which strongly-felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature...

The title also alludes to the common literary form of Complaint, such as "A Lover's Complaint", which typically presents the speaker's comments on being a spurned lover.

Other topics touched on in the book include the assimilation experiences of American Jews, their relationship to the Jews of Israel, and the pleasures and perils the narrator sees as inherent in being the son of a Jewish family.

"Portnoy's Complaint" is also emblematic of the times during which it was published. Most obviously, the book's sexual frankness was both a product of and an inspiration for the sexual revolution that was in full swing during the late 1960s. And the book's narrative style, a huge departure from the stately, semi-Jamesian prose of Roth's earlier novels, has often been likened to the stand-up performances of 1960s comedian Lenny Bruce.

Biographical underpinnings

Ever since its publication, speculation has abounded as to how much of "Portnoy's Complaint" is fiction and how much is thinly-veiled autobiography. Roth himself pokes fun at these parlor games in his 1981 novel "Zuckerman Unbound", where alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman is continually accosted by clueless strangers who cannot believe he was exercising the creative faculties of a writer when he wrote the sex scenes in "Carnovsky" (the alter-novel to "Portnoy's Complaint").

Still, by cross-referencing data from interviews, the autobiography of ex-wife Claire Bloom, Roth's own pseudo-autobiography "The Facts", and his more biographically mimetic Zuckerman novels, the following can be established about "Portnoy's Complaint" with a high degree of certaintyFact|date=April 2008 :

* The novel began as a dinner-table comedy routine delivered by Roth to "New Republic" drama critic Robert Brustein and their circle of mutual New York City friends ("The Facts")
* Like Portnoy, Roth was heavily influenced as an adolescent by the World War II radio dramas of playwright Norman Corwin. Both teenage Portnoy and teenage Nathan Zuckerman (cf. "I Married a Communist") produce politically-didactic radio plays as their first forays into literature, and so it is highly likely Roth began his career with a similar work of juvenilia [http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/authors/roth/conversation.shtml I Married A Communist Interview] ]
* Portnoy's career as a civil rights attorney reflects Roth's own Popular front-inspired civic idealism; when he was visited by lawyers from the Anti-Defamation League to discuss the controversy over a story in "Goodbye, Columbus", Roth recollects that: "As a high school senior thinking about studying law, I had sometimes imagined working on their staff, defending the civil and legal rights of Jews" ("The Facts").
* The central female character of "Portnoy's Complaint", Mary Jane Reed (aka "The Monkey") is a caricature of Roth's first wife, Margaret Martinson. Specifically, the women share the same neurotic need to submerge themselves in Portnoy's/Roth's Jewish identity so as to co-opt some of the same family love that was missing from their own lives (Claire Bloom's "Leaving a Doll's House", "The Facts").
* Roth and Portnoy share the same birth-year (1933) and birth-place (Newark, New Jersey)
* The various high literary references made by Alexander Portnoy (to Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Yeats) reflect Roth's own tastes, as they recur in novels narrated by different characters, including ones (for example, Mickey Sabbath of "Sabbath's Theater") who are not sufficiently educated to realistically be able to toss off such references

Australian ban

In 1969 the book was declared a "prohibited import" in Australia, though the Australian publisher, Penguin Books, resisted and had copies printed up in secret and stored in fleets of moving trucks. Several attempts to prosecute Penguin Books and any bookseller carrying the book failed. [http://www.crikey.com.au/Politics/20060829-Censorship-and-Don-Chipp.html]

Allusions to the title

The popularity of the novel has caused the title to become a sort of shorthand for any form of sexual malaise or activity. In his autobiography, Dick Cavett wrote that on one occasion when a male guest was unable to appear on his talk show, Cavett jokingly told the studio audience the guest could not attend because he was "suffering from Portnoy's Complaint", a comment which the network censors decided to cut from the broadcast tape. Gore Vidal once quipped to Claire Bloom, Roth's second wife: "You have already had Portnoy's complaint [her previous husband] . Do not involve yourself with Portnoy."


The novel was adapted into a movie starring Richard Benjamin and Karen Black in 1972 .


External links

* "Portnoy's Complaint" #52 on the [http://www.bookspot.com/listmodern100.htm Modern Library's 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century]
*imdb title|0069112

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