'Portnoy's Prescience

'Complaint' Presaged Philip Roth's Masterworks, New Book Asserts

By Jerome A. Chanes

Published July 17, 2012, issue of July 20, 2012.
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Promiscuous: ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ and Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness
By Bernard Avishai
Yale University Press, 240 pages, $25

Bernard Avishai
Bernard Avishai

‘Promiscuous: ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ and Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness” is a very serious and very funny book about a very serious and very funny book.

Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint,” published in 1969, was not only an instant sensation (the book sold almost half a million copies within 10 weeks); there are those in the lit-crit and literary-history establishment who have maintained that “Portnoy’s Complaint,” in prefiguring everything and all that followed in Roth’s oeuvre, is a work of lasting merit.

All was not roses for “Portnoy’s Complaint.” Many were those who exuberantly excoriated Roth for his graphic, indeed crude, explorations of sex. And forget not: “Portnoy’s Complaint” was preceded by a decade by “Goodbye, Columbus,” for which Roth was well and truly incinerated by the Jewish community. We yet recall the musing of a prominent rabbi, commenting on Roth’s washing the dirty laundry of American Jews in public: “In the Middle Ages we knew what to do with Jews like Philip Roth.” Indeed, the censorious dismay around “Goodbye, Columbus” was far beyond that which surrounded “Portnoy.”

“Portnoy” did, of course, come in for its own share of scathing criticism, beyond the disgust expressed by many readers. Who will forget the one-sentence review by magisterial Jewish thinker Gershom Scholem? “This is the book for which all antisemites have been praying.”

But who was Portnoy? Whence did he come? And what was his impact, beyond the scorn and praise heaped upon the author? Bernard Avishai, an adjunct professor of business at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who was the author some three decades ago of the provocative “The Tragedy of Zionism,” takes a stab at these questions in “Promiscuous.” Avishai, an unlikely candidate in this arena, nonetheless fields these questions deftly, intelligently and — best of all — wittily.

“Promiscuous” is more than an exploration of “Portnoy’s Complaint”; it is in effect a “biography” of Portnoy and of his creator: What is the relationship among Portnoy, “Portnoy’s Complaint” and Roth? Is Roth Portnoy? Significant, as well, “Promiscuous” is a “biography” of the Jewish community that excoriated Roth. As important to Avishai as the tendency to the comic, indeed grotesque, in Jews and their families is “the voice that cannot mock others without first mocking itself…. This was the sound of the psychoanalytic room.” Using the psy-choanalyst’s couch as a launching pad is Roth’s conceit, and Avishai’s, as well.

What emerges from Portnoy’s adventures is, as Avishai puts it, “a way of exploring the Drang [“drive”] before the Sturm [“storm”] in a young man’s life.” All of what was wrong with Roth/ Portnoy — rage, lewdness, ingratitude — reflecting, in the eyes of many, what was wrong with much of American society, was but a part of the story. These were a small piece of what was wrong with Portnoy, and by extension, Roth. Portnoy was a person who was to be the repository of every conceivable socially unacceptable thought and action. It was all about American society — and it all came out in Roth’s book.


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