Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"Into his hat, for Christ's sake. Ven der putz shteht! Ven der putz shteht! Into the hat that he wears on his head!" Who can forget these words? I have just re-read Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint" (1969), which I first read in the mid-1970s, and the words still ring loud and hilarious. But what a difference 40 years make! When I was in my early twenties, the novel seemed a pinnacle of avant-garde prose, and the variety of sex acts whose candid and graphic descriptions constitute a substantial part of the book seemed to portend the dawn of a new era of frankness in literary arts. Now, in my mid-sixties, I find the profusion of sex stuff pretentious. Funny? Oh yes! In fact, extremely funny! Significant? Not in the least!
This story of Alex Portnoy's coming of age in terms of his sexuality, his Jewish identity, and gaining independence from his parents, is considered by many one of the best English-language novels of the 20th century. It may well be, provided that one peels away the whole sexual shtick - let's not forget that the novel was written at the peak of the sexual revolution of the Sixties - and reaches to the deeper layers of meaning.
Most of the novel is framed as Alex' monologue to his analyst who is helping him break out from the role he plays "of the smothered son in the Jewish joke." And although the grown-up Alex pretends he is ashamed of his controlling mother and uneducated father, in fact he fiercely loves them and is proud of them, which - to me - forms the central theme of the novel, which otherwise could be viewed just as a considerably extended comedy stand-up routine. The humor is abundant in every layer of the text - just think about the trajectory of a young man who from making love to an ingredient of his family's dinner grows into an Assistant Commissioner for the City of New York Commission on Human Opportunity whose role is "to encourage equality of treatment, to prevent discrimination, to foster mutual understanding and respect"!
"Portnoy's Complaint" offers some penetrating truths in its deeper layers, yet it does not match the profundity of James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man", written 53 years earlier, and another candidate to the title of the best English-language novel of the 20th century. While the development of Stephen Dedalus' consciousness and identity, shown by Joyce, is a universally valid portrait of human childhood and youth, Roth's Alex Portnoy is more of a portrait of the times than of the boy/man himself. 40+ years after my first read, I find there is much less in the novel than I had thought there was, but I still thinks it deserves a very high rating because of the humor and the oblique depiction of filial love that shines through.
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