Home > 20th Century, American Literature, Novel, Roth Philip > I am the son in the Jewish joke – only it ain’t no joke!

I am the son in the Jewish joke – only it ain’t no joke!

November 10, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth.

“She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school  I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise”. First sentence of Portnoy’s Complaint and I was already rocking with laughter.

 This book is a written one-man-show. Alexander Portnoy, a Jew, is lying – or so I imagine him – on a sofa in his shrink’s office. He talks, weeps, shouts his life to Doctor Spielvogel, who describes Alex’ disorder as follows: “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.”

Portnoy is a very clever Jewish fellow, who, like Philip Roth, grew up in the Jewish neighborhood of Newark, NY. He tries to understand why he is “Thirty-three, and still ogling and daydreaming about every girl who crosses her legs opposite him in the subway” when he should be a perfect Jewish husband and a perfect Jewish father in Newark, as his parents expect him to be.

In a rather disorderly way, he starts relating his childhood and the different relationships he had with women. The narration runs back and forth from the past to the present time. Alex can’t accept the dichotomy between his social identity and his internal identity. Socially, he is the lawyer, the knight of poor, illiterate and immigrant people in their relationship with the administration. He fights inequalities. Personally, he is insecure and obsessed by sex. He suffers from compulsive masturbation and all kinds of inhibitions, coming, he thinks, from his childhood.

“Inhibition doesn’t grow on trees, you know – takes patience, takes concentration, takes a dedicated and self-sacrificing parent and a hard-working attentive little child to create in only a few years’ time a really constrained and tight-ass human being.”

He thus tries to decipher where his temper comes from through analyzing his childhood. He describes how his mother hovers over his every move and thought. He portrays his father as a worried insurance collector. “Why his head aches him all the time, is of course because he is constipated all the time – why he is constipated is because ownership of his intestinal tract is in the hands of the firm of Worry, Fear & Frustration”. Like every child, he has recriminations against his parents but he loves them and he is lucid enough to acknowledge: “All the faults come from the parents, right, Alex, what’s wrong, they did – what’s good, you accomplished all on your own!”

Little by little, Alex unknits the course of events that brought him here, in that doctor’s office. He just ended one-year relationship with a woman he nicknamed “The Monkey” in a cruel manner: as he abandoned her in a hotel in Greece, in the middle of their vacation. She’s as horny as he is, very attractive and prone to any of his sexual fantasies. They get along really well and are “The perfect couple: she puts the id back in Yid, I put the oy back in goy.” When she starts thinking about marriage, Alex freaks out. He is ashamed of her, who wears inappropriate sexy clothes at a Mayor’s reception and can’t spell words properly. He loves her though, she suits him but she’s not educated enough, not respectable enough to be presented to his family. She’s no marriage material. Put in front of the Cornelian dilemma of looking for a perfectly well-bred woman who would consider dirty to give him a blow-job or face his family and friends and impose his preference, he runs from the Monkey and ends up in the shrink’s office. Isn’t that splendid irony to be Jewish and have the typically Christian ‘whore or saint’ problem with women?

The sexual problem is just a pretext to comical effects. It brings light and funny but doesn’t erase Alex’ genuine internal mayhem or the underlying analysis of what it was to be a Jew born in the 1930s in America.

I enjoyed reading about life in this Jewish neighborhood that I had already discovered in The Plot Against America. Like the first time, I was surprised to read how self-sufficient they were, as if they had re-created a ghetto. The goyish world looks like another country in Alex’ eyes. He spies on WASPS houses, wonders how they live behind those curtains. His description of his first days in a goyish house reminded me of my first holidays abroad, in a Welsh family, a mixture of familiar and foreign. As a Jew, he sides with all the other immigrants and feels inferior to wasps. His parents don’t speak English properly or use Yiddish words. There’s an anecdote about not knowing at school the English word for ‘spatula’ which sounded like family stories from my mother telling an Italian word to her grammar school teacher for a mundane every day life instrument, because she hadn’t realized the word she knew was not a French one.

This quote “Yes, the only people in the world whom it seems to me the Jews are not afraid of are the Chinese. Because, one, the way they speak English makes my father sound like Lord Chesterfield; two, the insides of their heads are so much fired rice anyway; and three, to them we are not Jews but white – and maybe even Anglo-Saxon. Imagine!” reminded me what I heard on the radio the other day: Frenchmen with origins from Morocco or Algeria enjoy living in London because in the eyes of the British, they are just French people who speak English with a French accent. Alex feels like a foreigner is his own country.

Along with the description of a Jewish environment, Portnoy’s Complaint is also about how it feels to have such a brilliant mind that you get a scholarship to study in an Ivy League University and reach the upper social class. Alex never feels at ease in his new world, he doesn’t have the same background. He doesn’t know the customs but he tries to adapt.

 Let’s talk about the style of this book. It is all spoken language, with a lot of slang words. Ladies and Gentlemen! I have an announcement to make: I’m positive, the kindle dictionary doesn’t include all the American slang words available describe human genitals. I’ve tested it for you, I had to go back to my paper dictionary. Very educational. I probably missed play-on-words, but I’m glad I’ve read it in English anyway. I wonder: Doctor Spielvogel, which means “Toy-bird” or “Play-bird” in German, is that a sexual innuendo? Or did this book just give my mind a wrong twist?

 There would be a lot to say about this book, published in 1967 and probably one of the firsts on such a subject. It’s equally entertaining and deep. I have a request for you, Mr Roth: Could you write a book where Arturo Bandini and Alexander Portnoy compare their mothers, their lives as non-WASPS, their political ideas and their ways to atheism? They could be drinking beers in an atheist heaven of your choice – not in one of those Floridian ghettos for senior citizens, please, none of them could stand it. They would sit in a smoky bar and tell each other anecdotes, share their Freudian issues and talk about women. That could be huge fun, but hurry up, because after that, I’d like Woody Allen to shoot a film version of your book.

  1. November 10, 2010 at 4:39 pm

    Fantastic post, aided and abetted by the facts that I’ve long wanted to read this book and have Fante’s Ask the Dusk sitting beside me just waiting to be read as well. The funny thing is I’m pretty sure I paged through part of Portnoy when I was in college, moved less by its literary reputation as a fine novel than by its rep for being an infamously “dirty” one according to people in the know! In any event, I loved your review–and Roth’s descriptions of the different ethnicities viewed in comparison to one another sounds priceless. Must make time to read this book!

    Like

    • November 10, 2010 at 8:02 pm

      Is it really ‘dirty’ ? It is rife with sex but the comical tone prevents it from being dirty. Sade is horribly dirty. Seen from my French window, this is just terribly explicit. Portnoy’s Complaint also includes an interesting comparison between the Jew man & husband and the wasp one.
      By the way, if you’re interested, I reviewed The Road to Los Angeles and Ask the Dust. (They’re in the ‘Fante’ category)

      Like

  2. November 10, 2010 at 5:34 pm

    There is a film version. Some people apparently loved it, but I didn’t. It was not directed by Woody Allen, so perhaps that’s the problem.

    Like

    • November 10, 2010 at 8:17 pm

      I’ve looked for the film, apparently the critics were bad.
      The path leading from this book to its film version is slippery. Making a movie out of such a book requires a lot of intelligence, sensitiveness and a special sense of humour. It can be either a subtle film or a heavy and stupid comedy. Either Whatever Works or American Pie.

      Like

  3. November 11, 2010 at 10:46 am

    From the sound of it, I doubt anyone would get all the plays on words.

    I already have an unread Roth, which is a shame really as I’d probably have been much better off starting with this one which sounds funny. I have The Ghost Writer, which sounds good but not funny.

    Like

    • November 11, 2010 at 12:50 pm

      Hi, thanks for the time you spend reading my blog considering how much work takes on your free time.

      Strange that you have picked The Ghost Writer, I thought you weren’t much into books whose character is a writer.
      I have also read The Plot Against America and The Human Stain and I liked them both. They’re different. I have I Married a Communist and Exit Ghost at home, I don’t know when I’m going to read them, though. When I look at the TBR shelf, I’m like a kid in a candy store: sometimes I don’t know what to choose.

      Portnoy’s Complaint was funny. I won’t look at dirty socks the same way now that I know what a teenage boy can do with them.
      Incidentally, I’ve just read an article about a therapy group named ‘the sexual and affective Dependent’ who meet anonymously in a church (!!) to talk about their trouble. That’s exactly the kind of group Alexander Portnoy could have joined. Sometimes reality and fiction collide.

      Like

  4. November 11, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    I read your blog because I enjoy it Bookaround, so no thanks are needed other than thanks to you for writing it.

    Trevor of mookseandgripes recommended it and wrote a rather glowing review, that’s why I got Ghost Writer. I’m sure it will be good, Trevor knows his Roth after all. You’re right though, I do usually avoid novels about writers.

    I have a rule now that I avoid having more than one unread title by an author, it helps slow down my acquisitions (I buy about one book every week or two now which isn’t too bad, it used to be several a week which was far faster than I read them).

    Funnily enough, I was a teenage boy (that bit’s not so odd) and I’d never heard of the sock thing until adulthood. I understand it’s pretty common though. And it is funny when fiction and reality overlap.

    Like

  5. November 11, 2010 at 8:05 pm

    Max: I used to read a wonderful book by an author and then want everything he/she wrote. I, too, am trying to have (buy) one unread book at a time by an author.

    There’s a film of The Human Stain too, isn’t there?

    Like

  6. November 11, 2010 at 9:45 pm

    Yes, there’s a film version of The Humain Stain. I haven’t seen it.

    Like

  7. November 11, 2010 at 11:30 pm

    Me neither. I wasn’t that interested to be honest, but the title rang a bell.

    Like

  8. Katherine
    January 8, 2013 at 4:55 pm

    I just finished re-reading Portnoy’s Complaint, I appreciated it more the second time around.

    Like

    • January 8, 2013 at 10:58 pm

      Hello, thanks for dropping by and commenting.
      I can see how a re-read can bring a new light on the book. On the second reading, I imagine that, as the tone and the vocabulary is no longer a surprise, you have more space in your mind to go past it and see the real issues Roth raises in his funny way.

      Like

  1. July 14, 2012 at 9:10 pm
  2. August 13, 2013 at 12:16 am
  3. October 12, 2014 at 12:11 am
  4. October 23, 2015 at 7:17 am

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: