First edition cover
|Cover artist||Paul Bacon|
|January 12, 1969|
|Media type||Print (hardcover)|
|Preceded by||When She Was Good|
|Followed by||Our Gang|
Portnoy's Complaint is a 1969 American novel that turned its author Philip Roth into a major celebrity, sparking a storm of controversy over its explicit and candid treatment of sexuality, including detailed depictions of masturbation using various props including a piece of liver. The novel tells the humorous monologue of "a lust-ridden, mother-addicted young Jewish bachelor," who confesses to his psychoanalyst in "intimate, shameful detail, and coarse, abusive language." Many of its characteristics (comedic prose; themes of sexual desire and sexual frustration; a self-conscious literariness) went on to become Roth trademarks.
In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Portnoy's Complaint 52nd on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Time included this novel in its "TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005."
Structure and themes
Structurally, Portnoy's Complaint is a continuous monologue as narrated by its speaker, Alexander Portnoy, to his psychoanalyst, Dr. Spielvogel; Roth later explained that the artistic choice to frame the story as a psychoanalytic session was motivated by "the permissive conventions of the patient-analyst situation," which would "permit me to bring into my fiction the sort of intimate, shameful detail, and coarse, abusive language that [...] in another fictional environment would have struck me as pornographic, exhibitionistic, and nothing but obscene."
Portnoy is "a lust-ridden, mother addicted young Jewish bachelor," and the narration weaves through time describing scenes from each stage of his life; every recollection in some way touches upon his 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; also, much of his dilemma is that "his sense of himself, his past, and his ridiculous destiny is so fixed." 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:
The title also alludes to the common literary form of complaint, such as The 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 a reflection on 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.
The novel is notable for its explicit and candid treatment of sexuality, including detailed depictions of masturbation using various props including a piece of liver which Portnoy's mother later serves for dinner.
Roth had begun work on Portnoy's Complaint in 1967, before publication of his novel When She Was Good that year. The piece had its genesis in a satirical monologue Roth had written to accompany a slide show proposed for inclusion in the risqué revue Oh! Calcutta! that would focus on the sexual organs of the rich and famous. While the slide show would never come to fruition, Roth found part of the accompanying monologue about masturbation salvageable. Roth re-fashioned the material for the novel and sold a chapter of the book, entitled "Whacking Off", to Partisan Review. Progress on the novel was slow because Roth was suffering from writer's block relating to his ex-wife, Margaret Martinson, and the unpleasant notion that any royalties generated by the novel would have to be split equally with her. In May 1968 Martinson was killed in a car crash in Central Park. Roth's writer's block lifted and following Martinson's funeral he traveled to the Yaddo literary retreat to complete the manuscript.
Responses, reviews and attacks
The publication of the novel caused a major controversy in American public discourse. The two aspects that evoked such outrage were its explicit and candid treatment about sexuality and obscenities, including detailed depiction of masturbation, which was revolutionary in the late 1960s; and the irreverent portrait of Jewish identity. It sparked an uproar in the Jewish community, even among New York intellectuals such as Irving Howe and Diana Trilling.
In 1969 the book was declared a "prohibited import" in Australia. The Australian publisher, Penguin Books, circumvented the importation ban by having copies printed in Sydney in secret and stored in fleets of moving trucks to avoid seizure under state obscenity laws. A 1967 agreement between the Commonwealth of Australia and the states put in place an effort at uniform censorship whereby imported books would be handled by the Commonwealth and the states would prosecute using state laws the publication and distribution of locally published books on the federal banned books list. However, South Australia bucked the system when it came to Portnoy's Complaint, declaring that it would not prosecute sales of the work made to an adult who made a direct enquiry of the vendor, provided the books were kept behind the counter. Attempts to prosecute Penguin and any bookseller carrying the book were successful in Victoria and Queensland, failed in Western Australia (where "works of recognised artistic, scientific or literary merit" were immune under the local statute, notwithstanding that they may have been obscene) and New South Wales, where prosecutors gave up after two trials resulted in hung juries. The book was removed from the federal banned list for importation in June 1971, the federal government recognising the absurdity that local publications could be sold legally in three states and the Australian Capital Territory. The Portnoy matter was a watershed in Australian censorship law, marking the last occasion on which the censorship of a literary publication came before the courts.
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."
On the September 8, 2010, episode of The Daily Show, as part of an extended segment on the amount of violence in major religious texts, Jon Stewart and John Oliver have a debate wherein Stewart claims the book as the main text of Judaism, in response to Oliver's demand of disavowal regarding the violence depicted in portions of Hebrew sacred texts.
In her metafictional novel Culture Shock (Duckworth 1988), Valerie Grosvenor Myer wrote of a satirically presented married couple among her characters: "Let us consider my Jean and Jack ... I weighted the scales by presenting them in the rôle of parents ... fictional parents are usually set up as Aunt Sallies to be knocked down ... Mrs Bennet, Mrs Nickleby, Mrs Portnoy; Old Capulet, Mr Dorrit, Dr Sloper."
In the Get Smart original TV series, in the fifth-season episode "Do I Hear a Vaults?", aired on May 8, 1970, Maxwell Smart alludes to the book being hidden in a public library.
On the TV series Californication, in the episode titled "Coke Dick and the First Kick", a female writer for Rolling Stone magazine calls one of Hank Moody's early novels "the retarded man's Portnoy's Complaint", which he admits made him want to "muff punch her" with his typewriter.
In the Bojack Horseman episode "Ruthie", Princess Carolyn remarks "Who knew Portnoy had so many complaints?" in response to List_of_BoJack_Horseman_characters#Courtney_Portnoy
- Modern first editions - a set on Flickr
- "'Portnoy's Complaint'? Self-Love and Self-Loathing : NPR". npr.org. Retrieved 2010-10-01.
- Saxton (1974)
- Brauner (2005), pp.43-7
- "All Time 100 Novels". Time. 2005-10-16.
- Cox, Chris (2009-09-07). "Portnoy's Complaint – still shocking at 40". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 2010-10-01.
- Hofler, pp. 48-56
- Don Chipp: larrikin, censor, and party founder. Aug 29, 2006. Retrieved 20 August 2017
- Sawer, Geoffrey (27 January 1971). "Between the Lines". The Canberra Times. Fairfax Media. Retrieved 20 August 2017.
- Fitzgerald, Alan (1 September 1970). "Agreement denied". The Canberra Times. Fairfax Media. p. 3. Retrieved 20 August 2017.
- Moore, Nicole (1 October 2012). The Censor's Library: Uncovering the Lost History of Australia's Banned Books. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press. p. 414. ISBN 978 0 7022 3916 8. Retrieved 20 August 2017.
Hofler, Robert (2014). Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange - How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos. New York: itbooks, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 978-0-06-208834-5.
- Brauner, David (1969) Getting in Your Retaliation First: Narrative Strategies in Portnoy's Complaint in Royal, Derek Parker (2005) Philip Roth: new perspectives on an American author, chapter 3
- Saxton, Martha (1974) Philip Roth Talks about His Own Work Literary Guild June 1974, n.2. Also published in Philip Roth, George John Searles (1992) Conversations with Philip Roth p. 78
- Portnoy's Complaint #52 on the Modern Library's 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
- Portnoy's Complaint on IMDb