The audience kept hammering the writer. The angry words wouldn’t quit. In their eyes, here was a traitor.
It was March 1962, and Philip Roth was sitting on a literature panel at Yeshiva University. Only 29 years old, the Jewish writer had pocketed literary accolades and awards with his first book, 1959’s “Goodbye, Columbus.”
But to the students and professors at the Jewish college in New York City, the book’s portrayals of American-born Jews shaking free of their old world culture while navigating the sexual and culture tripwires of the 1950s were far too real and unflattering — a disgrace even.
“Mr. Roth, would you write the same stories if you lived in Nazi Germany?” members of the audience asked, Roth would later write in his autobiography, “The Facts.”
“You were brought up on anti-Semitic literature!” another charged as Roth fled the building. “English literature is anti-Semitic literature!”
Over dinner with friends that night, Roth reflected on the bruising experience in the wake of “Goodbye, Columbus.”
“I’ll never write about Jews again,” he vowed.
Roth — who died Tuesday night at 85 in Manhattan — broke that promise seven years later with a novel that forever changed the American literary scene.
Published in 1969, “Portnoy’s Complaint” was a provocative hand grenade rolled right into the literary and Jewish establishments.
A hyperactive comic monologue delivered by the titular character to his psychoanalyst, the book’s pages ramble between obscene scenes of masturbation and erotic longing, Jewish guilt and family infighting. “LET’S PUT THE ID BACK IN YID!” the narrator explains at one point.
The novel, which featured scenes of self-love involving everything from baseball mitts to liver meat, detonated the wall between low comedy and high art. It also made Roth a literary celebrity.
But the antic book also set loose the same negative reactions that Roth faced down in 1962 at Yeshiva. According to the New Yorker, Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem wrote the novel was worse than the “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” the infamous anti-Semitic conspiracy text. “The cruelest thing anyone can do with ‘Portnoy’s Complaint,’” novelist Irving Howe said in his own scathing review, “is read it twice.”
Following his death Tuesday, Roth was celebrated as last of the white male literary lions to roar through American letters in the 20th century, a group including Norman Mailer, John Updike and Joseph Heller, among others. Across 27 novels, Roth proved to be an adept chronicler of the heavy baggage of American history — what the writer termed in a later book the “the indigenous American berserk.”
But that career took time to build after his initial success, partly due to his vow after the Yeshiva incident. Roth’s early award-winning work was set in the same middle-class Jewish neighborhoods in Newark where the author had been raised. Roth subsequently abandoned the milieu in his work. His two books after “Goodbye, Columbus” — 1962’s “Letting Go” and 1967’s “When She Was Good — were sedate, tidy and influenced by Henry James. The reaction to his first stories had caused him to step carefully.
“I defended myself but I was thrown by it,” Roth recounted to the Guardian in 2008. “I could handle it, but I didn’t like it.’
As Roth told the New Yorker’s David Remnick in 2000, after a time he began experimenting with the novelistic form, trying to find the perfect way to address the topics he really wanted to talk about — family, sex and death.
“I needed permission, and permission came with casting the book as a psychoanalytic confession,” Roth told Remnick. “The theatre of the analyst’s office says the rule here is that there are no rules, the rule here is no inhibitions, the rule here is no restraint, the rule here is no decorum.”
The freewheeling atmosphere of the times also influenced his decision to dump standard literary conventions.
“I let it rip,” Roth told Esquire’s Scott Raab in 2010. “I had written three books prior that were all careful in a way. Each was different from the other, but they didn’t let it rip, and now was my chance. It was written at the tail end of the sixties, so all that was happening around one, and I was living in New York at the time, so the theatrics around me gave me confidence.”
The book’s narrator, Alexander Portnoy, unbuckles all his sexual complexes and lusts in the narrative. But the vulgar scenes and comedy all are a way for Roth to drill down into a deeper condition: the frustration that comes from being penned in on all sides by various forms of shame, from the shame of one’s bodily urges to the shame of abandoning family traditions to the shame of survival.
“The hysteria and the superstition!” Portnoy blurts out in the book. “The watch-its and the be-carefuls! You mustn’t do this, you can’t do that — hold it! don’t! you’re breaking an important law! What law! Whose law!”
“In the view of Mr. Roth, guilt is only and always an alien substance in the human composition, introduced for the destruction of our joy and the perpetuation of old sorrows,” critic Diana Trilling wrote in Harper’s. “And because guilt intervenes so grossly between us and our full individual humanity, it necessarily incapacitates us in our relations with other people, especially the relation between the sexes.”
The scandalous content of the book drove up its sales — “Portnoy’s Complaint” sold over 400,000 copies in its first year of printing. Critics were also largely supportive of the taboo-blasting work. In the New York Times, Josh Greenfeld called it “the very novel that every American-Jewish writer has been trying to write in one guise or another since the end of World War II.”
By marshaling vulgarity to illustrate a deeper point, Roth broke literary ground, proving even wisecracks about masturbation could lead readers to a profound place. As such, “Portnoy’s Complaint” has continued to be read and celebrated. The book is regularly listed among the best novels of the 20th century.
Writing for NPR in 2013, author Lucas Mann argued the novel did what all great books do: “It allowed for secret conversations, internal chats about the prickly side of being human, the kind I was too scared to voice even in a whisper. Life is painful, and sometimes gross, and often funny . . . and it took a painful, gross, funny book to get the message across.”
Yet negative reactions also exploded in the wake of the book’s 1969 release, particularly for its depiction of a sex-crazy Jewish man consumed by mother issues. “This is the book for which all anti-Semites have been praying,” Gershom Scholem wrote. “An assemblage of gags strung onto the outcry of an analytic patient, the book thrives best on casual responses; it demands little more from the reader than a nightclub performer demands,” Howe wrote in his takedown.
“I’m not sure Philip always realizes that he is being outrageous,” Nobel Prize-winning author Saul Bellow later told Remnick. “He feels a writer should provoke — and he should, if that is the way he is inclined — but he can’t expect to evade the results of this provocation. Philip is a radical. He feels he should treat the bizarre as if it were perfectly normal.”
The book also created the fallacy — one that would follow Roth for the rest of his career — that his unhinged narrators were stand-ins for the author himself. “I’d like to meet him,” writer Jacqueline Susann memorably quipped to Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” after the best-seller’s release. “But I wouldn’t want to shake his hand.”
After “Portnoy’s Complaint” hit bookshelves, Roth confessed to feeling “visible and exposed.” The author told Remnick: “Somebody who had just read ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ would come up to me and say, ‘I don’t eat liver anymore.’ It was funny the first seven thousand times I heard it.”
But it also cemented the author’s place not just in the literary scene, but at the highest rung of American culture. Talking with Esquire’s Raab, Roth related a story of sitting backstage at Madison Square Garden after “Portnoy’s Complaint” was released. After watching bluesman B.B. King give an interview, Roth got up to leave, the author recalled.
“B.B. King looked at his boys in their powder-blue suits, rubbed my seat, and said, ‘This guy just made a million dollars from writin’ a book.’”
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