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Portnoy’s Complaint, in Analysis

Hebrew University professor Bernard Avishai’s playful new critical look at Philip Roth’s 1969 classic digs deep into the novel’s neurotic passion

Sam Kerbel
April 24, 2012
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine, original photo James Vaughan/Flickr)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine, original photo James Vaughan/Flickr)

In a game of word association, Portnoy’s Complaint—Philip Roth’s legendary 1969 novel—would likely elicit quite a few creative ripostes: liver, couch, shrink. But what about war?

In Promiscuous: ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ and Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness, Hebrew University adjunct professor of business Bernard Avishai unpacks the history and reception of the best-seller and what value it retains for the present. Though it was an instant commercial success—it sold 420,000 copies during its first 10 weeks on the shelf—critics were tenaciously divided over its merits, with each offering up his or her own theory delineating the novel’s artistic achievements and political agendas. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of the New York Times extolled Roth’s willingness to artfully “bare his soul, to stop playing games, to cease sublimating,” and Anatole Broyard wrote in the New Republic that Portnoys Complaint “is sure to be regarded as a kind of literary Second Coming.” Others were less impressed: “[B]y now, simply to launch attacks on middle-class suburbia is to put oneself at the head of a suburban parade,” wrote Irving Howe, previously a Roth advocate, “just as to mock the uprightness of immigrant Jews is to become the darling of their ‘liberated’ suburban children.”

But perhaps the most interesting insight comes from Avishai himself. With the benefit of hindsight, he divines the emotional message of some of Roth’s detractors, who he believes simply felt that American Jews had finally deserved some respite. With the Holocaust just over two decades behind them and the Six Day War a recent memory, America’s upwardly mobile Jewish population “thought they had earned a kind of moral intermission”—one that Portnoy “seemed not to be respecting.” Whether or not Portnoy’s complaints had value mattered less than their timing. The moment, already a tumultuous one, proved less than opportune.

This divide makes sense given the position of Jews in late-1960s America. Portnoy’s Complaint was a literary event signaling the culmination of the past decade: Movements for sexual liberation, civil rights, higher socioeconomic mobility, and gender equality each begot its own fair share of challenges and paradoxes. In response to the moral respectability that American Jews embodied in their postwar milieu, and considering the myriad social forces put into flux by the turbulence of the ’60s, Portnoy’s Complaint took a different approach. Avishai observes, “Here was a book that seemed to say you don’t have to be this respectful. I’m going to tell you about the repellent side, or at least about a man who is in a struggle with the repellent.”

If the novel is viewed strictly in its immediate social context, one would have to wonder whether its literary vitality and shock value hold as tight a grip today as they did upon publication. But as Avishai posits, Portnoy’s Complaint has maintained a lasting impact precisely because it is not simply a novel of its moment. Its central themes—the virtues and perils of assimilation, the tension between personal and collective identity, and the ethical dilemmas emerging from these struggles—have shown themselves to be “latent in any bourgeois decade.” In Avishai’s words, Portnoy’s Complaint “shows us as few books have how we rely on our capacity to invent fictions about one another to establish our singularity and strive against its loneliness.”


One of the most interesting features of Promiscuous is the way it mimics the style of its subject. Avishai strings his arguments together in much the same way that Portnoy makes his confessions: a continuous monologue rampant with self-corrections and fascinating, if overly wrought, tangents. He admits “feeling a bit of a fool myself” for attempting such a vast undertaking, so to compensate he frequently interjects in the first person with personal anecdotes and retrospective considerations. Yet Avishai’s winsomely casual style undermines the broad scope of his work. Promiscuous employs a wide range of lenses—1960s social and literary history among them—to demonstrate how influential and far-reaching Portnoy’s Complaint has proven over time. However, with an author unable to recede into the background, Promiscuous does not succeed as any sort of definitive biography of Portnoy’s Complaint. One must go in understanding that Promiscuous is Avishai’s Portnoy’s, which, given his erudition and playful approach, is not necessarily a bad thing.

What’s more problematic is Avishai’s occasional reference to exchanges he made with Roth himself, giving it a proselytizing air—by which Avishai seems here not only to share his insights but to spread the Gospel of Roth. Luckily, though, the book overcomes this shortcoming through authentic observations of what Avishai astutely points out was Portnoy’s Complaint’sreal contribution to society: that it did not simply redefine what qualifies as happiness but rather “undermined the hope to pursue it with confidence in our language and perceptions.” With our medical authorities no longer “privileged observers” and our fabricated selves put on display, happiness seems perennially elusive. But here Avishai revises himself yet again, for he subsequently claims that “precisely because all perception is relative, the principle of tolerance must be absolute.” Even if our search for happiness falls short, one must embrace the effort put into this quest.


It’s worth noting here what Avishai mentions only in passing. Before Portnoy’s Complaint, there was Zeno’s Conscience (La coscienca di Zeno, 1923). Written by Italo Svevo (né Ettore Schmitz)—the son of a German Jewish merchant and an Italian Jewish mother, and most notably James Joyce’s consultant for the character Leopold Bloom—Zeno’s Conscience probes the depths of psychoanalysis, its alternating therapeutic and frustrating pursuits, and one man’s search for happiness. The novel comprises of Zeno’s autobiographical writings, composed at the behest of his psychoanalyst who, as revealed in its preface, published them to avenge his patient’s decision to cease treatment.

As he moves from one business or romantic venture to the next, Svevo’s protagonist experiences success and failure, often in quick succession. Zeno, who self-admittedly presents his idiosyncratic perspective with a performative contrivance, writes ecstatically one moment and confusedly, even despairingly, the next. By the novel’s conclusion, it remains unclear how far Zeno has progressed in his “treatment.” His final entry presages humanity’s return to health, but only through a simultaneously unspeakable and sublime catastrophe: “There will be an enormous explosion that no one will hear, and the earth, once again a nebula, will wander through the heavens, freed of parasites and sickness.”

On the surface, it would be misleading to group Zeno’s Conscience with other classic works of Western confessional literature, the grandest among them the Confessions of both Augustine and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Indeed, William Weaver, the most recent translator of Svevo’s work, changed the title from its original English incarnation—Confessions of Zeno—in order to avoid positioning it as a direct heir to these stalwarts of Western thought. Yet in addition to its first-person narration and memoir-like structure, Zeno’s Conscience shares confessional literature’s concern with the individual’s search for meaning in the face of indomitable obstacles. In particular, like Rousseau’s Confessions, Zeno’s Conscience explores these dilemmas without relying on an overtly theological premise, shifting its focus instead to worldly experience.

If one leaves aside formal issues like structure and style, this last aspect proves one of the more significant distinctions from the extensive, often exhaustive confessions of Zeno’s angsty, charismatic, guilt-ridden, perplexed, and tormented American Jewish descendent: Alexander Portnoy. Unlike Zeno, Philip Roth’s Portnoy embeds his complaints in a religious discourse. But in contrast to Augustine, Portnoy flips religion on its head, bemoaning its seemingly diametric and insurmountable expectations with a provocative if sincere forthrightness largely unseen beforehand in postwar American literature.

In the prologue, Avishai admits that his impetus for writing Promiscuous was to make “Roth’s novel more distinct.” But how can one make a text so notorious, so unrelentingly charged, even more unique than it already is? It is to Avishai’s great credit that, in many respects, he lives up to this task, not least because his prose teems with unbounded passion. He offers keen insight into a novel that one would think has exhausted further possible excavation from critics and readers alike. Most important, while not shying away from exclaiming its untimely significance, he leaves space for Roth’s discontents to air their grievances. For a novel so commonly associated with anxiety and strife, Avishai give us a Portnoy’s that simply abides.


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Sam Kerbel has written for the Jewish Daily Forward, Kirkus Reviews, and Guernica, among other publications.

Sam Kerbel has written for the Jewish Daily Forward, Kirkus Reviews, and Guernica, among other publications.