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Roth ‘Shocked and Pleased’ Rereading Portnoy

Admits he didn’t realize he’d never be free of its title character

Stephanie Butnick
November 07, 2014
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine, original photo James Vaughan/Flickr)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine, original photo James Vaughan/Flickr)

“Rereading ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ 45 years on, I am shocked and pleased: shocked that I could have been so reckless, pleased that I was so reckless,” Philip Roth recently scrawled in the margins of a first-edition copy of his 1969 book, one of 75 signed, annotated first-editions up for auction next month to benefit the PEN American Center.

The New York Times has an interactive feature about the auction that lets you click through and see each author’s notes. Highlights are Eric Carle’s inscriptions in The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Simon Schama’s reference to a reviewer’s comment in The Story of the Jews, and Michael Chabon’s lengthy note in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.

While the selection of writers whose books are on offer—Robert Caro, Jennifer Egan, George Saunders—is impressive, Roth’s participation allows us an unusual glimpse into how the press-averse writer feels about one particularly infamous creation he let loose into the cultural landscape: Alexander Portnoy.

He writes, “I certainly didn’t understand while at work that henceforth I was never to be free of this psychoanalytic patient I was calling Alexander Portnoy — indeed, that I was on the brink of swapping my identity for his and that, subsequently, in many minds, his persona and all its paraphernalia would be understood to be mine and that my relations with people known and unknown would shift accordingly.”

Sounds about right. You can see the entire collection of books up for auction—and their writers’ comments—here.

Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.