Reviews of Nobel Prize winner | Comments on all Shakespeare's plays | Poetry reviews | Multiple reviews of same author | Haiti books |


Roth, Philip
New York: Random House, A Bantam Book, 1969 309 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
December 2013

Alexander (Alex) Portnoy is ranting to Dr. Spielvogel about his life. He seems so bound to what had been expected of him by his Jewish parents and their culture as middle-class Jews in New Jersey that he feels crippled. On the other hand he admits to being unnaturally addicted to every imaginable form of sex with women and self, and that he sees his life as hugely “in trouble.” His “complaint” of the title is this contradiction in himself.

Alex is anger filled, and much of time that anger is aimed toward his family: “I will not treat any human being (outside my family), as inferior.” At the same time he realizes that sex has simply dominated his life to this point in time.

He is 33 when the “rant” takes place.

“Is this truth I’m delivering up, or is it just plain kvetching? Or is kvetching? for people like me a form of truth? Regardless, my conscience wishes to make it known, before the beefing begins anew, that at the time my boyhood was not this thing I feel so estranged from and resentful of now.”

He also once calls this “kvetching” as “his confessions.”

Structurally the novel is creative and unusual. Alex is the sole speaker in the work and it is a first person narrative, Alex is speaking to a woman psychiatrist. He details his childhood, his adolescence and even his adult life, especially his fairly long-term relationship with a very beautiful non-Jewish American woman. While he has had sex with a huge list of women since his late teen days, virtually all of them have been “shikses,” non-Jews.

He is in dire straits. On the one hand he simply IS his Jewishness; on the other he hates it. He at least claims to be a wild and incurable sex addict, and as he tells it, at least, he would certainly well qualify. The reader can never quite know to what extent does he tell the truth and how much of his life is exaggerated. At times it is obvious that he wildly exaggerates, but the rest . . . and the “rest” is the majority of the book, just isn’t so clear.

What is very clear is that he is a Jew and both loves his family, but feels oppressed by them and their Jewish way of life, which is his way of life as well. What is further very clear is the dramatic conflict his obsessive sex life (with shikses and self) brings into his life. His “rant,” his “complaint” is funny, a bit shocking, but convincing as to why he would, indeed, be spilling this all out to the doctor. It was a bit surprising that the doctor is a woman, and (only) presumably a Jew, but her name, Spielvogel, means pet bird in German. I’m not sure what to make of this, but it was certainly curious to me.

I’m not very sure of what to make of the novel. I found it a gripping rant, and hard to figure out what to believe was real and how much Portnoy was exaggerating, or, for that matter, what difference that would make. It made me do comparisons with my own experience. That went nowhere. I got along fabulously with my parents, and while I certainly had a developing sexual libido, it wasn’t in the same universe a Portnoy’s.

I found the parts about his adolescence, a significant part of the novel, to be similar to many of the things in J.D. Salinger’s THE CATCHER IN THE RYE. However, Holden Caufield’s interest in sex was completely minor league in comparison with the young Alex Portnoy, and we don’t know where it all went with Holden.

In that comparison, the significant parts of Portnoy’s complaint and Caufield’s confession, I found Caufield more interesting given the breadth of his world than the world of Portnoy (in his teen days especially).

Structurally the novel reminded me of the novels of the Austrian novelist, Thomas Bernhard. I’ve read 8 of his novels and can recall my shock in reading the first one in which the whole novel was only two paragraphs long, yet 271 pages. Another of his novels, over 200 pages long was a single sentence. Like Portnoy, Bernhard’s novels were often a single narrator’s long monologue, but Bernhard’s mental condition was different from Portnoy’s and much less related to sex.

I first read “Portnoy’s Complaint” back in the 1960s when it was such a shocking novel. Today it didn’t seem so shocking, but certainly Portnoy’s obsessions are obvious. I didn’t have clear memories of the novel, so I am happy I did reread it and feel it was a rewarding read. Some of it was funny and wildly exaggerated, of course, but other parts were very believable and sad. The very last pages when Alex goes to Israel and believes this will be his salvation, and his encounter with the beautiful Israeli woman soldier was all very sad and touching. However, it wasn’t enough for me to just accept Portnoy as a guy with a problem. He remains a deeply troubled and hard to believe character.

Bob Corbett


Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett