For many midlifers, reading Portnoy’s Complaint was, dare I say it, a seminal experience.
The 1969 novel, which was author Philip Roth’s breakthrough work, marked a sexual coming of age for boomer readers and continues to be influential to this day. While Roth’s later novels, including The Human Stain, The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound and American Pastoral, are probably more highly regarded and have earned him multiple literary prizes, none have proved as notorious.
The masturbating, titular hero of Portnoy’s Complaint was both widely celebrated and reviled. The same proved true for Alexander Portnoy’s creator.
“I lost my anonymity,” Roth says in Philip Roth: Unmasked, a fascinating, 90-minute documentary airing March 29 on PBS’ American Masters. “People shouted at me on the street, ‘Hey, Portnoy, stop doing that.’”
The novel, which zoomed up the bestseller lists, made Roth a rich man and a household name. Both he and the book were so well known that when Johnny Carson asked Valley of the Dolls author Jacqueline Susann on The Tonight Show what she thought of Portnoy’s Complaint, she brought the house down with her reply: “It’s a great book, but I wouldn’t want to shake hands with the author.”
Roth was no one-hit wonder. The author, who turned 80 on March 19 and claims now to be retired, has written 31 books spanning seven decades. As just about every English major knows, Roth has also proved himself to be a writer of vast ambition and scope.
“He has re-imagined and reinvented himself over the decades,” says Claudia Roth Pierpont, a critic and writer at The New Yorker, in the documentary. (Her critical analysis of Roth’s work, Roth Unbound, will be published next November.)
Philip Roth was born and raised in Newark, N.J., in a mostly Jewish neighborhood. His childhood was happy and he knew from adolescence when he began reading James Joyce and other major writers that he wanted to be one himself.
The author observes in Unmasked that Joyce “couldn’t get out of Dublin fast enough and yet he couldn’t write about anything else in his life.” The same is true for Roth and Newark, which he left for good in 1951 when he enrolled at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. “American writers leave where they come from and then write about it for the rest of their life,” he says.
Roth came of age in the 1950s, writing his first stories in college and then while serving in the Army. His initial collection of short stories, Goodbye Columbus, came out in 1959 and he was hailed as a talented voice, though grouped in with various urban Jewish-American writers who had emerged earlier in the post-World War II era, including Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow. “I’m not crazy about seeing myself described as an American-Jewish writer,” Roth says. “I don’t write in Jewish. I write in American.”
He followed Goodbye, Columbus with a couple of novels before hitting it big with Portnoy’s Complaint, a book he says he was able to write only after being in psychoanalysis following a disastrous first marriage. (His second marriage, to actress Claire Bloom, was equally miserable, as she recounted in her own 1996 book, Leaving the Dollhouse: A Memoir.)
In writing Portnoy’s Complaint, in which the protagonist recounts his life and sexual adventures to a silent shrink, Roth explains that he simply co-opted the rules of therapy for his literary efforts. In therapy, a patient is urged to, “Say anything, don’t censor your mind, don’t censor your language,” he says. Roth tried to do the same when he put pen to paper.
The result was a comic tour-de-force that dealt with sex and sexual activity — who can forget Portnoy’s attempt at self-gratification aided by a piece of liver? — that has imprinted itself permanently on the culture.
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In one of the program’s most amusing moments, Roth tells of taking his parents to lunch prior to the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint to warn them about the book’s contents and the publicity that was sure to follow. He found out years later from his father that, immediately after the meal, his mother fretted that her younger son was “suffering from delusions of grandeur.”
Of Portnoy’s Complaint and the books that followed, Roth says: “I was very curious as a writer how far I could go … shame isn’t for writers. You have to be shameless.”
He continues: “I have plenty of shame in my own life, don’t get me wrong. But when I sit down to write, I’m free of shame.”
Actually, he doesn’t sit down to write. He writes standing up at a desk in his home in rural Connecticut or his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
The documentary’s lifelong look at Roth is intriguing, as much for what it reveals as what it doesn’t. He is mum on his two marriages in Unmasked, other than to briefly describe the first — to a woman who was divorced, older, the non-custodial parent of two children and who died in a car accident in 1968 several years after their divorce — as “brutal and lurid.” Though the program is filled with photos of Roth, family members and friends, there is nary of a picture of either wife. And he only glancingly mentions a breakdown he suffered two decades ago, which followed surgery and probably was linked to painkillers he was taking. “You don’t have to go looking for suffering to be a writer; it will find you soon enough,” he says.
Mostly, Unmasked is about Roth and writing. It looks at where the novels came from, why he wrote them and what he thinks he has accomplished. And just like his books, the Roth who presents himself here is highly entertaining and provocative company.