This is the first Philip Roth book I’ve read this year and it’s long overdue. Roth is one of those writers that demands your time. Although, with the exception of Everyman, this is one of Roth’s shorter novels, it still takes time to read. That is partly my excuse for not having posted for over a week – but also we had a Romanian guest visiting last week, so there was less time than usual for reading.
Anyway, it’s over forty years now since Portnoy’s Complaint was first published and it reads very much as a novel of the Sexual Revolution of the sixties. Yet it remains a remarkably fresh piece of writing. The novel tells the sexual autobiography of Portnoy, one rambling, at times breathless, at times repetitive, monologue as Portnoy unburdens his sexual frustrations, humiliations and hang-ups to his psychiatrist. It is only the occasional reference to the silent psychiatrist that reminds us of this and it is not until the very end that the doctor manages to get a word in. Roth’s real achievement here, I feel, is that he gives us a truly complete character in the form of Portnoy, yet does it solely through Portnoy’s own voice. There are no objective descriptions or judgements about Portnoy, just his own voice and story, yet it is an entirely convincing portrayal.
Portnoy is, if nothing else, uninhibited. This is an explicit novel, but not an erotic one. It wears its humour lightly, but publicly, in the sense that it isn’t an obviouly comic novel, but shows the comedy in the tragedy of Portnoy’s life.