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I am the son in the Jewish joke – only it ain’t no joke!

November 10, 2010 17 comments

Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth.

“She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school  I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise”. First sentence of Portnoy’s Complaint and I was already rocking with laughter.

 This book is a written one-man-show. Alexander Portnoy, a Jew, is lying – or so I imagine him – on a sofa in his shrink’s office. He talks, weeps, shouts his life to Doctor Spielvogel, who describes Alex’ disorder as follows: “Portnoy’s Complaint. A disorder in which strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature.”

Portnoy is a very clever Jewish fellow, who, like Philip Roth, grew up in the Jewish neighborhood of Newark, NY. He tries to understand why he is “Thirty-three, and still ogling and daydreaming about every girl who crosses her legs opposite him in the subway” when he should be a perfect Jewish husband and a perfect Jewish father in Newark, as his parents expect him to be.

In a rather disorderly way, he starts relating his childhood and the different relationships he had with women. The narration runs back and forth from the past to the present time. Alex can’t accept the dichotomy between his social identity and his internal identity. Socially, he is the lawyer, the knight of poor, illiterate and immigrant people in their relationship with the administration. He fights inequalities. Personally, he is insecure and obsessed by sex. He suffers from compulsive masturbation and all kinds of inhibitions, coming, he thinks, from his childhood.

“Inhibition doesn’t grow on trees, you know – takes patience, takes concentration, takes a dedicated and self-sacrificing parent and a hard-working attentive little child to create in only a few years’ time a really constrained and tight-ass human being.”

He thus tries to decipher where his temper comes from through analyzing his childhood. He describes how his mother hovers over his every move and thought. He portrays his father as a worried insurance collector. “Why his head aches him all the time, is of course because he is constipated all the time – why he is constipated is because ownership of his intestinal tract is in the hands of the firm of Worry, Fear & Frustration”. Like every child, he has recriminations against his parents but he loves them and he is lucid enough to acknowledge: “All the faults come from the parents, right, Alex, what’s wrong, they did – what’s good, you accomplished all on your own!”

Little by little, Alex unknits the course of events that brought him here, in that doctor’s office. He just ended one-year relationship with a woman he nicknamed “The Monkey” in a cruel manner: as he abandoned her in a hotel in Greece, in the middle of their vacation. She’s as horny as he is, very attractive and prone to any of his sexual fantasies. They get along really well and are “The perfect couple: she puts the id back in Yid, I put the oy back in goy.” When she starts thinking about marriage, Alex freaks out. He is ashamed of her, who wears inappropriate sexy clothes at a Mayor’s reception and can’t spell words properly. He loves her though, she suits him but she’s not educated enough, not respectable enough to be presented to his family. She’s no marriage material. Put in front of the Cornelian dilemma of looking for a perfectly well-bred woman who would consider dirty to give him a blow-job or face his family and friends and impose his preference, he runs from the Monkey and ends up in the shrink’s office. Isn’t that splendid irony to be Jewish and have the typically Christian ‘whore or saint’ problem with women?

The sexual problem is just a pretext to comical effects. It brings light and funny but doesn’t erase Alex’ genuine internal mayhem or the underlying analysis of what it was to be a Jew born in the 1930s in America.

I enjoyed reading about life in this Jewish neighborhood that I had already discovered in The Plot Against America. Like the first time, I was surprised to read how self-sufficient they were, as if they had re-created a ghetto. The goyish world looks like another country in Alex’ eyes. He spies on WASPS houses, wonders how they live behind those curtains. His description of his first days in a goyish house reminded me of my first holidays abroad, in a Welsh family, a mixture of familiar and foreign. As a Jew, he sides with all the other immigrants and feels inferior to wasps. His parents don’t speak English properly or use Yiddish words. There’s an anecdote about not knowing at school the English word for ‘spatula’ which sounded like family stories from my mother telling an Italian word to her grammar school teacher for a mundane every day life instrument, because she hadn’t realized the word she knew was not a French one.

This quote “Yes, the only people in the world whom it seems to me the Jews are not afraid of are the Chinese. Because, one, the way they speak English makes my father sound like Lord Chesterfield; two, the insides of their heads are so much fired rice anyway; and three, to them we are not Jews but white – and maybe even Anglo-Saxon. Imagine!” reminded me what I heard on the radio the other day: Frenchmen with origins from Morocco or Algeria enjoy living in London because in the eyes of the British, they are just French people who speak English with a French accent. Alex feels like a foreigner is his own country.

Along with the description of a Jewish environment, Portnoy’s Complaint is also about how it feels to have such a brilliant mind that you get a scholarship to study in an Ivy League University and reach the upper social class. Alex never feels at ease in his new world, he doesn’t have the same background. He doesn’t know the customs but he tries to adapt.

 Let’s talk about the style of this book. It is all spoken language, with a lot of slang words. Ladies and Gentlemen! I have an announcement to make: I’m positive, the kindle dictionary doesn’t include all the American slang words available describe human genitals. I’ve tested it for you, I had to go back to my paper dictionary. Very educational. I probably missed play-on-words, but I’m glad I’ve read it in English anyway. I wonder: Doctor Spielvogel, which means “Toy-bird” or “Play-bird” in German, is that a sexual innuendo? Or did this book just give my mind a wrong twist?

 There would be a lot to say about this book, published in 1967 and probably one of the firsts on such a subject. It’s equally entertaining and deep. I have a request for you, Mr Roth: Could you write a book where Arturo Bandini and Alexander Portnoy compare their mothers, their lives as non-WASPS, their political ideas and their ways to atheism? They could be drinking beers in an atheist heaven of your choice – not in one of those Floridian ghettos for senior citizens, please, none of them could stand it. They would sit in a smoky bar and tell each other anecdotes, share their Freudian issues and talk about women. That could be huge fun, but hurry up, because after that, I’d like Woody Allen to shoot a film version of your book.

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