February 1, 2012

Portnoy's Complaint, by Philip Roth

I’m reading my first Philip Roth novel, Portnoy’s Complaint. It’s one of those books that I’m ambivalent about ~ in the true sense of the word. There’s so much I love about it but so much I don’t like.

I don’t like the main character. He’s unreliable and racist and misogynistic. He’s a Jewish Charlie from the show Two and a Half Men ~ he has real issues with his mother and he tries to compensate by being a he-whore. The novel is well titled ~ it is a very long complaint. However, it’s so well crafted, and only Roth could get away with so many exclamation points in the work, the only author I know who can. There’s such energy in the language. I like the conceit of the main character talking to a psychiatrist. It's just an amazing book.

I don’t yet know how it ends, but I’m fascinated to find out.

But what is really interesting is Roth’s afterward at the very end of the novel. Roth talks a lot about his life and inspiration. Here’s an excerpt:

It was nothing more than that then, nothing, I swear, that goaded me out to discover not merely four empty chairs at “my” table but the 8 1/2-by-11 sheet of white typing paper that a previous diner had forgotten or left behind at “my” place.

Typewritten on the paper, in the form of a long single-spaced unindented paragraph, were nineteen sentences that taken together made no sense at all. Though no author’s name appeared anywhere on either the front of the back of the page, I figured that the nineteen sentences, amounting to some four hundred or so words, must be the work of a neighborhood avant-gardist with an interest in “experimental” or “automatic” writing. This page was surely a sample of one or the other. The author’s having forgotten this composition here at the cafeteria ~ while trying perhaps not to forget to remember to leave with his or her own umbrella ~ did not seem to me a catastrophe for literature or even for a literary career.

Here is what was written on the single sheet of paper:

“The first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses. Dear Gabe, The drugs help me bend my fingers around a pen. Not to be rich, not to be famous, not to be mighty, not even to be happy, but to be civilized ~ that was the dream of his life. She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seemed to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise. … For legal reasons, I have had to alter a number of facts in this book.”
I came to realize what would surely have been obvious at the outset to anyone less well-trained ~ or perhaps less poorly trained ~ in the art of thinking than I was back then. I saw that these sentences, as written, had nothing to do with one another. I saw that if ever a unifying principle were to be discernable in the paragraph it would have to be imposed from without rather than unearthed from within.

What I eventually understood was that these were the first lines of the books that it had fallen to me to write. …

“For legal reasons, I have had to alter a number of facts in this book.” So begins the preface to Operation Shylock, published in 1993 ~ and so ended what began on a stormy night in Chicago some thirty-seven years before. Free at last. Or that’s what I would probably be tempted to think if I were either starting out all over again or dead.

Portnoy’s Complaint is the fourth book Roth published, and it begins with “She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seemed to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise.”

First it gives me chills of pleasure to hear the inner creative life of another writer, particularly such a talented one. And to find this out and contemplate the development of a complete novel from one sentence is fascinating.

But over and above that, the sheer terror of the endeavor! What a commitment! What an ingenious goal! It lasted longer than many marriages. I mean ~ I don’t know how to portray the profoundness of such a thing, how it moves me and how the completion of such a goal chokes me up. It sounds like such a simple thing, this decision, yet it is almost creatively saint-like, this dedication to something greater than us all.

I feel like I’m not very articulate today, but suffice it to say I’m going to be thinking about this for a long time.

No comments: