ROTH, Philip. Portnoy’s Complaint. London: Corgi Book, 1971.
Alexander Portnoy has to make a complaint, or two, or three, well... so many! Let’s say he’s definitely not happy at all to have met himself and cannot but shout it to the world. We can feel his agonic pain line after line, sometimes expressed with light humour, some others with bitter irony, sometimes in an exhausted whisper, others at the highest pitch of his angry voice screaming. The result is a hilariously funny novel, vibrant, visceral and full of wit.
Alex is talking to his psychiatrist about his difficulties to deal with life and, in particular, with sex, which he sees as a symptom of a long-life education based on fomenting feelings of guilt. He knows he is intelligent, he has a terrific job in Washington, he’s an attractive man or… isn’t he? There is something he’s not very proud of: the appendix on his face which betrays him mercilessly and lets everyone know of his origins: his unmistakably JEWISH nose. Yes, Alex Portnoy is Jewish, Jewish, Jewish. This fact is an obsession for him and a burden as heavy as a millstone round his neck. If this was not enough of a problem, there is one other appendix in the lower part of his body which gives him even more trouble: his penis! It seems to have a life and demands of its own, and all the lust it provokes makes him feel like a sinful pervert, an outcast.
[Lubricity. Alfred Kubin]
Poor Alex feels crushed by the colossal heaviness of his Jewish family, the ever ubiquitous mother and the dedicated father who sacrifices his whole life on behalf of his wife and children to the point of self-annihilation (p. 7). For his parents (and especially for his castrating mother) he is still a baby and is expected to follow their advice and life pattern: to create a family of his own. They need him as if he could save them from pain and even death! For Alex, this sensation is devastating, because he can’t forget how much he owes them but also knows he is no saviour and simply wishes to make his own choices in life. And, unfortunately, a family is not among them. Why should he do so, why choose one single woman, he wonders, when each one of them is so different from another and they all have so much pleasure to offer?
[Liegende Frau. Egon Schiele]
Yes, shame, shame, on Alex P., the only member of his graduating class who hasn’t made grandparents of his Mommy and his Daddy. While everybody else has been marrying nice Jewish girls, and having children, and buying houses, and (my father’s phrase) putting down roots, while all the other sons have been carrying forward the family name, what he has been doing is – chasing cunt. And shikse [attractive gentile girls] cunt, to boot! Chasing it, sniffing it, lapping it, shtupping it, but above all, thinking about it. Day and night, at work and on the street- thirty-three years old and still he is roaming the streets with his eyes popping. (p. 112).
They all have cunts! Right under their dresses! Cunts- for fucking! And Doctor, your Honor, whatever your name is- it seems to make no difference how much the poor bastard actually gets, for he is dreaming about tomorrow’s pussy even while pumping away at today’s! […] How much longer do I go on conducting these experiments with women? How much longer do I go on sticking this thing into the holes that come available to it- first this hole, then when I tire of this hole, that hole over there… and so on. When will it end? Only why should it end! To please a father and mother? To conform to the norm? (p. 114).
[Girl in Yellow Drapery. Godward]
After spending most of his adolescence locked up in the toilet giving himself pleasure, he meets several girls, but his affairs never last much more than a year. Inevitably, after a few moths “lust peters out” (p. 116) and he leaves one girl after another. What about love?, he asks himself, and his own answer follows: love doesn’t last forever, just like desire. He would rather give it other names: convenience, apathy, fear, exhaustion, inertia (p. 117), and he will not go for that.
But then there is this oppressive feeling of guilt (so familiar to Kafka, also a Jew) that he can’t get rid of every time he meets his parents or enjoys sex. And why is it that it seems to be different for the goyim (Christians), who practice sex without so many moral dilemmas?, he wonders. These are the reasons why we find him talking (and talking and screaming and yelling) to his psychiatrist. The question is… does doc understand? Did he get a single word?
Jewish or goyim, our lives are so full of taboos, repressions, inhibitions and prohibitions, no matter how senseless and idiotic they seem. But they are extraordinarily successful in managing to “create in only a few years’ time a really constrained and tight-ass human being” (p. 88). The result is but a walking zombie (p. 140), complains Portnoy.
[The Nightmare. Henry Fuseli]
Why do we force ourselves, generation after generation, to narrow down our human possibilities? Must we seek (and impose upon others) the force of the group? Why not allow individual choices which make us all grow and move further (let’s not forget Nietzsche: follow your own path to become who you really are)? Are we born with roots or (in Fernando Arrabal’s words) just with feet (no more and no less!)?. Why can’t a family be supportive instead of destructive? Portnoy, Black Door, we can’t stop laughing (and crying) with you.
[The Luncheon on the Grass. Manet]