"Portnoy's Complaint" and Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness
By Bernard Avishai
Yale University Press, Hardcover, 9780300151909, 240pp.
Publication Date: April 2012
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The publication of "Portnoy's Complaint" in 1969 provoked instant, powerful reactions. It blasted Philip Roth into international fame, subjected him to unrelenting personal scrutiny and conjecture, and shocked legions of readers--some delighted, others appalled. Portnoy and other main characters became instant archetypes, and Roth himself became a touchstone for conflicting attitudes toward sexual liberation, Jewish power, political correctness, Freudian language, and bourgeois disgust. What about this book inspired Richard Lacayo of "Time" to describe it as "a literary instance of shock and awe," and the Modern Library to list it among the 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century?
Bernard Avishai offers a witty exploration of Roth's satiric masterpiece, based on the prolific novelist's own writings, teaching notes, and personal interviews. In addition to discussing the book's timing, rhetorical gambit, and sheer virtuousity, Avishai includes a chapter on the Jewish community's outrage over the book and how Roth survived it, and another on the author's scorching treatment of psychoanalysis. Avishai shows that Roth's irreverent novel left us questioning who, or what, was the object of the satire. Hilariously, it proved the serious ways we construct fictions about ourselves and others.
“Bernard Avishai has written a spirited, loving, richly insightful appreciation of Portnoy''s Complaint as cultural phenomenon, generational totem, instinctual liberation, and, above all, stupendous work of art. A marvelous book for anyone who wishes to relive and to understand the thrill, scandal and triumph of Roth''s comic masterpiece.”—Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
"Great poets require great audiences: Whitman''s dictum is brought to life in this book, where a truly great writer is matched to a highly astute reader. Philip Roth''s transcendent importance is well established, but never has it been more cogently appreciated than by Bernard Avishai, who make''s Roth early masterpiece come fully to life again. Through Avishai''s eyes, Roth''s genius shines. Required reading all around."—James Carroll, author of Jerusalem, Jerusalem
“An affectionate, attentive, rumbustious meditation on Roth''s Portnoy''s Complaint, which also provides a robust, opinionated history of twentieth-century American Jewishness, sexual politics, literary criticism, psychoanalysis, skepticism and joking.”—Hermione Lee, President, Wolfson College, Oxford University, Author of Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton
"There are only two people who could have written this book: Philip Roth and Bernard Avishai. In fact, Avishai''s deep emersion into the literary and cultural phenomenon that is Portnoy''s Complaint is nearly as astute, bold, funny, perceptive, and wise as the celebrated novel itself."—Reza Aslan, Author of No god but God and Beyond Fundamentalism
“I was there. I read Portnoy—eagerly, with both hands!—the week it came out. And let me tell you, Avishai nails it. He explains it, re-explains it, plumbs the depths and jokes and gives backstories I was too ignorant and giddy to notice. And not just that: Promiscuous kept the smile on my face from start to finish.”—Hendrik Hertzberg, Senior Editor, The New Yorker
“This is the best thing on Roth yet written. Avishai’s breezy, intimate style is propelled by considerable scholarship, not only locating this breakout novel in Roth’s life and work, but building a launching pad for Avishai’s own dazzling cultural, intellectual, religious, and psychoanalytical explorations. Promiscuous proves Roth to be our boldest, best, and brightest fiction writer. So now perhaps the Nobel Prize Committee may begin. Yes?”—Robert Brustein, Founder, American Reporatory Theater
“The brilliance and wit of Philip Roth’s novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, a book that transformed modern Jewish identity, are matched by the dazzling insights of Bernard Avishai, one of the most engaged, and smartest, Jewish writers around.”—Susannah Heschel, Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies, Dartmouth College, author of The Aryan Jesus