Portnoy’s Complaint

ISBN: 0965017028
ISBN 13:
By: Philip Roth

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About this book

Portnoy's Complaint is the famously outrageous confession made to his analyst by Alexander Portnoy, the Huck Finn of Newark, who is trust through life by his unappeasable sexuality, yet held back at the same time by the iron grip of his unforgettable childhood. Thirty years after it was first published, Portnoy's Complaint remains a classic of American literature, a tour de force of comic and carnal brilliance, and probably the funniest book about sex ever written. It was recently designated one of the hundred best books of the twentieth century by the Modern Library judges.

Reader's Thoughts


Funniest book I have ever read. Bar none. I never, NEVER laugh out loud while reading and I was literally howling several times as I read this. It's so awful and so true. Teenage sexual obsession/repression (isn't it funny how the two go together) and religious guilt/ political guilt (ditto) have been linked before, but never as desperately, bitterly funny as this before.I always used to wonder why "realistic" novels about adolescence don't talk about masterbation. I mean everybody does it, right? And besides, it plays a pretty key role in every young person's life, moving into adulthood and beyond.Is it telling in some way that jacking off must be presented exaggeratedly, comedically, in the midst of a ridiculous rant about repression and Jewish guilt? Wonderfully written, every aspect of Alexander Portnoy is given due place, with a manic self-referential humor just propelling the damn thing forward.Also, I'd like to point out that I am unbearably goyish, from the Mass suburbs, raised fundie Christian, am genetically a WASP, and...get ready...a MAYFLOWER fucking DESCENDENT (!) and I related to this book in discreet, rather shocking ways that I never thought a book would or could suggest. I didn't hump any cold cuts, just so we're clear, but still...It goes farther than most books you have ever tried and succeeds 90% of the time. Promise.Caveat:I think the humor and the narrative snap of this book is basically best appreciated if somebody reading it is equally as outraged as they are entertained and scabrously scandalized by them.If you can think that your own (sex) life is ridiculous and pathetic and also, simultanously, incorrigibly, find the circumstances of it funny in a hyper-active, Jerry-by-way-of-Richard Lewis, Borscht-Belt kinda way....then this book is for you. Re-edited my review since I hadn't thought of this book in years and come across an interesting article by a guy who wrote some social criticism using it as a diving-board...http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles...And, despite a few howlers, the Guardian has some fine things to say, and that top photo of Roth in full-on Bill and Ted mode is priceless...http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/books...


Portnoy's Complaint is exactly that; the long first person complaint of an Alexander Portnoy, Port-Noir to goys, of how his Jewish upbringing has paralyzed him. At 33 years of age Alex is still hopelessly devoted to jerking off and other lewd sexual acts. Much to the chagrin of his devoted, doting, if not smothering Jewish parents he is not interested in marriage, least of all producing such re-ver-ed grandchildren. Phillip Roth is masterful with his execution of Portnoy's complaining;revealing bits and pieces of Alex's life by weaving the past and present together in a cohesive mix of memories and narrative. The novel starts out with Alex as a young boy and the trials and tribulations of growing up under the overly-watchful eye of two Jewish parents. Hamburgers, french fries, and football are just a few of the forbidden activities for our young Portnoy. If only his mother really knew what he was doing behind the bathroom door, she'd have locked him outside in his galoshes permanently. The conclusion of the novel is grounded much more in Alex's adult life. A successful Lawyer in NY, Alex begins to seriously sort out why he is the way he is. Can it all be blamed on his parents? Can he give in and become the Jew they've always dreamed him to be? With a nice Jewish wife and a couple of menshes padding down the hall?Overall the book is laugh out loud funny. It especially spoke to my own experience of growing up in New Jersey with a Jewish father (and subsequently a Jewish Grandmother), almost as bad as Alex's mother. The guilt that man was capable of with just one or two words was really award worthy. There are also the familiar yiddish words thrown around by the Portnoy's that emulated the Katz vernacular. Regardless of your religious orientatation this book is definetly worth reading.

Jason Pettus

(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)Regular readers will remember that I'm in the middle of a long-term literary project right now, to read all eleven novels making up Philip Roth's autobiographical "Zuckerman cycle" in order to better understand the Postmodernist Era they discuss, from its start (right around Kennedy's assassination) to its end (9/11); but since so many of at least the early novels in the series concern themselves so directly with Roth's first big mainstream hit, 1969's filthy and funny Portnoy's Complaint, I thought it would be instructive to read that as well, to better understand the way that Roth's life changed because of it. For those who don't know, after an early start as a traditional, academic-style Late Modernist writer who was getting published in The New Yorker in the early '60s, this hilarious look at the sexual dysfunctions inherent in the New York Jewish lifestyle, and its inherent clashes against the prevailing "let it all hang out" countercultural mood, was exactly what mainstream America needed at the exact moment they needed it, just like Woody Allen was providing in cinemas at the same time; and so not only was it a hit with the usual intellectual crowd, but it broke through to become a massive general hit, an eventual Hollywood film, and even a tittering codeword among the culture at large, right at the same time that his fellow young New Yorker author John Updike was doing the same thing with his saucy novel Couples (the very first mainstream book to discuss the topic of suburban wife-swapping, after obscenity laws in the US getting relaxed just a few years earlier).And to be fair, this is still a dirty, dirty book, with it easy to understand why merely carrying a copy around back then was enough to signal to anyone else that you could "dig it," which much like Woody Allen takes the image of the nebbish, self-deprecatory Jewish city boy and almost accidentally turns it into a new type of nerdy sex symbol, as we follow poor Portnoy's adventures as first an onanistic teen and then a goy-obsessed young man, flailing about in the high-minded hippie atmosphere around him but still managing to have crazy sex on a regular basis anyway. And it's easy to see why so many older Jews got so upset by this book too; because not only does it lay out a lot of the quiet little dysfunctional moments of the Jewish community to a large Christian audience, a direct predecessor to Seinfeld that I've discussed in more depth in my Zuckerman write-ups, but indeed a lot of its humor derives explicitly from all the neurotic hangups that were created among Roth's generation by all their uptight, obsessed-with-appearances, Holocaust-surviving parents, making it not just a funny sex comedy but an astute look at the first generation of Jews to grow up after World War Two, and the clashes that occurred when they first came of age in the countercultural '60s, which I'm sure made it even more of a must-read among the young hipsters of the time. A great, moving, blush-inducing novel that still holds up really well to this day, read it to understand what was getting your parents all squirmy in the years that they were having you.

Bev Hankins

Just to start off...The best part of the book? The "Afterword to the Twenty-fifth-Anniversary Edition" by the author. Seriously. What I enjoyed most was learning that Roth has used a piece of paper emblazoned with 19 typewritten sentences that he found in a local diner back in 1956 to come up with the opening line for his first 19 novels. Being a budding author myself, I'm going to be on the look-out everywhere I go for a similar little bonanza--particularly if it's going to produce best-sellers.But, I digress. Back to the review. This is the story of Alexander Portnoy and the outpourings of his therapy sessions with Dr. Spielvogel. Portnoy goes on and on (and on and on and...) about growing up Jewish and what the pressures of his home life have done to him. Squashed in between his ramblings about his sex life (both solitary and in company), we are given little vignettes about life with father and Mother and sister. Mother, of course, being the dominant figure in Portnoy's life.This book earned two stars out of my five star system. There were moments (brief, fleeting) of down-right brilliant hilarity. There were moments (even briefer and more fleeting) of thoughtful insight. These are the redeeming qualities that push Portnoy's Complaint from one star to two. Over-all, this is a self-centered, whiny, piece of sexual OCD with a central character who is hung up on himself, his penis and where he's putting it, and his Jewishness (not necessarily in that order). If the humor were more liberally sprinkled throughout and/or the main character actually showed some growth over the almost 300 pages, then I would have given it a higher rating. As it is, despite Portnoy's sporadic psychological comments about himself (which seem to be right on target), he never takes these musings to heart and applies them. The reader is left feeling that Portnoy will never get beyond the furtive fumbling in the bathroom or the frantic wranglings in the bedroom.This was first posted on my blog My Reader's Block. Please request permission before reposting. Thanks!


Roth is coming farther into his own voice here, and exploring his ideas, skimmed in other books, in a more, uh, penetrating fashion. Funny, embarassing, but sickeningly relatable. I'd go as far as to say it's a must read in Modern American Literature.


I've been reading a lot of smut lately. It's not because I'm a horndog, though! No wait, yes it is. That's the reason. So I figured I'd check this out, because I heard it was dirty, and it is, but it is not sexy. Not...at...all...sexy.There's an Onion article from...holy shit, fifteen years ago! I feel old...that I've always remembered: Chinese Laundry Owner Blasted For Reinforcing Negative Ethnic Stereotypes. It's a clever piece. I was reminded of it once again while reading Portnoy's Complaint: now I know where all those stereotypes of guilting, overprotective Jewish mothers come from. They come from this. I found it very distasteful.


There's a lot to get to. Because on the one hand, if you're like me and your formative literary experience was largely shaped by David Foster Wallace--both in big novel experiences and in essay/literary critiques--then, unfortunately you come to Roth after the fact viewing him as one of the Great Male Narcissists. And this book does no favors trying to dissuade you from that perception. Here is a highly educated, motherly-smothered, Jewish, sex-crazed man who's entire ethos is Guilt. In a manner I think back to American Psycho (bear with me). Patrick Bateman's obsessed with pop-culture predilections (video tapes, music), yuppie lifestyle, sex and securing reservations at Dorsia. Except for the fact that all of that is really an understood facade. He doesn't give a shit about all that stuff, he gives a shit about being liked and accepted and his reaction to all that stuff is to go apeshit and torture hookers and stab the homeless. But with Portnoy it's like listening to a guy actually care about all that shallow stuff. Portnoy's very, sincere inner being is a compilation of deviance and repressions, as if that's what's at the center of a person. Granted, it's a framed narrative. And Portnoy's controlling and creating the story and thereby constricting it because he wants to talk about what's wrong with him with himself to his psychoanalyst. Ok, that's fine, but it still leaves the fact that I've got a neurotic mess of a person who's only motivation to act morally is shame-induced action. Granted all he and Bateman both want is to be liked, to be accepted, except, oh yeah, Bateman's a fucking psychopath. I see a lot of reviews from Jewish/Catholic/Protestant readers who identify with the guilt angle. But it all feels, like, so Freudian to me. And I understand the burden that guilt can play, but it's exhausting. It's like Portnoy can only understand his life through this lens of guilt. His motivations and actions are all understood through guilt and it ends up painting him into this shallower two-dimensional existence. And the real kicker to this is I feel bad that I'm coming down on this book so hard (am I ashamed of it? Perhaps Roth was not so wrong in thinking how propellent shame is to the human mind). But the fact remains that I couldn't like it. Not terrible, but definitely closer to one star than three stars.


This is a relentless barrage of neurotic banter. While occasionally funny, and frequently entertaining, it wore me out. Were it not for the consistent skill of Roth as a writer, I probably couldn't have endured the wave after wave of guilt and self-loathing. The book is tightly stylized with the focus on the general concept of the character, poking in and out of his history through a vomitous stream of consciousness. Portnoy's Complaint is clearly inspired by Mrs. Dalloway. Just take away the obsession with proper flower arrangements and other various party planning and substitute it with endless masturbation then shift the pace to 72 RPMs. The whole thing feels like sitting on a playground merry-go-round that is going a bit too fast -- it is fun for thrills, but after a while you just want to get off and take a break. Yet, I found myself back on it again, even when I should know better.


This entertaining and smartly written book managed the difficult task of amusing and impressing me. The protagonist, too Jewish to be American yet, in the end, too American to be Jewish, reeled me in with his humorous, potent stream of consciousness that tapped into my own musings and assured me that I'm not alone in dwelling upon, uh, inglorious imagery. The humor comes across at times like stand-up comedy. You can see, then, how easily the author's concept could have gone flat. And so it would have in the hands of less skilled writers. That it succeeds so well in a literary genre testifies to Roth's touch. The effect of the book relies not just upon its humor, but as well upon its general entertainment and solid writing. We have here a pervert, one Alexander Portnoy, but an intelligent one, it must be stated. The confluence of excessive sexuality and the excessive consciousness intelligent people suffer from is about to drive this guy over the edge any moment, and boy do we hear about it. In fact, the whole book lays out his ever hysterical rant about the quixotic quest for a girlfriend who has all the talents he wants in one neat package -- minus all the baggage, of which he has a detailed list. Such a woman has never been known to exist in the annals of mankind, but Alexander thinks she's out there somewhere and he won't take no for an answer.Two groups I cannot recommend this book for are feminists and people who dislike excessive foul language. How Roth makes a great book out of a manuscript having these characteristics is hard to describe here, so the rest of you will just have to read it yourselves. At the very least, you may never look at the tags affixed to mattresses the same way again.


dall'analista il dr. Spielvogel (hahahahahaha! spiel: gioco, vogel: uccello, così giusto per precisare) al quale il protagonista racconta e rivisita (vomita addosso rende meglio l'idea però) la sua vita sino all'oggi dei suoi 33 anni.Una caratteristica yiddishe mame, capace di fare danni alla psiche del pargolo peggio di Attila, un padre inconsistente molto occupato dal funzionamento del suo intestino, una sorella perfetta sconosciuta. Il lungo monologo di Alex é un parlarsi addosso, una lezione magistrale di autocommiserazione compiaciuta, dove il membro dell'interessato gioca un ruolo primario essendo l'unico organo capace di portarlo a vivere in maniera autonoma.La scrittura é febbrile a tratti, alla fine di certe pagine manca il fiato, e ti immagini Roth scriverle camminando avanti e indietro urlando le parole. A volte sono pagine rabbiose, piene di livore, a volte si percepisce la dolorosa condizione dell'essere: una bella e gigantesca nevrosi. Ben venga l'analista, il quale dopo questa prima seduta deve aver alzato di un bel po' la parcella.E comunque la si voglia pensare dopo aver letto questo di Lamento qualsiasi altro che si potrà ascoltare o produrre non sarà mai più lo stesso.4 stelline e mezzo sarebbe il voto. Non arriva a 5 perché qui é là mi é apparso ripetitivo.


Истеричен, забавен, циничен, откровен и цветист разказ, в който 33-годишният Алекс (американец, евреин, ерген, държавен служител) описва живота си на кушетката на своя психоаналитик. Изважда на светло с чувство за хумор, спокойно и с максимално интимни подробности своите връзки, провали, притеснения и комплекси (едипов, за малоценност, сексуално-фетишистки), породени от дългото съжителство с родителите му, "ежедневно произвеждащи и пакетиращи проблеми" и непрекъснатите им напътствия, забележки и критики.Книгата е колкото забавна на пръв поглед, толкова и сериозна.За времето на първото си публикуване (1969 г.) е емблематична и тогава (и все още) критиците я определят като "комичен шедьовър" и "един от задължителните романи, които човек трябва да прочете през живота си". Напълно съм съгласна с мненията им.Филип Рот определено ме спечели с тази книга и със стила си на писане (не знам защо го откривам толкова късно) и ще си потърся и останалите му романи.


Si tuviera que resumir ‘El mal de Portnoy’ de Philip Roth en cinco palabras estas serían “sexo”, “judaísmo” y “sentimiento de culpa”. El protagonista, Alexander Portnoy, es el perfecto niño judío, estudioso, obediente y dulce, pero aún así todo esto no es suficiente para su dominante madre, para la que una nimiedad como no terminarse toda la comida del plato es una ofensa personal, una tragedia, una prueba irrefutable de que su hijito es un desagradecido que no valora lo mucho que le quiere su madre del alma porque quiere matarse de hambre sólo para darle un disgusto a ella. Y si la madre es sobreprotectora y castradora, el padre es un estreñido, literalmente y figurativamente. El padre es un vendedor de seguros que se mata trabajando y que las pocas horas que pasa en casa las pasa sentado en la taza del váter. El caso es que los dos, padre y madre, forman un muy buen equipo a la hora de dotar a su hijo de un profundo sentimiento de culpa mediante las más variadas y refinadas técnicas pasivo-agresivas. Y es cuando Portnoy empieza a masturbarse (de forma compulsiva) cuando el sentimiento de culpa estalla en todo su esplendor. Portnoy crece y se convierte en un respetable ciudadano que trabaja para el alcalde de Nueva York, pero sus padres siguen tratándole como un niño e intentándolo hacer sentir culpable (con bastante éxito, todo se tiene que decir). Pero tampoco es que Portnoy sea un ser humano digno de compasión; es egocéntrico, narcisista, engreído, misógino, lleno de autocompasión, y se cree infinitamente superior a todos los que le rodean. Han pasado años desde las primeras pajas, pero para Portnoy sexo y sentimiento de culpa siguen íntimamente ligados: todas las experiencias sexuales con las que había fantaseado previamente, una vez se llegan a materializar, no puede disfrutarlas plenamente por culpa del famoso sentimiento de culpa. Por supuesto, sus relaciones con las mujeres no van que digamos sobre ruedas: las mujeres listas le hacen sentir inferior y las que no lo son no puede evitar despreciarlas por las pocas luces que tienen. Y estas son la desgracias del pobre Alexander Portnoy. La novela está escrita en primera persona y finge ser el relato de su vida que Portnoy hace a su psicoanalista. Este truco permite que la historia no siga un orden lineal sino motivado por los recuerdos, pero a la vez también le da frescura, y espontaneidad, y veracidad. El tema de esta novela, que no es otro que las penas que acarrea la masculinidad en el siglo XX, en manos de cualquier otro escritor podría resultarnos algo insufrible, pero el mérito que tiene Roth es que sabe escribir y tiene sentido del humor, y con esto puede hablar las veces que quiera de lo mucho que sufren los hombres, porque es capaz de hacerlo interesante. ‘El mal de Portnoy’ está tan bien escrito que engancha, y además es divertidísimo. Roth es capaz de reírse de sí mismo y esto se agradece. Y otra cosa que se agradece es la sinceridad de la novela. Portnoy nos cuenta sus secretos más vergonzosos, sus fantasías más denigrantes, sus pensamientos más rastreros, sus sentimientos más patéticos. Y es divertidísimo.


On the 6th night of Chanukah my older brother gave me a copy of Portnoy’s complaint. As I tore open the wrapping paper my brother repeated statements along the lines of “prepare for your life to be completely changed” and “this is not so much a book as it is a right of passage”. While I don’t believe that reading Philip Roth’s most famous novel changed my life I did thoroughly enjoy this book. More specifically I enjoyed the books protagonist Alexander Portnoy. He is very much the sexually obsessed, intellectual, neurotic who has a particular interest in Freud that we have all come to know from media such as Woody Allen movies to be the stereotypical Jewish New Yorker, however Alex is more then a simple corresponding stereotype or caricature. Rather he is full of contradiction and could be described as anything but simple. His morals don’t agree with his sexual urges and I feel that you can expand this to say that the world view of his community does not agree with his own personal life experience. Although Alex is probably most notorious for his sexual confusion there are plenty of other ticks and quirks that come together to create an extremely interesting personality. Among these qualities is Portnoy’s debilitating sense that he does not belong. This is where Roth truly separates Portnoy from the standard Jewish American stereotype. In Woody Allen’s Annie Hall it is Annie who is out of place not Alvie Singer, the Jewish New Yorker. She is, after all, the one who orders a pastrami sandwich with mayonnaise on white bread, but in Portnoy’s Complaint Alexander Portnoy, the Jewish New Yorker, constantly feels as if he is imposing and somehow foreign regardless of his surroundings. This, to me, is what the novel is about. A man who after breaking all connections with his past looks desperately for a branch of society that he can feel comfortable in.


Upon finishing this book, I heard myself say aloud (without warning): "that sucked."There's a lot to recommend Roth as a writer and I think he's fully in control of what he's doing I just wish he were doing something else blah blah. This book is a 300-page monologue by a character who annoyed the crap out of me. Whatever fabulous edgy points Roth might have been making about the self-aggrandizement and self-congratulatory pseudolessons of psychotherapy, whatever incisive criticisms he may have been making about Jewish-American culture's ability to induce neurosisblah , whatever legitimately funny jokes he may have laced in,Roth, I just don't care. You buried it in 300 pages of narration swollen with pointless rants. I know the pointlessness was the point. I'm just saying, you could have written a short story.

MJ Nicholls

The definitive self-hating Jew novel. A searing literary stand-up performance par excellence. Woody Allen meets Bill Hicks. Explains where the famous inbuilt neurosis in New York Jews comes from. A brutal, universal portrayal of family life. The funniest thing I have read in a long long time. Every young man in his twenties tries at some point to write this novel and fails. Wonderful. Not a work of remarkable human insight and depth, but this is Philip Roth: the psychopathology of sleaze, if you please. (And, in case you’d forgotten the author’s surname, Vintage have clearly printed it on the cover in large letters. ROTH. Thanks Vintage!)

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