Portnoy’s Fame—and Mine
Alas, it wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind. Particularly as I was one of those students of the Fifties who came to books by way of a fairly good but rather priestly literary education, in which writing poems and novels was assumed to eclipse all else in what we called “moral seriousness.” As it happened our use of that word “moral”—in private conversations about our daily affairs as easily as in papers and classroom discussions—tended often to camouflage and dignify vast reaches of naïveté, and served frequently only to restore at a more prestigious cultural level the same respectability that one had imagined oneself in flight from in (of all places) the English department.
The emphasis upon literary activity as a form of ethical conduct, as perhaps even the way to the good life, certainly suited the times: the postwar onslaught of a mass electronically amplified philistine culture did look to some young literary people like myself to be the work of the Devil’s legions, and High Art in turn the only refuge of the godly, a 1950s version of the pietistic colony established in Massachusetts Bay. Also the idea that literature was the domain of the truly virtuous would seem to have suited my character, which, though not exactly puritanical at heart, seemed that way in some key reflexes. So, inasmuch as I thought about Frame when I was starting out as a writer in my early twenties, I only naturally assumed that if and when it ever came my way, it would come as it had to Mann’s Aschenbach, as Honor. Death in Venice, page 10: “But he had attained to honor, and honor, he used to say, is the natural goal towards which every considerable talent presses with whip and spur. Yes, one might put it that his whole career had been one of conscious and overweening ascent to honor, which left in the rear all the misgivings or self-derogation which might have hampered him.”
In the case of Aschenbach it was not his lustful fantasies (replete with mythological illusions, but finally masturbatory) for which he is to be remembered by the “shocked and respectful world [that] receives the news of his decease,” but, altogether to the contrary, for powerful narratives like The Abject, “which taught a whole grateful generation that a man can still be capable of moral resolution even after he has plumbed the depths of knowledge.” Now that is something like the sort of reputation I’d had in mind for myself. But, as it was to turn out, the narrative of mine that elicited a strong response from a part of a generation at least “taught” less about the capacity for moral resolve than about moral remission and its confusions—and about those masturbatory fantasies that generally don’t come decked out in adolescence (and in Newark) in classical decor.
Instead of taking an honorific place in the public imagination à la Gustav von Aschenbach, with the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint in February, 1969, I suddenly found myself famous from one end of the continent to the other for being everything that Aschenbach had suppressed and kept a shameful secret right down to his morally resolute end. Jacqueline Susann, discussing her colleagues with Johnny Carson, tickled ten million Americans by saying that she’d like to meet me but wouldn’t want to shake my hand. Didn’t want to shake my hand—she, of all people? And from time to time the columnist Leonard Lyons had a ten-word tidbit about my fiery romance with Barbra Streisand: “Barbra Streisand has no complaints about her dates with Philip Roth.” Dot dot dot. True enough, in a manner of speaking, since, as it happened, the famous Jewish girl celebrity and the newly-minted Jewish boy celebrity had and still have never met.
There was to be a considerable amount of this kind of media myth-making, sometimes benign and silly enough, and sometimes for me at least rather unsettling. In order to be out of the direct line of fire, however, I had decided to leave my New York apartment just after publication day, and so while “Philip Roth” began boldly to put in public appearances where I myself had not yet dared to tread, or twist, I took up residence for four months at the Yaddo retreat for writers, composers, and artists in Saratoga Springs, New York.
News about my Doppelgänger’s activities, of which the foregoing is but a small sample, came to me through the mail: anecdotes in letters from friends, clippings from the columnists, communications (and gentle, amused admonitions) from my lawyer on inquiries from me about libel and defamation of character. One evening in the second month of my Yaddo stay, I received a phone call from an editor (and old friend) in a New York publishing house. He apologized for intruding on me, but at work that afternoon he had heard that I had suffered a breakdown and been committed to a hospital; he was phoning just to be sure it wasn’t so. In only a matter of weeks news of the breakdown and commitment had spread westward, across the Continental Divide, out to California, where they do things in a big way. There, preparatory to a discussion of my new novel at a Temple book program, announcement of Philip Roth’s misfortune was made to the audience from the platform; having thus placed the author in the proper perspective, they apparently went on to an objective discussion of the book.
Finally, in May, at about the time I was considering returning to New York, I telephoned down to Bloomingdale’s one day to try to correct an error that had turned up in my charge account for several months in succession. At the other end, the woman in the charge department gasped and said, “Philip Roth? Is this the Philip Roth?” Tentatively: “Yes.” “But you’re supposed to be in an insane asylum!” “Oh, am I?” I replied lightheartedly, but knowing full well that the charge department at Bloomingdale’s wouldn’t talk that way to Gustav von Aschenbach if he called to report an error in his charge account. Oh no, Tadzio-lover though he was, it would still be, “Yes, Herr von Aschenbach, oh we’re terribly sorry for any inconvenience, Herr von Aschenbach—oh, do forgive us, Maestro, please.”
Which was, as I have said, more like what I’d had in mind upon starting out on my own conscious and overweening ascent to honor.
Why was Portnoy’s Complaint at once such a hit and such a scandal? To begin, a novel in the guise of a confession was received and judged by any number of readers as a confession in the guise of a novel. That sort of reading, wherein a work is dwarfed in significance by the impulse or the personal circumstance which is imagined to have generated it, is nothing new; however, just such an interest in fiction was intensified in the late Sixties by a passion for spontaneity and candor that colored even the drabbest lives and expressed itself in the pop rhetoric with phrases like “Tell it like it is,” “Let it all hang out,” etc. There were good solid reasons for this yearning for raw truth during the last years of the Vietnam war, but nonetheless its roots in individual consciousness were frequently pretty thin, and had to do with little more than conforming to the psychological custom of the moment.
An example from the world of “bookchat” (as Gore Vidal has nicely named it): in what he charitably calls his “thoughts” for “the end of the year,” the New York Times book reviewer, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, who twice in 1969 had gone on record as an admirer of Portnoy’s Complaint, announced himself to be a no-holds-barred kind of guy with this bold and challenging endorsement of first-person narration and the confessional approach: “I want the novelist,” wrote Lehmann-Haupt, “to bare his soul, to stop playing games, to cease sublimating.” Bold, challenging, and inevitably to be flatly contradicted by the Times daily reviewer when he caught hold of the pendulum of received opinion as it swung the other way in the ensuing years, toward disguise, artifice, fantasy, montage, and complicated irony.
By 1974, Lehmann-Haupt could actually disapprove of Grace Paley’s personal-seeming (and, in fact, highly stylized) short stories in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute for precisely the reasons he had given to praise such a book five years earlier—and without the slightest understanding that for a writer like Grace Paley (or Mark Twain or Henry Miller), as for an actor like Marlon Brando, creating the illusion of intimacy and spontaneity is not just a matter of letting your hair down and being yourself, but of inventing a whole new idea of what “being yourself” sounds like and looks like; “naturalness” happens not to grow on trees.
“You can see Mrs. Paley getting closer and closer to autobiography,” Lehmann-Haupt writes about Enormous Changes, “leaning increasingly on a fictional self she calls Faith, and revealing more and more the sources of her imagination. In short, it now seems as if she no longer had the strength or the will to transmute life into art…. What has gone wrong, then? What has sapped the author of her will to turn experience into fiction—if that in fact is the trouble?” The trouble? Wrong? Well, mindlessness marches on. Still, by keeping track of the “thoughts” of a Lehmann-Haupt, one can over the years see just which hand-me-down, uncomprehended literary dogma is at work, in a given cultural moment, making fiction accessible and “important” to basically insensate readers like himself.
In the case of my own “confession,” it did not diminish the voyeuristic kick—to call it by its rightful name—to remember that the novelist who was assumed to be baring his soul and ceasing to sublimate had formerly drawn a rather long, serious, even solemn face. Nor did it hurt that the subject which this supposed confession focused on at some length was known to one and all and publicly disowned by just about as many: masturbation. That this shameful, solitary addiction was described in graphic detail, and with gusto, must have gone a long way to attracting to the book an audience that previously had shown little interest in my writing. Till Portnoy’s Complaint, no novel of mine had sold more than 25,000 hard-cover copies, and the hard-cover edition of my first book of stories had sold only 12,000 copies (and hadn’t yet gained nation-wide attention by way of the Ali McGraw movie, which was released some months after the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint). For Portnoy’s Complaint, however, 420,000 people—or seven times as many as had purchased my three previous books combined—stepped up to the bookstore cash register with six-ninety-five, plus tax, in hand, and half of them within the first ten weeks the book was on sale.