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.
It would seem then that masturbation was a dirtier little secret than even Alexander Portnoy had imagined. Indeed, I would think that the same highly charged preoccupation that prompted so many people who never buy a book (of mine, or anyone’s) to buy one that encouraged them to laugh at a “cunt crazy” masturbator of the respectable classes (and perhaps thereby to ease whatever concern might still attach to their own indulgences) revealed itself another way in the coast-to-coast rumor assuring any in need of assurance that for his excesses the author himself had to be carted off to that mythical lunatic asylum to which folklorists have been consigning unregenerate onanists since self-abuse began.
To be sure, the farcical treatment of masturbation does not entirely explain the avidity with which this particular best seller was purchased and apparently even read. I think now that the moment when it was published—perhaps unlike any since the early days of World War II for sustained social disorientation—had much to do with their avidity and my own subsequent celebrity, and notoriety. Without the disasters and upheavals of the year 1968, coming as they did at the end of a decade that had been marked by blasphemous defiance of authority and loss of faith in the public order, I doubt that a book like mine would ever have achieved the sort of public renown that it did in 1969. Even three or four years earlier, a realistic novel that treated family authority with comical impiety and depicted sex as the farcical side of a seemingly respectable citizen’s life would probably have been a good deal less tolerable—and comprehensible—to the middle-class Americans who bought the book, and would have been treated much more marginally (and, I suspect, hostilely) by the media that publicized it. But by the final year of the Sixties, the national education in the irrational and the extreme had been so brilliantly conducted by our Dr. Johnson, with help from both enemies and friends, that for all its tasteless revelations about everyday sexual obsession and the unromantic side of the family romance, even something like Portnoy’s Complaint was suddenly within the range of the tolerable. Finding that they could tolerate it may even have been a source of the book’s appeal to a good number of readers.
However: the impious and unseemly in Portnoy’s Complaint would still not have been so alluring (and, likewise, to many, so offensive) if it weren’t for the other key element which, I think, worked to make the wayward hero a somewhat more interesting case than he might otherwise have been at that moment for those Americans whose own psychic armor had been battered by the Sixties: the man confessing to forbidden sexual acts and gross offenses against family order and ordinary decency was a Jew. And that was true whether you read the novel as a novel or as a thinly veiled autobiography.
What helped to give those acts and offenses the special meaning they had for Portnoy, what made them so rich for him with danger, pleasure, and shame, and so comically inappropriate even in his estimation, is very like what I now believe made Portnoy himself as intriguing as apparently he was to the book’s large audience of Jews and Gentiles alike. In brief: going wild in public is the last thing in the world that a Jew is expected to do—by himself, by his family, by his fellow Jews, and by the larger community of Christians whose tolerance for him is often tenuous to begin with, and whose code of respectability he flaunts or violates at his own psychological risk, and perhaps at the risk of his fellow Jews’ physical and social well-being. Or so history and ingrained fears argue. He is not expected to make a spectacle of himself, either by shooting off his mouth, or by shooting off his semen, and certainly not by shooting off his mouth about shooting off his semen. That pretty much takes the cake. And in fact it did.
“As the paradigmatic outsiders of Western society, Jews have, of course, been masters of social adaptation,” writes David Singer, in an essay on the subject of “The Jewish Gangster” published in the Winter, 1974, issue of Judaism; it is no wonder then, says Singer, that “the American Jewish establishment—the defense agencies, the scholars, the historical societies” along with “American Jews [generally] have systematically denied any awareness of [this] important aspect of their history,” whose major figures, according to Singer, constitute “a veritable Who’s Who in the annals of American crime, comparable to that contributed by any other ethnic group.”
Of course an Arnold Rothstein, a Lepke Buchalter, a Bugsy Siegel, or a Meyer Lansky (to name only the supervillains on Singer’s list) Portnoy is not. Yet his sense of himself as a Jewish criminal is, in fact, a recurrent motif in his ambivalent seizures of self-excoriation; witness the book’s last page, where, in concluding his manic aria, he imagines the cops out of a Grade B movie closing in on him, a Grade B racketeer named Mad Dog. It needs no Jewish “defense agencies” other than his own to impugn Portnoy for his conduct, and to make it seem to him that a preoccupation with the flesh is as compromising to the safety and well-being of a Jew in America as was Arnold Rothstein’s fixing—of all the stupid things for a Jewish boy to go and fix—a whole World Series.
That not even a Jew—perhaps society’s outstanding student of maneuvering and negotiation, whose most valued possession, envied even by his enemies, is his Kissingerian sechel—that not even a Jew could put up a successful fight any longer against non-negotiable demands of crude anti-social appetite and vulgar aggressive fantasy…this, it seems to me, may have been precisely what engaged the attention of any number of middleclass readers whose own mastery of social adaptation had been seriously challenged by the more unsettling experiences of the decade. Surely to many it must have come as a kind of revelation to hear a Jew of all people, and one whose public life had entirely to do with enforcing social justice and legal controls, admit in italics and caps that rather than shoring up his defenses and getting on with the business of being better (in all senses of the word), his secret desire was really to give way and be bad—or at the least, if he could manage it, worse. That in particular was something they may not have heard, or read much about recently in American novels written by Jews about Jews.
Heroes Jewish Writers Imagine
To see just how strongly the Jew in the post-holocaust decades has been identified in American fiction with righteousness and restraint, with the just and measured response rather than with those libidinous and aggressive activities that border on the socially acceptable and may even constitute criminal transgression, it might be well to begin with the novels of Saul Bellow, by now the grand old man of American-Jewish writers, and to my mind the country’s most accomplished working novelist. And reading Bellow, what does one find? That almost invariably his heroes are Jewish in vivid and emphatic ways when they are actors in dramas of conscience where matters of principle or virtue are at issue, but are by comparison only faintly marked by their Jewishness, if they are Jews at all, when appetite and quasi or outright libidinous adventure is at the heart of a novel.
Bellow’s first Jewish (as distinguished from non-Jewish) Jew was Asa Leventhal in his second book, The Victim. Bellow himself now judges this excellent novel a “proper” book, by which I take him to mean, among other things, that it did not bear his particular stamp so much as convention’s. To be Jewish in this novel is to be accessible, morbidly so, to claims made upon the conscience, and to take upon oneself, out of a kind of gruff human sympathy and a responsiveness bordering dangerously at times on paranoia, responsibility for another man’s pain and misfortune. Being a Jew, to Asa Leventhal, is a burden at most, an irritation at least—and writing about such a Jew would appear after the fact to have been something of both to Bellow too, as though the enclosure of a victimized Jewish conscience happened also to constrain his inventiveness, and to exclude from imaginative consideration much that was pleasurable and exciting, involving appetite and the exuberant, rather than the ethical, life.
There is Bellow’s own word “proper” to argue for this, and there is the next book, The Adventures of Augie March, where surely the least important ingredient in the lively and seductive hero’s make-up is his sense of himself as a Jew. One could in fact take the Jew out of the adventurous Augie March without doing much harm to the whole of the book, whereas the same could not be said for taking Chicago out of the boy. (Whereas the same couldn’t be said for taking the Jew out of the Levantine-looking Leventhal.)
One can only speculate on how much writing The Victim may have served to settle the author’s own conscience about touchy matters of survival and success (the bedeviling issue for Leventhal, right along with the issue of Jewish self-defense) and to open the way for the unambiguous and loquacious delight in his own winning attractiveness that is Augie’s charm. But what couldn’t be clearer is that while Bellow seems largely to locate in Leventhal’s Jewishness the roots of his morbidity, gloom, uncertainty, touchiness, and moral responsiveness, he connects Augie’s health, cheeriness, vigor, stamina, and appetite, as well as his enormous appeal to just about everyone in Cook County, if not in all creation, to his rootedness in a Chicago that is American to the core, a place where being Jewish makes of a boy nothing more special in the Virtue Department than any other immigrant mother’s child. Though it might be argued that the sensibility and verbal energy in some essential way encompass the book’s “Jewishness,” that argument would probably be given shortest shrift by Augie himself: “Look at me,” he triumphantly exclaims at the book’s conclusion, “going everywhere!” Essentially the sensibility and the energy are those of an exuberant and greedy eclectic, “a Columbus of the near-at-hand,” as he describes himself, perpetually outward bound.
The movement away from the obsessively Jewish Jew Leventhal to the relatively non-Jewish Jew Augie, away from claustrophobic bondage to the Chosen People toward heady, delight-filled choosing, culminates in Bellow’s next big novel, Henderson the Rain King, whose hoggish and greedy hero, hearty in an altogether different sense from Leventhal, is so much a creature possessed by strange ravenous hungers of the senses and the spirit that Bellow cannot see his way to making him even the most attenuated of Jews. To hang from his Jewishness by no more than a thread—that will do nicely for Tommy (nee Adler) Wilhelm, who wants more than anything his Daddy. But it will not do at all for a hero who wants, in the way he wants it, what this hero wants.
Which is? To do good, to be just? No, that is more like Leventhal’s ambition, and one that seems to have less affinity with “heart” than with a deal he has made to square it with the vengeful gods—playing ball with the superego. What then? To be adopted, abducted, and adored? No, that’s more in brainy, handsome, egotistic Augie’s line (Augie who is, when you stop to think about it, everything that Tommy Wilhelm had in mind but hadn’t the Chicago in him to pull off; his is the story of ego quashed). What then is Henderson after? “I want!” Exclamation point. “I want!” And that is it. It is the voice of the id piping up—raw, untrammeled, uncompromising, insatiable, and unsocialized desire.
“I want.” In a Bellow novel only a goy can talk like that and get away with it. As indeed Henderson does, for by the conclusion of the book he is said actually to have been regenerated by this quest he has been on for intensity and orgasmic release. Is there anyone happier in all of Bellow’s books? No punishment or victimization for this unchosen person. To the contrary, what makes Henderson the Rain King a full-scale comedy is that what the clown wants he gets, if you will, in spades—“It’s the richness of the mixture!” cries Henderson, swooning in Africa with pleasure. What he had not enough of, if he had any, he now gets more of than he knows what to do with. He is the king of rain, of gush, of geyser.
If the goy gets more than enough to burst his spirit’s sleep, Bellow’s next two heroes, very Jewish Jews indeed, get far less than they deserve. Desire or appetite have nothing to do with it. What is denied here are ethical hopes and expectations. Others should act otherwise, they don’t, and the Jewish hero suffers. With Moses Herzog and Artur Sammler, Bellow moves from Henderson all the way back to the world of the victim—and, ineluctably it would seem, back to the Jew, the man of acutely developed sensibilities and a great sense of personal dignity and inbred virtue, whose sanity in the one book, and whose human sympathies in the other, are continuously tried by the libidinous greed of the willful, the crazed, and the criminal.
Henderson’s hoggish “I want!” is in fact something like the rallying cry of those others who make Herzog moan, “I fail to understand,” and cause Sammler, who has seen and survived nearly everything, to admit at last in 1968 in New York City, “I am horrified.” The pig-farmer goy as a noble Yahoo in black Africa—the morally elegant Jew as a maimed and grieving Houyhnhnm on a darkening Upper West Side. Augie the Chicago adventurer returns as a bleeding, punished Herzog, the irresistible egotist bitten by what he had chewed off—Moses-trainer Madeleine having had better luck with her bird in the Berkshires than the eagle-trainer Thea in Mexico—and Leventhal, he of the bilious temper and the brooding conscience, is reincarnated as the moral magistrate Sammler, whose New York is no longer simply “as hot as Bangkok” on some nights, but has become a barbarous Bangkok, even on the Broadway bus and in the Columbia University lecture hall. “Most outdoor telephones were smashed, crippled. They were urinals, also. New York was getting worse than Naples or Salonika. It was like an Asian or an African town….”
How remote, how metaphorical—how “proper” indeed—Leventhal’s suffering seems beside Mr. Sammler’s. And what a mild, mild nuisance is Allbee, the insinuating down-and-out goy, who ruins Leventhal’s summer solitude, who sullies his marriage bed and embarrassingly strokes his Jewish hair—how mild he is compared to the lordly and ominous dude of a black pickpocket, whose uncircumcised member and “great oval testicles” are unveiled in all their irridescent grandeur for consideration by the superego’s man in Manhattan. And yet, despite the difference in degree (and context and meaning) between the assault in the early book and in the later one, it is still the Jew who is aggressed against, the Jew who is on the receiving end when appetite and rage run wild: “the soul in its vehemence,” as Sammler calls what horrifies him most, or, less delicately and more specifically, “sexual niggerhood.” As opposed to what might similarly be described as “ethical Jewhood.”
Now there are other ways, obviously, to go about reading Saul Bellow: the intention here is not to diminish his achievement by reducing his novels to this pile of bare bones, but rather to trace the characteristic connection made in his work (and, shortly, in Bernard Malamud’s work as well) between the Jew and conscience and the Gentile and appetite—and thereby to point up how conditioned readers had become (one might better say, how persuaded, given the imaginative authority of the writers in question) to associate the sympathetic Jewish hero with ethical Jewhood as it opposed sexual niggerhood, with victimization as opposed to vengeful aggression, with dignified survival rather than euphoric or gloating triumph, with sanity and renunciation as opposed to excessive desire…except the excessive desire to be good and to do good.
To the degree that Saul Bellow has been a source of pride or comfort (or at the least has been little or no trouble, which can amount to the same thing) to what David Singer calls “the American Jewish establishment,” I suggest that it has had more to do with these bare bones I’ve laid out here than with the brimming novels themselves, which are too deliberately ambiguous, too self-challenging, too densely rendered and reflective to be the vehicles of ethnic propaganda or comfort. The fact is that Bellow’s ironic humanism, coupled as it is with his wide-ranging sympathy for odd and dubious characters, for regular Chicago guys, for the self-mockery and self-love of the down-on-his-luck dauphin type, has actually made him a figure of more importance to other Jewish writers than he is to the Jewish cultural audience—unlike, say, Eli Weisel or Isaac Bashevis Singer, who, as they relate to the lost Jewish past, have a somewhat awesome spiritual meaning to the community-at-large that is not necessarily of pressing literary interest to their fellow writers. But Bellow, by closing the gap as it were between Damon Runyon and Thomas Mann—or to use loosely Philip Rahv’s categories, between redskin and paleface—has, I think, inspired all sorts of explorations into immediate worlds of experience that American-born Jewish writers who have come after him might otherwise have overlooked or dumbly stared at for years without the ingenious example of this Columbus of the near-at-hand.
If Saul Bellow’s longer works* tend generally to associate the Jewish Jew with the struggles of ethical Jewhood and the non-Jewish Jew and the Gentile with the release of appetite and aggression (Gersbach, the Buber booster and wife-stealer, is really no great exception, since he is a spurious Jewish Jew, who can’t even pronounce his Yiddish right; and Madeleine, that Magdalene, has of course worn a cross and worked at Fordham), in the work of Bernard Malamud these tendencies are so sharply and schematically present as to give Malamud’s novels the lineaments of moral allegory. For Malamud, generally speaking, the Jew is innocent, passive, virtuous, and this to the degree that he defines himself or is defined by others as a Jew; the Gentile, on the other hand, is characteristically corrupt, violent, and lustful, particularly when he enters a room or a store or a cell with a Jew in it.
Now on the face of it, it would seem that a writer could not get very far with such evangelistic simplifications. And yet that is not at all the case with Malamud (as it isn’t with Jerzy Kosinski in The Painted Bird), for so instinctively do the figures of a good Jew and a bad goy emerge from an imagination essentially folkloric and didactic that his fiction is actually most convincing the more strictly he adheres to these simplifications, and diminishes in moral conviction and narrative drive to the extent that he surrenders them, or tries, however slyly, to undo their hold on him.
The best book—containing as it does the classic Malamudian moral arrangement—is still The Assistant, which proposes that an entombed and impoverished grocer named Morris Bober shall by the example of his passive suffering and his goodness of heart transform a young thieving Italian drifter named Frank Alpine into another entombed, impoverished, suffering Jewish grocer, and that this shall constitute an act of assistance, and set Alpine on the road to redemption—or so the stern morality of the book suggests.
Redemption from what? Crimes of violence and deceit against a good Jewish father, crimes of lust against the father’s virginal daughter, whom the goy has spied upon naked and then raped. But oh how punitive is this redemption! We might almost take what happens to the bad goy when he falls into the hands of the good Jew as an act of enraged Old Testament retribution visited upon him by the wrathful Jewish author—if it weren’t for the moral pathos and the gentle religious coloration with which Malamud invests the tale of conversion; and also the emphasis that is clear to the author throughout—that it is the good Jews who have fallen into the hands of the bad goy. It has occurred to me that a less hopeful Jewish writer than Malamud—Kosinski, say, whose novels don’t put much stock in the capacity for redemption, but concentrate rather determinedly on the persistence of brutality and malice—might not have understood Alpine’s transformation into Jewish grocer and Jewish father (with all those roles entail in this book) as a sign of moral improvement, but as the cruel realization of Bober’s revenge. “Now suffer, you goy bastard, the way I did.”
To see how still another sort of Jewish writer, Norman Mailer, might have registered the implications of a story like The Assistant, we can look to his famous essay, “The White Negro,” published first in Dissent magazine in 1957, the very year Malamud’s novel appeared. Imagining all of this independently of Malamud, Mailer nonetheless comes up with a startlingly similar scenario to the one with which The Assistant begins. In Mailer’s version there are also two hoodlums who beat a defenseless shopkeeper over the head and take his money; however, quite characteristically for Mailer—and it is this that invariably distinguishes his concerns from Malamud’s or Bellow’s—he appraises the vicious act as it effects the well-being of the violator rather than the violated.
“It can of course be suggested,” writes Mailer parenthetically about “encourag[ing] the psychopath in oneself,” “that it takes little courage for two eighteen-year-old hoodlums, let us say, to beat in the brains of a candy-store keeper, and indeed the act—even by the logic of the psychopath—is not likely to prove very therapeutic, for the victim is not an immediate equal. Still, courage of a sort is necessary, for one murders not only a weak fifty-year-old man but an institution as well, one violates private property, one enters into a new relation with the police, and introduces a dangerous element into one’s life. The hoodlum is therefore daring the unknown, and so no matter how brutal the act, it is not altogether cowardly.”
These few lines on the positive value homicide has for the psychopath should make it clear why Jewish cultural audiences, which are generally pleased to hear Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud identified by critics as Jewish writers, are perfectly content that by and large Norman Mailer, with all his considerable influence and stature, should go forth onto the lecture platform and the television talk shows as a writer period. This is obviously okay too with the author of The Deer Park and An American Dream, to name just two of his books with heroes he chooses not to call Cohen. It is pointless to wonder what Jews (or Gentiles) would have made of those two books if the author had had other Shan an O’Shaugnessy as the libidinous voyager or a Rojack as the wife-murderer and spade-whipper in his American Gomorrah, for that an identifiably Jewish hero could perpetrate such spectacular transgressions with so much gusto and so little self-doubt or ethical disorientation turns out to be as inconceivable to Norman Mailer as it is to Bernard Malamud. And maybe for the same reason: it is just the Jew in one that says “No, no, restrain yourself” to such grandiose lusts and drives. To which prohibition Malamud adds, “Amen,” but to which Mailer replies, “Then I’ll see ya’ around.”
I cannot imagine Mailer having much patience with the conclusion of the violent hoodlum-defenseless shopkeeper scenario as Malamud realizes it in The Assistant. Some other lines from “The White Negro” might in fact stand as Mailer’s description of just what is happening to Frank Alpine, who dons Morris Bober’s apron, installs himself for eighteen hours a day behind his cash register, and from the tomb of a dying grocery store takes responsibility for the college education (rather than the orgasmic, no holes barred, time-of-her-timish education) of Morris’s Jewish daughter: “new kinds of victories,” Mailer writes, “increase one’s power for new kinds of perception; and defeats, the wrong kind of defeats, attack the body and imprison one’s energy until one is jailed in the prison air of other people’s habits, other people’s defeats, boredom, quiet desperation, and muted, icy, self-destroying rage….”
It is precisely with an “attack” upon the body—upon the very organ with which Alpine had attacked Bober’s daughter—that Malamud concludes The Assistant. Whether Malamud himself sees it as an attack, as something more like cruel and unusual punishment than poetic justice, is another matter; given the novel’s own signposts, it appears that the reader is expected to take the last paragraph in the book as describing the conclusive act of Frank’s redemption, the final solution to his Gentile problem.
One day in April Frank went to the hospital and had himself circumcised. For a couple of days he dragged himself around with a pain between his legs. The pain enraged and inspired him. After Passover he became a Jew.
So penance for the criminal penis has been done. No cautionary folk tale on the dangers of self-abuse could be any more vivid or pointed than this, nor could those connections that I have tried to trace in Bellow’s novels be more glaringly apparent than they are here: Renunciation is Jewish and renunciation is All. By comparison to the tyrannical Yahweh who rules over The Assistant, the Bellow of Mr. Sammler’s Planet seems like a doting parent who asks only for contraceptive common sense and no hard drugs. The Assistant is a manifestation of ethical Jewhood with what one might legitimately call a vengeance. Beneath the austerity and the pathos, Malamud, as we shall see again, has a fury all his own.
The Fixer, page 69: “The fixer readily confessed he was a Jew. Otherwise he was innocent.” Page 80: “I’m an innocent man…I’ve had little in life.” Page 98: “I swear to you, I am innocent of any serious crime…. It’s not in my nature.” What isn’t in his nature? Ritual murder and sexual assault—vengeful aggression and brutal lust. So it is for the crimes of Frank Alpine and Ward Minogue, the two hoodlum goyim who prey upon the innocent helpless Jewish family of The Assistant, that Yakov Bok, the helpless innocent Russian Jewish handyman of The Fixer, is arrested and imprisoned, and in something far worse even than a dungeon of a grocery store. In fact, I know of no serious authors who have chronicled physical brutality and fleshly mortification in such detail and at such length, and who likewise have taken a single defenseless innocent and constructed almost an entire book out of the relentless violations suffered by that character at the hands of cruel and perverse captors, other than Malamud, the Marquis de Sade, and the pseudonymous author of The Story of O. The Fixer, the opening of Chapter V:
The days were passing and the Russian officials were waiting impatiently for his menstrual period to begin. Grubeshov and the army general often consulted the calendar. If it didn’t start soon they threatened to pump blood out of his penis with a machine they had for that purpose. The machine was a pump made of iron with a red indicator to show how much blood was being drained out. The danger of it was that it didn’t always work right and sometimes sucked every drop of blood out of the body. It was used exclusively on Jews; only their penises fitted it.
The careful social and historical documentation of The Fixer—which Malamud’s instinctive feel for folk material is generally able to transform from fiction researched into fiction imagined—envelops what is at its center a relentless work of violent pornography, in which the pure and innocent Jew, whose queasiness at the sight of blood is at the outset almost maidenly, is ravished by the sadistic goyim, “men,” a knowledgeable ghost informs him, “who [are] without morality.”
Four paragraphs from the end of the book, the defenseless Jew who has been falsely accused of murdering a twelve-year-old boy and drinking his blood, and has been unjustly brutalized for that crime for almost three hundred pages, has his revenge offered him suddenly on a silver platter—and he takes it. If it’s murder they want, it’s murder they’ll get. With his revolver he shoots the Czar! “Yakov pressed the trigger. Nicholas”—the italics are mine—“in the act of crossing himself, overturned his chair, and fell, to his surprise, to the floor, the stain spreading on his breast.” And there is no remorse or guilt in Yakov, not after what he has been through at the hands of Czar Nicholas’s henchmen. “Better him than us,” he thinks, dismissing with a commonplace idiom of four simple words the crime of crimes: regicide, the murder of the Goyische King.
Only it happens that all of this takes place in Yakov’s imagination. It is a vengeful and heroic daydream that he is having on the way to the trial at which it would seem he is surely doomed. Which is as it must be in Malamud’s world: for it is not in Yakov’s nature, any more than it is in Morris Bober’s (or Moses Herzog’s) to press a real trigger and shed real blood. Remember Herzog with his pistol? “It’s not everyone who gets the opportunity to kill with a clear conscience. They had,” Herzog tells himself, “opened the way to justifiable murder.” But at the bathroom window, peering in at his enemy Gersbach bathing his daughter Junie, he cannot pull the trigger. “Firing the pistol,” writes Bellow in Herzog (though it could as well be Malamud at the conclusion of The Fixer), “was nothing but a thought.” Vengeance then must come in other forms for these victimized Jewish men, if it comes at all. That vengeance isn’t in his nature is a large part of what makes him heroic to the author himself.
In Pictures of Fidelman Malamud sets out to turn the tables on himself and, gamely, to take a holiday from his own obsessive mythology: here he imagines as the hero a Jewish man living without shame and even with a kind of virile, if shlemielish, forcefulness in a world of Italian gangsters, thieves, pimps, whores, and bohemians, a man who eventually finds love face-down with a Venetian glassblower who is the husband of his own mistress—and most of it has no more impact than the bullet that Yakov Bok fired in his imagination had on the real Czar of Russia. And largely because it has been conceived as a similar kind of compensatory daydream; in Fidelman, unfortunately, natural repugnance and constraints, and a genuine sense of what conversions cost, are by and large dissolved in rhetorical flourishes rather than through the sort of human struggle that Malamud’s own deeply held sense of things calls forth in The Assistant and The Fixer. It’s no accident that this of all the longer works generates virtually no internal narrative tension (a means whereby it might seek to test its own assumptions) and is without the continuous sequential development that comes to this kind of storyteller so naturally and acts in him as a necessary counterforce against runaway fantasy. This playful daydream of waywardness, criminality, transgression, lust, and sexual perversion could not have stood up against that kind of opposition.
There are of course winning and amusing pages along the way—there is a conversation between Fidelman and a talking light bulb in the section called “Pictures of the Artist” that is Malamud the folk comic at his best—but after the first section, “The Last Mohican,” the book has an air of unchecked and unfocused indulgence, which is freewheeling about a libidinous and disordered life more or less to the extent that nothing much is at stake or seriously challenged. What distinguishes “The Last Mohican” from all that comes after is that its Fidelman, so meticulous about himself, so very cautious and constrained, is not at all the same fellow who turns up later cleaning out toilets in a whorehouse, shacking up with prostitutes, and dealing one-on-one with a pimp; the author may have convinced himself that it was the experience with Susskind he undergoes in “The Last Mohican” that, as it were, frees Fidelman for what follows, but, if so, that comes under the category, as a little too much does here, of magical thinking. Wherever the unconstraining processes, the struggles toward release, might appropriately be dramatized, there is a chapter break, and when the narrative resumes the freedom is a fait accompli.
Of “The Last Mohican” ‘s Fidelman it is written: “He was, at odd hours, in certain streets, several times solicited by prostitutes, some heartbreakingly pretty, one a slender unhappy-looking girl with bags under her eyes whom he desired mightily, but Fidelman feared for his health.” This Fidelman desires unhappy-looking girls bearing signs of wear and tear. This Fidelman fears for his health. And that isn’t all he fears for. But then this Fidelman is not a Jew in name only. “To be unmasked as a hidden Jew,” which is what frightens Yakov Bok in the early stages of The Fixer, could in fact serve to describe what happens to “The Last Mohican” ‘s Fidelman, with the assistance of his own Bober, the wily shnorring refugee Susskind.
“The Last Mohican” is a tale of conscience tried and human sympathy unclotted, arising out of very different interests from the fiction that comes after—and it abounds with references, humble, comic, and solemn, to Jewish history and life. But that is it, by and large, for the Jews: enter sex in chapter two, called “Still Life,” and exit Susskind and Fidelman the unmasked Jew. What is henceforth to be unmasked in Fidelman in this book—which would, if it could, be a kind of counter-Assistant—is the hidden goy, a man whose appetites are associated elsewhere with the lust-ridden “uncircumcised dog” Alpine.
And if there should be any doubt as to how fierce and reflexive is the identification in Malamud’s imagination between renunciation and Jew and appetite and goy, one need only compare the pathetic air of self-surrender that marks the ending of “The Last Mohican”—
“Susskind, come back,” he shouted, half sobbing. “The suit is yours. All is forgiven.”
He came to a dead halt but the refugee ran on. When last seen he was still running.
to the comic and triumphant ending of “Still Life.” The second chapter concludes with Fidelman’s first successful penetration, which he is able, after much frustration, to accomplish upon a strong-minded Italian pittrice by inadvertently disguising himself in a priest’s vestments. There is both more and less to this scene than Malamud may have intended:
She grabbed his knees. “Help me, Father, for Christ’s sake.”
Fidelman, after a short tormented time, said in a quavering voice, “I forgive you, my child.”
“The penance,” she wailed, “first the penance.”
After reflecting, he replied, “Say one hundred times each, Our Father and Hail Mary.”
“More,” Annamaria wept. “More, more. Much more.”
Gripping his knees so hard they shook she burrowed her head into his black-buttoned lap. He felt the surprised beginnings of an erection.
But really it should not have come as such a surprise, this erection that arrives in priest’s clothing. What would have been surprising is if Fidelman had disguised himself as a Susskind, say, and found that working like an aphrodisiac, maybe even on a Jewish girl like Helen Bober. Then would something have been at stake, then would something have been challenged. But as it is written, with Fidelman copulating in a priest’s biretta rather than a skullcap, the scene moves the novel nowhere, particularly as the final line seems to me to get entirely backward the implications of the joke that is being played here. “Pumping slowly,” the chapter ends, “he nailed her to her cross.” But isn’t it rather the Jew in the biretta who is being nailed, if not to his cross, to the structure of his inhibitions?
The trouble with lines like the last one in that chapter is that they settle an issue with a crisp rhetorical flourish before it has even been allowed to have much of a life. At the moment that the writer appears to be most forceful and candid, he is in fact shying away from his own subject and suppressing whatever is psychologically rich or morally troublesome with a clever, but essentially evasive, figure of speech. Here, for instance, is Fidelman’s detumescence described earlier on. Premature ejaculation has just finished him off, much to the pittrice’s dismay, and though he hasn’t as yet stumbled unwittingly upon the clerical disguise that will make him fully potent and desirable, we note that the figure for erotic revitalization is, as usual, Christian; also noteworthy is that generally speaking in Fidelman, where the sex act is, there shall whimsical metaphor be. “Although he mightily willed resurrection, his wilted flower bit the dust.” And here is the hero discovering himself to be a homosexual. “Fidelman had never in his life said ‘I love you’ without reservation to anyone. He said it to Beppo. If that’s the way it works, that’s the way it works.” But that isn’t the way it works at all. That is a dream of the way it works, and all of it neatly koshered with the superego and other defense agencies, with that reassuring word “love.”
“Think of love,” says Beppo, as he leaps on naked Fidelman from behind, “you’ve run from it all your life.” And, magically, one might say, just by thinking of it, Fidelman instantaneously loves, so that between the homosexual act of anal intercourse—an act which society still generally considers a disgusting transgression indeed—and its transformation into ideal behavior, there is not even time for the reader to say ouch. Or for Fidelman to think whatever perplexing thoughts might well accompany entry into the world of the taboo by the tight-assed fellow who at the outset, in the marvelous “Last Mohican” chapter, would barely give the refugee Susskind the time of day.
One wonders why the taboo must be idealized quite so fast. Why must Fidelman dress up as a priest merely to get himself laid right, and not only think of love, but fall in love, the first time he gets buggered? Why not think of lust, of base and unseemly desire? And surrender himself to that? People, after all, have been known to run from it too all their lives, just as fast and far. And when last seen were still running. “In America,” the book concludes, “he worked as a craftsman in glass and loved men and women.”
Recall the last lines of The Assistant. Frank Alpine should have it so easy with his appetites. But whereas in The Assistant the lusting goy’s passionate and aggressive act of genuinely loving desire for the Jewish girl takes the form of rape, and requires penance (or retribution) of the harshest kind, in Pictures of Fidelman, the Jew’s most wayward (albeit comfortingly passive) sexual act is, without anything faintly resembling Alpine’s enormous personal struggle, converted on the spot into love. And if this is still insufficiently reassuring about a Jew and sexual appetite, the book manages by the end to have severed the bisexual Fidelman as thoroughly from things Jewish as The Assistant, by its conclusion, has marked the sexually constrained, if not desexed, Alpine as a Jew forevermore. Of all of Malamud’s Jewish heroes is there any who is by comparison so strikingly un-Jewish (after chapter one is out of the way, that is), who insists upon it so little and is so little reminded of it by the Gentile world? And is there any who, at the conclusion, is happier?
In short, Fidelman is Malamud’s Henderson, Italy his Africa, and “love” is the name that Malamud, for reasons that by now should be apparent, gives in this book to getting finally what you want the way you want it. Suggesting precisely the disjunction between act and self-knowledge that accounts for the lightheaded dreaminess of Fidelman, and that differentiates it so sharply from those wholly convincing novels, The Assistant and The Fixer, where no beclouding ambivalence stands between the author’s imagination and the objects of his fury.
And now to return to Portnoy’s Complaint and the hero imagined by this Jewish writer. Obviously the problem for Alexander Portnoy is that, unlike Arthur Fidelman, nothing inflames his Jewish self-consciousness so much as setting forth on a wayward libidinous adventure—that is, nothing makes it seem quite so wayward than that a Jewish man like himself should be wanting the things that he wants. The hidden Jew is unmasked in him by the sight of his own erection. He cannot suppress the one in the interests of the other, nor can he imagine them living happily ever after in peaceful coexistence. Like the rest of us, he too has read Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Norman Mailer.
His condition might be compared to Frank Alpine’s, if, after his painful circumcision—with all that means to him about virtuous renunciation—Alpine had all at once found his old disreputable self, the uncircumcised dog and Maileresque hoodlum of the forbidden lusts and desires, emerging from solitary confinement to engage his freshly circumcised and circumscribed self in hand-to-hand combat. In Portnoy the disapproving moralist who says “I am horrified” will not disappear when the libidinous slob shows up screaming “I want!” Nor will the coarse, anti-social Alpine in him be permanently subdued by whatever of Morris Bober, or of his own hard-working, well-intentioned Boberish father, there may be in his nature. This imaginary Jew also drags himself around with a pain between his legs, only it inspires him to acts of frenzied and embarrassing lust.
A lusting Jew. A Jew as a sexual defiler. An odd type, as it turns out, in recent Jewish fiction, where it is usually the goy who does the sexual defiling; also, it has been alleged, one of the “crudest and most venerable stereotypes of anti-Semitic lore.” I am quoting from a letter written by Marie Syrkin—a well-known American Zionist leader and daughter of one of Socialist Zionism’s outstanding organizers and polemicists in the first quarter of the century—and published in Commentary in March, 1973. The letter constituted her improvement on two separate attacks that had appeared several months earlier in Commentary, one by Irving Howe directed at my work (most specifically Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint) and the other by the magazine’s editor, Norman Podhoretz, directed at what is assumed by him to be my cultural position and reputation. (Commentary associate editor Peter Shaw had already attacked Portnoy’s Complaint for “fanaticism in the hatred of things Jewish” in the review he wrote when the novel first appeared and which somehow turned up in Commentary too.)
The historical references Syrkin employs to identify what is repugnant to her about Portnoy’s Complaint suggest that to some I had gone beyond the odd or eccentric in this book, exceeded even the reductive “vulgarity” which Howe said “deeply marred” my fiction here as elsewhere, and had entered into the realm of the pathological. Here is Syrkin’s characterization of Portnoy’s lustful, even vengefully lustful, designs upon a rich and pretty Wasp girl, a shiksa whom he would have perform fellatio upon him, if only she could master the skill without asphyxiating herself. It is of no interest to Syrkin that Portnoy goes about tutoring his “tender young countess” in techniques of breathing rather more like a patient swimming instructor with a timid ten-year-old at a summer camp than in the manner of the Marquis de Sade or even Sergius O’Shaugnessy, nor does she give any indication that oral intercourse may not necessarily constitute the last word in human degradation, even for the participants themselves: “a classic description,” writes Syrkin, “of what the Nazis called rassenschande (racial defilement)”; “straight out of the Goebbels-Streicher script”; “the anti-Semitic indictment straight through Hitler is that the Jew is the defiler and destroyer of the Gentile world.”
Hitler, Goebbels, Streicher. Had she not been constrained by limitations of space, Syrkin might eventually have had me in the dock with the entire roster of Nuremberg defendants. On the other hand it does not seem to occur to her that sexual entanglements between Jewish men and Gentile women might themselves be marked, in any number of instances, by the history of anti-Semitism that so obviously determines her own rhetoric and point of view, at least in this letter. Nor is she about to allow the most obvious point of all: that this Portnoy can no more enter into an erotic relationship unconscious of his Jewishness and his victim’s or, if you will, his assistant’s Gentileness, than Bober could enter into a relationship on terms less charged than those with Alpine, or Leventhal with Allbee. Rather, to Syrkin, for a Jew to have the kind of sexual desires Alexander Portnoy has (conflict-laden and self-defeating as they frequently are) is unimaginable to anyone but a Nazi.
Now arguing as she does for what a Jew is not and could not be, other than to a pathological Nazi racist, Syrkin leaves little doubt that she herself has strongly held ideas of what a Jew in fact is or certainly ought to be. As did Theodor Herzl; as did Weizmann, Jabotinsky, and Nahman Syrkin; as did Hitler, Goebbels, and Streicher; as do Jean-Paul Sartre, Moshe Dayan, Meir Kahane, Leonid Brezhnev, and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations…not to mention lesser historical personages and institutions such as were designated at the outset of the standard bar mitzvah speech of my childhood as “My dear grandparents, parents, assembled relatives, friends, and members of the congregation.” In an era which has seen the avid and, as it were, brilliant Americanization of millions of uprooted Jewish immigrants and refugees, the annihilation as human trash of millions of Europeanized Jews, and the establishment and survival in the ancient holy land of a spirited, defiant modern Jewish state, it can safely be said that imagining what Jews are and ought to be has been anything but the marginal activity of a few American-Jewish novelists. The writer’s enterprise—particularly in books like The Victim, The Assistant, and Portnoy’s Complaint—might itself be described as imagining Jews being imagined, by themselves and by others; given all those projections, fantasies, illusions, programs, dreams, and solutions that the existence of the Jews has given rise to, it is no wonder that these three books, whatever may be their differences in literary merit and approach, are largely nightmares of bondage, each informed in its way by a mood of baffled, claustrophobic struggle.
For the Jewish novelist, then, it has not been a matter of going forth to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race, but of finding his inspiration in that conscience that has been created and undone a hundred times over in this century alone…and out of which the solitary being who has been designated “Jew” by whomever has had to imagine what he is and is not, must and must not be.
If he would imagine himself to be such a thing at all. For as the most serious of American-Jewish novelists seem to indicate in those choices of subject and emphasis that lead to the heart of what a writer thinks, there are ways of living, many having to do with the least tame of our passions, that not even spirits as unfettered as theirs are able to attribute to the character who is forthrightly presented as a Jew.
October 3, 1974
I say “longer works” because the hard and ugly facts of life in a short story like “The Old System,” published first in Playboy in 1967, are of the sort that have been known to set the phones ringing at the Anti-Defamation League. Baldly put (which is how these things tend to be put when the lines are drawn) it is a story of rich Jews and their money: first, how they make it big in the world with under-the-table payoffs (a hundred thousand delivered to an elegant old Wasp for lucrative country club acreage—and delivered by a Jew Bellow depicts as an orthodox religious man); and then it is about how Jews cheat and finagle one another out of the Almighty Dollar: a dying Jewish woman, with a dirty mouth no less, demands twenty thousand in cash from her businessman brother for the privilege of seeing her before she expires in her hospital bed. This scene of sibling hatred and financial cunning in a Jewish family is in fact the astonishing climax to which the story moves. ↩