Checking Portnoy’s Complaint on Philip Roth’s birthday

Yesterday was John Updike’s birthday and today is Philip Roth’s. Updike (March 18, 1932 – January 27, 2009) was exactly a year older than Roth (born on March 19, 1933). Updike was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, Roth in Newark, New Jersey. Updike is one of my favourite writers. I read Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus last year (or was it the year before?). He is, of course, best known for Portnoy’s Complaint. Goodbye, Columbus, published in 1959, earned a National Book Award, but Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969 made him famous. This is how it begins:

She was so deeply embedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise. As soon as the last bell had sounded, I would rush off for home, wondering as I ran if I could possibly make it to our apartment before she had succeeded in transforming herself. Invariably she was already in the kitchen by the time I arrived, and setting out my milk and cookies. Instead of causing me to give up my delusions, however, the feat merely intensified my respect for her powers. And then it was always a relief not to have caught her between incarnations anyway- even if I never stopped trying; I knew that my father and sister were innocent of my mother’s real nature, and the burden of betrayal that I imagined would fall to me if I ever came upon her unawares was more than I wanted to bear at the age of five. I think I even feared that I might have to be done away with were I to catch sight of her flying in from school through the bedroom window, or making herself emerge, limb by limb, out of an invisible state and into her apron.

Of course, when she asked me to tell her all about my day at kindergarten, I did so scrupulously. I didn’t pretend to understand all the implications of her ubiquity, but that it had to do with finding out the kind of little boy I was when I thought she wasn’t around-that was indisputable. One consequence of this fantasy, which survived (in this particular form) into the first grade, was that seeing as I had no choice, I became honest.

Ah, and brilliant. Of my sallow, overweight older sister, my mother would say (in Hannah’s presence, of course: honesty was her policy too), The child is no genius, but then we don’t ask the impossible. God bless her, she works hard, she applies herself to her limits, and so whatever she gets is all right. Of me, the heir to her long Egyptian nose and clever babbling mouth, of me my mother would say, with characteristic restraint, This bonditt? He doesn’t even have to open a book- ‘A’ in everything. Albert Einstein the Second!

And how did my father take all this? He drank- of course, not whiskey like a goy, but mineral oil and milk of magnesia; and chewed on Ex-Lax; and ate All-Bran morning and night; and downed mixed dried fruits by the pound bag. He suffered- did he suffer! – from constipation. Her ubiquity and his constipation, my mother flying in through the bedroom window, my father reading the evening paper with a suppository up his ass . . . these, Doctor, are the earliest impressions I have of my parents, of their attributes and secrets.

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He used to brew dried senna leaves in a saucepan, and that, along with the suppository melting invisibly in his rectum, comprised his witchcraft: brewing those vein green leaves, stirring with a spoon the evil-smelling liquid, then carefully pouring it  into a  strainer,  and  hence  into  his  blockaded  body, through that weary and afflicted expression on his face. And then hunched silently above the empty glass, as though listening for distant thunder, he awaits the miracle . . . As a little boy I sometimes sat in the kitchen and waited with him. But the miracle never came, not at least as we imagined and prayed it would, as a lifting of the sentence, a total deliverance from the plague. I remember that when they announced over the radio the explosion of the first atom bomb, he said aloud, Maybe that would do the job. But all catharses were in vain for that man: his kishkas were gripped by the iron hand of outrage and frustration. Among his other misfortunes, I was his wife’s favorite.

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