When Random House published Portnoy’s Complaint on Feb. 21, 1969, and The New Republic harpooned it as the ”Moby Dick of masturbation,” the novel’s 35-year-old author took it in stride.
”Right now, Portnoy’s Complaint is an event,” said Philip Roth of the raucous critical and public response to what many believed was a psychosexual autobiography. ”In two years, it will be a book.”
But it wasn’t just a book, of course. Portnoy was also a milestone in sexual explicitness — that liver! — and one of those rare moments when Serious Literature met up with serious S*E*X.
Roth himself, who had won the National Book Award nine years earlier for his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, was alternately celebrated as the next Franz Kafka and slammed as a self-hating Jew for his hilariously funny fiction about Alexander Portnoy, a sexually obsessed New York City government underling with a thing for shiksas. Vladimir Nabokov, whose 1955 Lolita proved that he knew a thing or two about sexual obsession, called Portnoy ”Dreadful. Conventional, badly written, corny,” but The New York Times included it among the year’s ”Books of Uncommon Excellence.” The novel became the No. 1 fiction best-seller of 1969. A pale movie adaptation came out in 1972.
”There was a backlash against this dirty writer, and any kind of assault on your character is a shock,” Roth now says, from his home in Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, actress Claire Bloom. ”It was (also) the beginning of a kind of comic pursuit…something was revealed to me in my own talent and I started to mine it.”
According to Roth’s prediction, by now Portnoy should be just another book. But while he went on to write 15 others, including The Ghost Writer and The Breast, and has been consistently successful throughout his career, Portnoy remains a seminal literary event — not least as a comic landmark in the history of Jewish neurosis.
”(Portnoy’s Complaint) is more alive in other people’s minds,” says Roth. ”As a writer, one lives a quiet, retiring life. Crowds are a bit of a surprise….Then you begin to write another book and it (all) fades away.”
Feb. 21, 1969
Moviegoers sped to see Steve McQueen in Bullitt, while Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In socked it to the TV set. Sly and the Family Stone’s infectious ”Everyday People” was the No. 1 pop song, and Adam Smith’s The Money Game topped the nonfiction best-seller list.