Eileen and I have been attending a course given by our notable local bookstore, Politics and Prose, on the Early Novels of Philip Roth, taught by an English professor emerita from Princeton, Elaine Showalter. Tonight the subject was Roth's best known work, Portnoy's Complaint (1969).
In preparation we both re-read the novel, for the first time since it was published. In my case, it was the first time in that I read the big parts of the novel when Roth published them in the New American Review and other magazines way back then, but I realized I had never read the last part, especially the ending set in Israel. One big change since 1969 and the cause celebre that the novel became is that nobody in the class was especially offended or shocked by it.
That's not to say that some people didn't express the view that they could see themselves being offended. In one of Roth's many interviews, he was asked if Jews were right to be offended by the novel, to which he responded that he thought there were things in the book that Gentiles might be offended by.
To me, the reason it's his most significant novel is that it best captures his humor. Roth has sought to emphasize that he is an American not just a Jewish writer, but his funniest and seemingly most trenchant moments always concern Jews. He is one of the only writers I've ever read who produces laughing-out-loud pieces of writing.
We do learn things from these classes. Roth himself was psychoanalyzed by a famous psychiatrist who also published his account of analyzing Roth in a psychological journal with the analysand thinly disguised. Though the psychiatrist of course denied it, this was clearly and completely unethical. Also, there was a lot of discussion about the significance of the famous last line (the "Punch Line") of the book, uttered by the psychoanalyst: "So now ve may perhaps to begin."
Everyone seemed focused--well, at least the two psychiatrists in the class were--on it indicating that the psychiatrist felt that now that Portnoy had told his story it was the right point to begin to analyze his account and determine what underlay his behavior. I thought and said that the reason Roth calls it the Punch Line is that most readers are likely to feel that after this narrator has ranted and raved for almost 300 pages about his growing up and his affairs, all the psychiatrist can think of to say is that perhaps ve now may begin. That to me is what makes it a punch line.
Anyway, some questions were answered, many were explored, and I'm still not at that certain as to why the title character seems to have a breakdown and is impotent when he gets to Israel.