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Anatomy Lessons

Roth picked out the pathologies of Jewishsness and American malehood

Anatomy Lessons
Philip Roth (1933-2018) | Photograph by Getty Images
Anatomy Lessons
outlookindia.com
2018-05-25T18:40:28+05:30

For Outlook’s year-end special issue in 2014, ‘100 Books That Can Change Your Life’, the jury got quite animated when it came to discussing Philip Roth. The sheer number of books he wrote, around 30, with so many fav­ourites, made it difficult to chose one, which was a pre-condition for the selection—only one book per aut­hor. Juror Mukul Kesavan was for The Plot Against America, a counter-factual novel where Charles Lindbergh is elected American President in 1940 instead of Franklin Roosevelt, and starts targeting the Jews. Nilanjana Roy was for the novella Goodbye, Columbus, which was made into a film later, about growing up as an American Jew in the ’50s.

But the Philip Roth book which finally made it to the list, not surprisingly, was Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). Mani Shankar Aiyar clinched it with, “Of course, it so happens that Portnoy is just two years elder to me. So everything in Portnoy’s Complaint is actually Aiyar’s Complaint.” And this book of uproarious, risque humour and sexual depravity which used to be the surreptitious read of every college student, especially boys of a certain vintage, made the list. The youngster Alexander Portnoy is obsessed with sex  and the book is a long monologue of his sometimes real, sometimes fantasised encounters with all the girls and women who cross him, which as The New York Times put it, “surely set a record for most masturbation scenes per page”. It is somewhat reminiscent of the early films of another American Jewish legend, Woody Allen. The book was both a best-seller and a critical success, though it did have a few detractors too. Irving Howe wrote: “The cruellest thing anyone can do with Portnoy’s Complaint is read it...

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