Tuesday, May 22, 2018

First Lines Second Thoughts — Philip Roth and Portnoy's Complaint

She was so deeply imbedded 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.

First Lines Second Thoughts is an occasional look at the first lines of well known literary works. On second thought, do these opening words stand alone as poetry? Today, on the day of his passing, we look at the opening lines of Philip Roth's controversial novel, Portnoy's Complaint.

Published in 1969,  Portnoy's Complaint is a continuous monologue of Alex Portnoy to his psychoanalyst. The novel was considered scandalous at the time for its explicit language and vivid descriptions of of masturbation. It was banned from many libraries, and Australia too.


The Most Unforgettable Character I've Met

She was so deeply imbedded 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.


— Philip Roth


On the occasion of the 25th anniversary edition of Portnoy's Complaint, Philip Roth wrote an afterword where he stated that the inspiration for the opening of Portnoy's Complaint came from a typed sheet of paper he found in a school cafeteria. A sheet of paper with 19 seemingly unconnected sentences.


"Typewritten on the paper, in the form of a long single-spaced unindented paragraph, were nineteen sentences that taken together made no sense at all. Though no author’s name appeared anywhere on either the front or the the back of the page, I figured that the nineteen sentences, amounting to some four hundred or so words, must be the work of a neighborhood avant-gardist with an interest in ‘experimental’ or ‘automatic’ writing. This page was surely a sample of one or the other. The author’s having forgotten this composition here at the cafeteria—while trying perhaps not to forget to remember to leave with his or her own umbrella—did not seem to me a catastrophe for literature or even for a literary career."

The first paragraph of Portnoy's Complaint is comprised of seven sentences.