Dear Philip Roth,

Portnoy's ComplaintAlready a seasoned kvetch in 1968 when I first read Portnoy’s Complaint, I missed no opportunity to gripe, but my complaints were clichés: my husband didn’t help with the dishes, my parents were hopelessly ignorant and neurotic, my high school students unruly, and my principal a no-nothing nabob. Imagine my relief when I read Alex’s 300-odd page whine! That wordsmith turned grousing into an art form worthy of emulation. I began to refine and enrich my own rants, in anticipation of the day they would appear in print. I would kvetch my way to literary success.

One of the factors I kvetched about, mostly to myself, was Judaism, specifically my own Jewishness. Like many of my pre-Boomer cohorts, I was into assimilating rather than embracing my embarrassing immigrant roots. When I was growing up, Danny Fisher, Anne Frank, Molly Goldberg, and Marjorie Morningstar had been familiar and photogenic Jewish protagonists. But the Portnoys were familiar people, family. I wasn’t even conscious then of how moved I was to find my warty relatives between the covers of a book where everyone, even non-Jews, could read about them. I analyzed Catcher in the Rye with my students, but Holden Caufield struck me as a pale and humorless version of Portnoy. It would take me decades to write a novel peopled with Jews, not a few of whom are less than perfect and far from photogenic. But when I finally did, your bold and riotous exposé of Alex Portnoy’s coming of age in the bosom of his foible-filled family was very much on my mind.

Alex’s hormonally inspired outpourings legitimized my own libidinous urges and, years later, frees me to write about desire, one of your favorite themes. The scene in which the horny teenaged boy enjoys a testosterone-laced tryst with  the liver his mom plans to serve for dinner struck me as a triumph of authorial chutzpah. When he opens that fridge door, he also opens the door to describing erotic adventures more realistic than romantic. I certainly didn’t rush to record my own far less resourceful and relatively banal forays into sexual satisfaction, but now, whenever I do write a sex scene, I begin by remembering Alex and that liver. Your insistence on telling us about Alex’s unorthodox response to his entirely orthodox urges gives me permission to write about desire without shame or fear.

People who know me may be surprised that I, a committed feminist, feel indebted to a known womanizer accused by some of being solely responsible for the negative image of the Jewish mother. No one’s perfect. But who else would dare to resuscitate Anne Frank to haunt a narrator? Could write a story parts of which are told by a detached larger than life breast? And you, Mr. Roth, older even than I, are still writing. Keep at it and thank you.

Jane Isenberg



Filed under Coming of age story, Jewish fiction

23 responses to “Dear Philip Roth,

  1. Witty, insightful, wry, delightful – I could go on and on about this first blog entry of Jane Isenberg’s in what promises to be a delightful literary soiree – wow – 69 authors to go!

    • Glad you found it fun to read, Joyce, because it was great fun to write. After decades of scrawling tactful and, I hope, constructive feedback in the margins of student essays, it was liberating to comment on the writing of an established author, a pro.

  2. If all literary criticism were this alert, inspired, and lively, the world would be a better place.

    My favorite line, even though I’ll struggle for the rest of the day to push the visual image out of my mind:

    “…but now, whenever I do write a sex scene, I begin by remembering Alex and that liver. “

    • Never underestimate the power of a good visual, Larry! So glad you liked my note to Mr. Roth. I hadn’t thought of it as “literary criticism.” I need to think about that. Such a laden term for those of us who think of lit crit as something to decode.

  3. Phil

    Yippie! You did it! Much happy blogging!
    Love, Phil

  4. Jane, what fabulous way to celebrate your birthday! I look forward to reading your next entries (and I’m glad I never liked liver because, well, no need to explain why!) And what does it say about human nature that from your entire, beautifully written post, I will probably forget everything but the liver?

  5. gay wilson

    How excellent to find you surfacing on my email page!
    A favorite memory that must be a tribute to your teaching skills: with a mutual Amherst friend we plotted to launch your career as a stand up comic.
    Actually, have you pursued that possiblity? It wasn’t in your biography.
    I’m now 73. Race you to 100!

    • Pretty excellent to find you surfacing here too. I’d never make it as a stand up comic, Gay. I do my best work sitting down in front of this silly machine. But one never knows . . .

  6. Fran

    Jane, what a great birthday present to yourself and the rest of us! I will follow with enthusiasm.
    Philip Roth seems like a voice from the past, haven’t read any in years…. Does he still have anything to say to us? Or is he a predictable old friend?

    • Fran, don’t write Roth off. His work speaks to all of us even in these crazier than ever times. The Plot Against America and The Human Stain are among my favorites. Meanwhile, so glad you’re celebrating with me.

  7. Yay — your blog has begun! What a fabulous start, too. I look forward to reading all the missives to come. Big congratulations!

  8. Debbie

    You just don’t hear the word kvetch enough here in Issaquah. Although I hear plenty of kvetching : ) Thanks for sharing, Jane!

  9. Bill Siegendorf

    First of all, Happy Birthday Jane! When I look at those old pictures from Passaic, its hard to believe so many years have gotten by me when I wasn’t looking. I enjoyed reading your note to Phillip Roth and I look forward to the next 69 authors. I have always admired your wit and humor. Thanks for including me.

  10. Hugh Kilmer

    Dear Jane,
    Beth suggested that I write to you about something that has puzzled me since I was in high school. At that point, teachers would talk about William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway as being great contemporary American writers. While I had not read much of either of them, I was was quite certain I liked Faulkner better. I feel the same way now, largely because I find both more of a sense of humor and more humility in Faulkner. He seems to build his work out of his experience, rather than use “his own creation” as the keynote for why the story seems worth writing. I know I’m being unfairly critical, but — with that self-criticism — I leave it for you to read.
    Love, Hugh

    • I’m a longtime Faulkner fan too, Hugh. His writing was a kind of double revelation to me when I was a college freshman. In fact, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on him. I plan to thank him for The Sound and the Fury as part of this blog, so stay with me.

  11. Hi Jane,

    Happy to see you blogging! I’m glad to have had the chance to know you when I lived in Seattle, and so glad you included me with the notice of your blog. I think this is a great idea to celebrate your birthday. Happy Birthday! and Happy Blogging!


  12. Topcat Mike

    Wow! I’m definitely checking the menu in advance of accepting dinner invitations at your place! Love your blog (and you)!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s