Watch Philip Roth, Now 80, Read from His Irreverent Classic, Portnoy’s Complaint

While it did come as a shock to some of Philip Roth’s friends when the nov­el­ist announced his retire­ment from writ­ing last year, one might imag­ine that after 31 nov­els, two Nation­al Book Awards, a Pulitzer, three PEN/Faulkner Awards and a host of oth­er acco­lades, the man deserves a break. Roth cel­e­brat­ed his 80th birth­day on Tues­day. New York­er edi­tor David Rem­nick writes in his account of Roth’s Newark birth­day par­ty that the writer “sensed that bet­ter books were not ahead” and quit rather than expe­ri­ence his pow­ers fail­ing. This is in char­ac­ter, writes Rem­nick, for a writer whose books “rage against the indig­ni­ties and inevitabil­i­ties, the inescapa­bil­i­ty, the hor­rif­ic cos­mic joke of age, of death.”

Remnick’s obser­va­tion reminds me of the two Roth char­ac­ters who loom large in my mem­o­ry of his work—both over­sexed mama’s boys, dri­ven by grim humor and nar­cis­sis­tic self-regard. First I think of grotesque old lech­er Mick­ey Sab­bath in Sabbath’s The­ater, who ekes out his lat­er years on tiny bits of sym­pa­thy, las­civ­i­ous remem­brances, and sui­ci­dal fan­tasies. At one point in the nov­el, he observes, “we are immod­er­ate because grief is immod­er­ate, all the hun­dreds and thou­sands of kinds of grief.”

If Sab­bath is a pro­jec­tion of Roth’s fear of aging, he is an effec­tive­ly ter­ri­fy­ing por­trait of dis­so­lu­tion and decay; for all his gal­lows humor, he can’t hide the fact that he just doesn’t know when to let go of for­mer glo­ries. If he’s an elder­ly Alexan­der Port­noy (per­haps), he’s a Port­noy gone to pot with a few hun­dred kinds of grief. Of course Port­noy— 33-year-old neu­rot­ic chron­ic mas­tur­ba­tor and “lust-rid­den, moth­er addict­ed young Jew­ish bach­e­lor”— nar­rates the nov­el that made Roth a house­hold name. You can see Roth read from Portnoy’s Com­plaint in the video above from PBS.

Since Port­noy’s 1969 pub­li­ca­tion, Roth has endured ques­tion after ques­tion about the auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal con­tent in his nov­els. Sure­ly he invest­ed Port­noy and Sab­bath with some mea­sure of his rag­ing Id, but his body of work takes in con­cerns far beyond sex­u­al­ly obses­sive Jew­ish mother’s boys. To get a glimpse of the ear­ly, pre-Port­noy Roth, take a look at the 1958 and ‘59 short sto­ries “Epstein” and “The Con­ver­sion of the Jews” at the Paris Review. Both sto­ries appeared in Roth’s first book Good­bye, Colum­bus, for which he won his first Nation­al Book Award in 1960. And for a look at the aging writer wrestling with the brave new world of open source col­lab­o­ra­tive author­ship, read his fas­ci­nat­ing “An Open Let­ter to Wikipedia” from Sep­tem­ber of last year, a month before he announced his retire­ment.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Philip Roth Reads the Last Pages of His Last Work of Fic­tion: “The End of the Line After Thir­ty-One Books”

Philip Roth Pre­dicts the Death of the Nov­el; Paul Auster Coun­ters

Philip Roth on Aging

Josh Jones is a writer, edi­tor, and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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