The interesting thing about Roth’s books is, that they seem to need no interpretation but he presents it all in front of you – yet they are still complex and interesting.
Basically the book describes the growing up of a jewish boy in New Jersey. I think, though, that the feelings about the madness at home and how sane all other families seem, are easily applicable to most of us (I can certainly relate to them).
The whole story is told as a monologue of Portnoy with his doctor and accordingly starts of with a definition of his ‘condition’: „Portnoy’s complain: A disorder in which strongly-felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longing, often of a perverse nature.“ (Roth, 2005, p.1).
„Doctor, do you understand what I was up against? My wang was all I really had that I could call my own.“ (Roth, 2005, p.33). „I couldn’t even contemplate drinking a glass of milk with my salami sandwich without giving serious offense to God Almighty. Imagine then what my conscience gave me for all that jerking off! The guilt, the fears – the terror bred into my bones.“ (Roth, 2005, p.35).
„Who filled these parents of mine with such a fearful sense of life?“ (Roth, 2005, p.35). „These two (people) are the outstanding produce and packagers of guilt of our time.“ (Roth, 2005, p.36).
„Dotor, I can’t stand any more being frightened like this over nothing! Bless me with manhood! Make me brave! Make me strong! Make me whole!“ (Roth, 2005, p.37).
„but I see her (his mother) standing at the sink salting the meat so as to rid it of ist blood, when the attack of „woman’s troubles“ sends her, with a most alarming moan, rushing off to her bedroom. I was no more than four or five, and yet those two drops of blood that I beheld on the floor of her kitchen are visible to me still.“ (Roth, 2005, p.43).
„But I will not treat any human being (outside my family) as inferior!“ (Roth, 2005, p.75).
„The lesson may have been learned that to break the law all you have to do is – just go ahead and break it! All you have to do is stop trembling and quaking and finding it unimaginable and beyond you: all you have to do it, is do it! What else, I ask you, were all those prohibitive dietary rules and regulations all about to begin with, what else but to give us little Jewish children practice in being repressed?“ (Roth, 2005, p.79). „Why else, I ask you, but to remind us three times a day that life is boundaries and restrictions if it’s anything, hundreds of thousands of little rules laid down by none other than None Other.“ (Roth, 2005, p.80).
„it makes no difference to them (‘gyoim’)– what they want they take, and to hell with the other thing’s feelings (let alone kindness and compassion). (...) our illustrious neighbors who own the world and know absolutely nothing of human boundaries and limits.“ (Roth, 2005, p.82).
„Why we can eat pig on Pell Street (a Chinese restaurant) and not at home is because ... frankly I still haven’t got the whole thing figured out, but at the time I believe it has largely to do with the fact that the elderly man who owns the place, and whom amongst ourselves we call „Shmendrick“, isn’tsomebody whose opinion of us we have cause to worry about. Yes, the only people in the world whom it seems to me the Jews are not afraid of are the Chinese. Because, one, the way they speak English makes my father sound like Lord Chesterfield; two, the insides of their heads are just so much fried rice anyway; and three, tot hem we are not Jews but white – and maybe even Anglo-Saxon. Imagine! No wonder the waiters can’t intimidate us. Tot hem we’re just some big-nosed variety of WASP“ Boy, do we eat!“ (Roth, 2005, p.90).
„Still cursing himself for speaking not a word to the succulent pair of tits that rode twenty-five floors alone with him in the elevator! Then cursing himself for the opposite as well!“ (Roth, 2005, p.101).
„She (his goy-ische girlfriend) never raised her voice in an argument. Can you imagine the impression this made on me at seventeen, fresh fromm y engagement with The Jack and Sophie Portnoy Debating Society? Who had ever heard of such an approach to controversy? Never ridiculed her opponent! Or seemed to hate him for his ideas! Ah-hah, so this is what it means tob e a child of goyim, valedictorian of a high school in Iowa instead of New Jersey; yes, this is what the goyim who have got something have got“ Authority without the temper. Virtue wuthout the self-congratulation. Confidence snas swagger or condescension.“ (Roth, 2005, p.217).
When visiting his goyim girfriend’s parents he discovers language: „“Good morning,“ he says, and now it occurs to me that the word „morning,“ as he uses it, refers specifically tot he hours between eight A.M. and twelve noon. I’d never thought o fit that way before. He wants the hours between eight and twelve tob e good, which ist o say, enjoyable, pleasurable, beneficial! We are all of us wishing each other four hours of pleasure and accomplishment. Why, that’s terrific! Hey, that’s very nice! Good morning! And the same applies to „Good afternoon“! And „Good evening“! And „Good night“! My God! The English language is a form of communication! Conversation isn’t just a crossfire where you shoot and get shot at! Where you’ve got to duck for your life and aim to kill! Words aren’t only bombs and bullets – no, they’re little gifts, containing meanings!“ (Roth, 2005, p.221).
„well, why, damn it, can’t I have some fun! Why ist he smallest thing I do for pleasure immediately illicit – while the rest oft he world rolls laughing in the mud.“ (Roth, 2005, p.272).