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Many enemies as a writer, many enemies as a Jew


Portnoy's Complaint
Philip Roth Writer
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Portnoy's Complaint was published in... I believe it was February 1969, and it was a sensation. It was an experience unlike any I was ever to know in the future and unlike anything that had happened to me in the past, really, and I would go so far to say that out of my contemporary's, none... none of them has met with… no book of theirs has met with such a reception, though many of them have written excellent books and they've been well received, because this was a scandal and my whole education… nothing in my education prepared me to be a scandalous writer. I thought I was going to be a serious writer and I didn't… but the moment I became comical and free-wheeling in this way, I became a scandalous writer. And if certain Jewish organisations or eminent Jews had been irritated by Goodbye Columbus, this was a disaster in their terms. This was the… this was the anti-Semitic book to end all anti-Semitic books. Gershom Scholem, the... the Jewish scholar and who's now dead, denounced the book in the Haaretz, the Israeli paper, as the book that all the anti-Semites have been waiting for, for years.

So that was pretty much the tenor of the criticism. But... it hardly… it didn't get criticism only, it was... it was wildly received and made me so recognizable that I completely lost my anonymity in the street here in New York and after two or three months to about… two or three months after the publication, I left New York to avoid being so visible. I... I didn't like walking down the... street with people pointing at me or calling out to me, 'hey Portnoy', and so on. I didn't… I didn't like it, maybe I should have. And I was... I was thrilled to be successful in this way and the book became number one on the best seller list, but I was not thrilled to be visible in this way, and so I... I left and I really never… I really didn't return for 20 odd years.

The fame of the American writer Philip Roth (1933-2018) rested on the frank explorations of Jewish-American life he portrayed in his novels. There is a strong autobiographical element in much of what he wrote, alongside social commentary and political satire. Despite often polarising critics with his frequently explicit accounts of his male protagonists' sexual doings, Roth received a great many prestigious literary awards which include a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1997, and the 4th Man Booker International Prize in 2011.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Goodbye Columbus, Haaretz, New York, Gershom Scholem

Duration: 2 minutes, 56 seconds

Date story recorded: March 2011

Date story went live: 18 March 2013