Portnoy’s Complaint – Giving My Opinion Even Though I Wasn’t Asked For It

Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, published in 1969, is the story of Jewish American bachelor Alex Portnoy, as told in a long, intense monologue, apparently to a therapist. The therapist is effectively invisible, saying nothing, serving as a device to let Portnoy talk. Sometimes a book allows you to identify with a central character. Since, in this case, the reader is identified with a silent therapist, there’s a feeling of being separate from the narrative, listening to this intense individual talking in ruthless detail about his Jewish childhood and subsequent relationship history.

So what did I learn through my patient listening? There was some interesting stuff. Identity was a big thing. Much of the book is informed by what is to be Jewish, even though it’s also about trying to escape such labels. If I could get a word in edgeways I would have said that was interesting.

Even more interesting was the idea of guilt. Alex lives in a society which trains you to be obedient through arbitrary rules, often dietary. The idea is that when the time comes to follow rules that are really important, you’ll be ready. But by then you’ve been so confused by arbitrary regulations, and so bruised by capricious punishment, that it’s hard to tell the difference between valid and ridiculous restrictions.

So, that was thought-provoking. But why am I saying these things? This narrator wasn’t waiting for me to say anything. I was there to listen, not offer an opinion. That summed up a feeling around the book that I didn’t enjoy. Portnoy was so self involved. On one occasion he is amazed that a young woman is upset when he breaks up with her, because it’s really only his feelings that count. You can enjoy the quick-fire anecdotes, and laugh at the scandalous humour, but after a while you want to put the book down and talk to someone less self centred – someone who might actually ask your opinion:

“How’s that Philip Roth book you’re reading?”

“Well, thanks for asking. In my view, it’s funny, unsettling, sometimes nauseating, often interesting, and highly self regarding.”

V2 By Robert Harris – Novelists And Rocket Scientists

This book is an account of the development and use of Germany’s V2 missiles during World War Two. The story is told through the eyes of a pair of fictional characters; Rudi Graf, a senior German engineer supervising V2 launches against London from forests in the Netherlands; and Kay Caton-Walsh, a young WAAF officer, involved in an effort to trace V2 launch sites by calculating the missiles’ trajectory. The book’s action only coincides with a few months towards the end of the war, but through Graf’s memories we witness the whole of V2’s history. His recollections begin poignantly with a group of 1930s, sci-fi loving students flying rockets from waste ground near Berlin. The fun ends when the military come calling. Money and facilities are on offer, because rockets could make missiles. The group’s leader Wernher Von Braun, judges that working with the military is a price worth paying as a stepping stone to eventually building a rocket that can reach the moon. The V2 is his reward. But the price is appalling, in terms of money, but more importantly in terms of lives lost – thousands of people died building the thing, twice as many in fact, as died because of the weapon’s use. The book continues to the war’s end, when the German V2 engineers give themselves up to the Allies, and negotiate their subsequent lives building rockets for the American military and NASA’s space program.

So this is a book about lost innocence and awful compromise, where decent people end up doing bad things. There are a lot of contradictions like that. We get the situation of Kay, for example, who as a woman can only observe the big world of major decisions and seemingly significant acts. Even though she is in the RAF, a bone shaking flight to Belgium where the Air Force has its V2 tracking operation, is her first time in an aircraft. And yet her quiet calculations are as vital as the firing of any gun.

A similar ambivalence surrounds the V2 itself, which cost so much in terms of money, lives and energy, and yet in some ways was not significant historically. At vast expense, it could only carry one ton of explosives, whereas a much cheaper British bomber could carry six tons – and thousands of those bombers flew over German cities every night in the latter part of the war. But just to add another layer of contradiction, the V2 did influence developments in weapons and space travel in a hugely significant way after the war.

This brings me to the most striking contrast in the book, the one between exact mathematics, which go into building or tracking V2s, and all the chaos surrounding them. Both Graf and Kay find relief from their wartime lives in the reassuringly exact numbers of their work. And yet in other circumstances numbers are not so comforting. There’s a mathematical-like ruthlessness to Von Braun’s calculations about what compromises he has to make to get his rocket built, for example.

Now I’m going to make a claim for this book, which I don’t make lightly, because fancy claims can easily crash to Earth in an embarrassing manner. But in my opinion this book is a fascinating argument for what novels have to contribute. A novelist cannot make a rocket fly, or track one in flight, but a novel is much better at accommodating contradiction than maths. Novels are good at ambivalence – a novel can even portray maths as ambivalent. In life things are rarely one thing or another, as we see at the end of the book when former combatants from different sides meet to talk. There’s even a hint of romance between Kay and Graf! A novel won’t offer the analytic geometry necessary to get to the moon, but it will offer a little moonlight, softening hard lines – and maybe we need more of that.

Pale Fire – An Internet Rabbit Hole From 1962

Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov’s 1962 novel, is also the name of an autobiographical poem the book contains, by fictional academic and poet John Shade – a moving and humorous piece, which sets reflections on mortality alongside riffs about such topics as Gillette razor advertising. Following John Shade’s death, Pale Fire, the poem, falls into the hands of Charles Kimbote, the unfortunate poet’s neighbour, who has arrived from an imaginary east European country, called Zembla, to teach at the local university. Kimbote holes up in a motel where he works on an annotated version of Pale Fire. Through a series of bizarre and misguided factual associations, he attempts to show how the poem reflects much of his own life.

I read Pale Fire as a Kindle edition, and I’m not the first to see that the book is similar to a web document. Taking the form of a commentary, there are naturally many links jumping between poem and explanatory notes. Kimbote careers around his own self-centred web of crazy connections. His thought process is reminiscent of one of those internet algorithmic cul-de-sacs that can take personal quirks and prejudices and turn them into a firm belief in a flat Earth or the evils of 5G.

Using an older analogy you could say that Pale Fire is like a hall of mirrors. But we shouldn’t forget that both internet and hall of mirrors can be a source of fun. So it is fitting that Pale Fire has some very funny sections – such as the account of an assassination attempt where an incompetent hit-man has to keep interrupting the business of assassination to deal with severe diarrhoea.

If you want to have fun, and learn a few things about truth and delusion, I highly recommend Pale Fire. It’s beautifully written, whether dealing with the common place or the elevated. It’s also strangely modern, seemingly waiting for the internet to really show its potential.