1994: An Insane Premise

Portnoys Complaint (1972) Richard Benjamin and DP Barnes

In an afterword to the 25th anniversary edition of Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth tells a story about the first lines of his novels. When he was living in Chicago in the late 1950’s, he says, he once went to a cafeteria to splurge on a roast beef dinner. Arriving at his table, he found a sheet of paper “that a previous diner had forgotten or left behind”:

Typewritten on the paper, in the form of a long single-spaced unindented paragraph, were nineteen sentences that taken together made no sense at all. Though no author’s name appeared anywhere on either the front of the back of the page, I figured that the nineteen sentences, amounting to some four hundred or so words, must be the work of a neighborhood avant-gardist with an interest in “experimental” or “automatic” writing. This page was surely a sample of one or the other. The author’s having forgotten this composition here at the cafeteria—while trying perhaps not to forget to remember to leave with his or her own umbrella—did not seem to me a catastrophe for literature or even for a literary career.

Here is what was written on the single sheet of paper:

The first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses. Dear Gabe, The drugs help me bend my fingers around a pen. Not to be rich, not to be famous, not to be mighty, not even to be happy, but to be civilized—that was the dream of his life. She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise. Sir, I want to congratulate you for coming out on April for the sanctity of human life, including the life of the yet unborn. It began oddly. Call me Smitty. Far from being the classic period of explosion and tempestuous growth, my adolescence was more or less a period of suspended animation. Temptation comes to me first in the conspicuous personage of Herbie Bratasky, social director, bandleader, crooner, comic, and m.c. of my family’s mountainside resort hotel. First, foremost, the puppyish, protected upbringing above his father’s shoe store in Camden. It was the last daylight hour of a December afternoon more than twenty years ago—I was twenty-three, writing and publishing my first short stories, and like many a Bildungsroman hero before me, already contemplating my own massive Bildungsroman—when I arrived at his hideaway to meet the great man. “What the hell are you doing on a bus, with your dough?” When he is sick, every man wants his mother; if she’s not around, other women must do. “Your novel,” he says, “is absolutely one of the five or six books of my life.” Ever since the family doctor, during a routine checkup, discovered an abnormality on his EKG and he went in overnight for the coronary catheterization that revealed the dimensions of the disease, Henry’s condition had been successfully treated with drugs, enabling him to work and carry on his life at home exactly as before. Dear Zuckerman, In the past, as you know, the facts have always been notebook jottings, my way of springing into fiction. “I’ll write them down. You begin.” My father had lost most of the sight in his right eye by the time he’d reached eighty-six, but otherwise he seemed in phenomenal health for a man his age when he came down with what the Florida doctor diagnosed, incorrectly, as Bell’s palsy, a viral infection that causes paralysis, usually temporary, to one side of the face. For legal reasons, I have had to alter a number of facts in this book.

I came to realize what would surely have been obvious at the outset to anyone less well-trained—or perhaps less poorly trained—in the art of thinking than I was back then. I saw that these sentences, as written, had nothing to do with one another. I saw that if ever a unifying principle were to be discernable in the paragraph it would have to be imposed from without rather than unearthed from within.

What I eventually understood was that these were the first lines of the books that it had fallen to me to write.

Please don’t ask me to defend the notion that I carried away from that piece of paper at the age of twenty-three…I am even willing to concede that my conclusion was completely mistaken and my whole career has been grounded in a baseless premise. An idiotic premise. An insane premise.

Well, whether it was or wasn’t my job to do, the job is now completed. For better or for worse, wisely or stupidly, I did it. The books that, according to my lights, had necessarily to follow from each of those sentences are finished and done with. There is now a little red checkmark beside every single sentence on that piece of paper whose existence I have never before disclosed to anyone and which I have kept securely hidden all these years in a safe deposit box in my bank.

Free at last. Or that’s what I would probably be tempted to think if I were either starting out all over again or dead.

These are in fact the first lines of Roth’s nineteen books up to the point of writing the afterword:

1. Goodbye, Columbus (1959)
2. Letting Go (1962)
3. When She Was Good (1967)
4. Portnoy’s Complaint (1969)
5. Our Gang (1971)
6. The Breast (1972)
7. The Great American Novel (1973)
8. My Life as a Man (1974)
9. Reading Myself and Others (1975)
10. The Professor of Desire (1977)
11. The Ghost Writer (1979)
12. Zuckerman Unbound (1981)
13. The Anatomy Lesson (1983)
14. The Prague Orgy (1985)
15. The Counterlife (1986)
16. The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography (1988)
17. Deception (1990)
18. Patrimony: A True Story (1991)
19. Operation Shylock (1993)

Image: Richard Benjamin and D.P. Barnes in the 1972 film version of Portnoy’s Complaint.

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