John Walsh: 'I was defending the most testosterone-fuelled bloke in 20th-century literature'

Tales of the City

Related Topics

Some works of literature are familiar to readers for only one detail, or line: Many know Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, not for the climactic redemption scene, but for the stage direction, "Exit pursued by a bear." War veterans may know nothing of Milton's works, but they'll know his sonnet "On His Blindness" for its final line, "They also serve who only stand and wait." The Victorian "novel of sensation", East Lynne by Ellen Wood, is known only for the line, "Dead! Dead! And never called me mother!" which didn't appear in the original book, only in a stage adaptation.

Last Saturday, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, I found myself in a heavyweight debate, featuring a classic only-one-thing-known-about-it book. The event was a spoof Booker Prize, in which a panel of bookish geniuses, ahem, discuss what novel should have won the prize in a certain year, eg, 1848: would it have been Vanity Fair, Wuthering Heights or Dombey and Son? We were discussing 1969. I was singing the virtues of Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint against the considerable firepower of Kate Adie (supporting Graham Greene's Travels With My Aunt,) Mary Beard, professor of Classics at Oxford, on The French Lieutenant's Woman, and The Times' formidably clever literary editor, Erica Wagner, on Margaret Atwood's first novel The Edible Woman.

Three books, then, about a Woman, a Woman and an Aunt, plus a fourth, about a Bloke – perhaps the most egregiously testosterone-fuelled bloke in 20th-century literary history. Alexander Portnoy is a morally focussed, 33-year-old Commissioner for Human Opportunity in the City of New York, a doughty champion of the oppressed. But he can't maintain a dignified grown-up liberal-activist stance for long without the memory of his Jewish mother driving him nuts with her possessive nuttiness.

As though in retaliation, the teenage Portnoy becomes a compulsive, and inventive, masturbator: he forgets himself with a baseball, with intimate garments from the family laundry, with a cored apple – and a pound of liver he buys for the family's supper.

That's the one detail everyone remembers, or knows, about the book. I could go on until dawn about Roth's hilarious take on non-Jewish culture, the problem with non-Jewish girlfriends and the trauma of visiting Israel – but it wouldn't make a difference. Everyone knows Portnoy's Complaint is about some awful Yank (perhaps not le mot juste here) jerking off into butcher's-shop offal, and that's all they'll ever want to know about it.

"Tell me it's not true, John," Professor Beard said, when we met in the Green Room. "Tell me not all men are like that." I tried to explain that Portnoy is a character, not an actual trembling-handed bloke in the street, and that in fiction you're allowed to ... But I'd lost her. Kate Adie shuddered with distaste about Portnoy's teenage hobby – ignoring the character's more considered relationships – and praised the Lord it could never be filmed (it was, by Ernest Lehman in 1972). The audience was asked to vote for what the outcome would be. Most voted for John Fowles or Graham Greene; a mere smattering of hands was raised for Portnoy, as though we were a conspiracy of furtive manipulators, sharing a grubby secret.

I ranted about the book's humour, satire, political rage and social embarrassment, but it was hopeless. Mary Beard shook her head at my becoming a prey to such filth. Kate Adie regarded me sternly as if it were a disgusting phase I was going through. The audience sounded as if, like Robert Benchley, they wouldn't mind meeting the author of Portnoy but they sure as hell didn't want to shake his hand.

Then the damnedest thing happened. Erica Wagner (a New Yorker) decided the Atwood novel was too amateurish, and thought Portnoy should win because it was funny and clever and a real achievement. I blinked to find that anyone (or do I mean "any woman"?) was able to see beyond the handjobs and the liver. And for the rest of the debate we sat there, Erica and I, fighting off the opposition. The audience's final vote elicited about five votes for Portnoy. Prof Beard stuck with The French Lieutenant, Ms Adie stuck with Travels With My Aunt – and the Portnoy faction won the debate, in the teeth of the audience's disapproval. It was a notable victory. But I was amazed nobody hurled the inner organs of beasts and fowls at us, as we left.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML, CSS, SQL

£39000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML,...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey


Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Day In a Page

Read Next
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

I saw the immigration lies a mile off - and now nobody can deny it

Nigel Farage
The Uber app allows passengers to hail a taxi with a smartphone  

Who wouldn’t like a sharing economy? Well, me, for one

Mary Dejevsky
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game