June 2020

Noted

‘The Trials of Portnoy’ by Patrick Mullins

By Sean O’Beirne
Cover of ‘The Trials of Portnoy’
The finely detailed story of the legal fight in Australia against the censorship of Philip Roth’s ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’

When Philip Roth’s novel Portnoy’s Complaint was first published in the United States in 1969, it really did, as they say, “cause a sensation”. After just one week it was a nationwide bestseller, and The New York Timesdescribed it as “potentially monumental in effect”. This was because the book – told in the form of a long confession to a psychoanalyst – let loose a near-incredible amount of exuberant and anguished truth about sex. Poor Alexander Portnoy longs to get away from the rules and restrictions, the orthodoxies, that They – family, community, religion – always try to make about sex, or about anything. But as soon as he tries to take more pleasure, he finds it horribly hard to keep enough control over himself, and feels a desperate need to go back, to be with the family, the community, again. (“Dignity! Health! Love! Industry! … What the hell do I care about sensational sex?”) And Roth delivered all this complaint, this sad and comic permanent human trouble, in a language that was sometimes like what you’d ordinarily get in a novel, and sometimes in language that was the opposite. (“Doctor … they all have cunts! Cunts—for fucking!”) 

And you may well imagine what happened when a load of that landed in Australia, at a time when culture in this country was still controlled by old, conservative Protestant and Catholic “family men”. Patrick Mullins’ new book, The Trials of Portnoy (Scribe), tells the true story of how Portnoy’s Complaint was declared illegal throughout the Commonwealth, and how, eventually, it became a book we were allowed to own and read. Mullins is shrewd about the whole long history of Australian over-censorship, and why we, predominantly a group of white Britons down the bottom of Asia, were so obsessed with staying “clean”, and so frightened of losing social and sexual control. (We ran an embarrassingly strict system, banning everything from Balzac’s novels to The Catcher in the Rye.) But Mullins also shows how we started to say, more and more: please, let literature free. Let us have it. Let literature be a way to properly recognise what is always in the human, any human.

By the end of 1970, Portnoy’s Complaint was banned in almost every state, and, at long last, quite large parts of the Australian business and professional establishment had had enough. Mullins tells exactly how Penguin Australia made a secret plan to print the book, get it to booksellers and out on sale, before the vice squads even knew what was happening. And, in a series of particularly well-researched, finely detailed chapters, Mullins takes us into the courtrooms in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and Tasmania, where one thunderous prosecutor after another fought and fought to keep Roth’s book forbidden. Mullins brings off the job of keeping enough suspense in a story where you know what the end is going to be. The real treat of The Trials of Portnoy though, is to see how many people were willing to stand up in court and make the always difficult argument for literature. The defendants at the Portnoy trials argued that the book should be permitted because it had “literary merit”: it wasn’t good, or needed, just because it told a bunch about sex, but because it also told enough of what can be frightening, even tragic, in pleasure. Fifty years later, in a very different world, a world of trolls and memes, fake news and Pornhub, we need every chance we can get to think again about pleasure, and restraint; what literature does; what good culture is, and isn’t. The unexpected lesson of the fight for Portnoy, and of this book, is that all those trials were as much an argument for self-control, self-examination, as they were for any kind of freedom.

Sean O’Beirne

Sean O’Beirne is a bookseller and critic, and the author of the short fiction collection A Couple of Things Before the End.

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