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Beginning With Portnoy

December 10, 1989|Jack Miles

Last Tuesday, Odeon, a leading Czechoslovak publishing house, announced that it would begin publishing once-banned writers. At the top of the Czech list stand the collected essays of Vaclav Havel. At the top of the foreign list, as the first banned American book to be released in Czech translation, stands Philip Roth's 1969 novel,"Portnoy's Complaint."

Dissident Czech writers often have satirized Soviet sexual puritanism, and Roth's savagely comic monologue is a protracted offense against such puritanism. There are other reasons than that one, however, for his selection as the first American novelist of free Czechoslovakia.

Roth is the editor of "Writers From the Other Europe," the Penguin series of Eastern European translations. He was an early champion of the work of Milan Kundera, notably in a 1975 issue of Esquire that introduced the Czech novelist to American readers. In various ways, Roth has built the memory of Franz Kafka, the greatest of Prague's Jewish writers, into his own work. His Zuckerman trilogy ends with a long epilogue entitled "The Prague Orgy."

Reacting to the news that, after a full generation of delay, his 1969 best seller is about to appear in Prague, Portnoy's creator said to a Times reporter: "Now vee may perhaps to begin--yes?"

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