The Trials of Portnoy
It’s instructive to remember what a relatively illiberal society Australia was only a few decades ago and this account of the obscenity court cases about Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint in the early 1970s – written by a young author who wrote a much-praised biography of Billy McMahon – is a good reminder of this. When Gough Whitlam came in, everything changed so that Australians saw a fuller version, say, of Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris than the British, but the period was a crossroads.
In 1970 John Gorton – who had his affinities with Whitlam – was in power, Tom Hughes was attorney-general and Don Chipp was the guy in charge of overseeing what we could see and read. This group of politicians were from the left of the Liberal Party but they had to maintain an outmoded system of censorship. In those days you could be a young lefty, sexually restless and fluid, and not have taken much notice of the Portnoy trials. There are distant memories instead of the tour-de-force wanking descriptions – of which the book largely consists – being read aloud with glee and bravura.
It’s sobering for literary people to reflect that if they had been a bit older they might have been drawn into all this witnessing to the literary merit of Roth’s novel. So many of our elders and teachers were there. The poet professor Vincent Buckley, sneering at that man of the sorrowful countenance, the eminent historian Manning Clark. Fay Zwicky in Western Australia, and in both the Melbourne and Sydney phases a superbly measured Patrick White, with black overcoat, homburg and scathing authority.
The hero of this story though is John Michie, the then 34-year-old head of Penguin. Michie, with the strong support of Graham C. Greene in Britain – the head of Jonathan Cape and nephew of the novelist – executed the coup of printing and selling 100,000 copies of Roth’s seriocomic wankfest. It was a brilliant strategy and a very deliberate provocation. Michie, a handsome, brilliant literary warrior, said of Chipp, “I have a feeling that he would have liked to release the work.” But when the liberal Liberal – who would go on to be the first leader of the Democrats – confronted him over a table, Chipp said, “I’ll see you in jail for this, Michie.”
At the first trial Patrick White was superb. When asked what he knew about English literature, he said, “Well, I have been reading it all my life.” Hilary McPhee recalled, “He knew exactly what he was saying. He spoke slowly and he didn’t mock the questions. He answered them with great deliberation.” The soon-to-be Nobel prize-winning author of Voss and The Tree of Man feared his admission that he found the book funny might do harm but it did no such thing. He emphasised that he himself used four-letter words around the house to let off steam.
The judge’s verdict in Melbourne was Janus-faced, like everything else about these trials. He said it did “offend against [the values of] the ordinary man” but that with “no evidence to support a contrary view” he was “satisfied that the book had literary merit”. So although he found that the publication was not justified, the penalty of a $100 fine and $4.50 in court costs was not going to break the Penguin bank.
The next of the book’s trials, in Sydney, yields a wonderful moment when the prosecutor, Robert Vine-Hall, is cross-examining Professor H. W. Piper of Macquarie University’s English department and cites Portnoy declaring, when he’s damaged a light globe as a consequence of his tremendous spurt, that he was “the Raskolnikov of jerking off”. “Who on earth, Professor,” the prosecutor thunders, illuminating nothing but his innocence about the most famous thriller ever written, Crime and Punishment, “is Raskolnikov?” And what, Vine-Hall asks with crowning self-parody, did he have to do with light globes?
The Trials of Portnoy is full of the juice and drama and hilarity of the courtroom. In Western Australia, Ian Viner – who went on to be minister for Aboriginal Affairs under Fraser – appears for the Crown and says that he realised all he could do was try to shake the expert evidence as to merit. On the witness stand Dorothy Hewett, poet and dramatist, says the book should teach Australian prudes how to be honest with themselves.
At the next phase of the Sydney trial the future Sir William Deane appears for Penguin with the thoughtful clarity of one of nature’s Christians. The prosecution is represented by P. J. “Jack” Kenny, who David Marr is quoted as saying had a voice and delivery like “this great nasal Australian artillery … designed to cut witnesses down to size”, as Kenny’s finger jabbed with aggressive contempt. The upshot of this trial is that the jury cannot agree. Then the same thing happens next time round and Don Chipp realises the game is up.
Patrick Mullins has written an utterly diverting account of a bit of ancient Australian literary history. Early on he cites A. A. Phillips saying that the real horror with Australian censorship was the literary onanisms and abortions the policy engendered – the books not written, the passages not included. This may be true, though the generation before the coming of the censorship thaw produced Stead, White and Boyd, who don’t exactly pull their punches and who can outshine their less put-upon successors.
But The Trials of Portnoy is a superb bringing-to-life of a time now dead, when there was a ripening of Australian culture and an expansion in which Gorton and Chipp played their part, along with Whitlam. A national mood changed. It did not necessarily lead to greater art and literature but it did lead to more of it and it came with a particular Australian self-confidence, even cockiness.
One thing that may come with Mullins’ age – and which is just a little disconcerting – is that he doesn’t seem remotely concerned with literary merit in itself, considering it a quaint archaism that simply served as a pretext for releasing the massive jerkoff. Both legally and liberally this is at once shrewd and shameless. Something need not be art to be permissible. Yes, but this literary paganism, this absence of reverence, does come with a loss. Or doesn’t it?
Scribe, 336pp, $35
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 20, 2020 as "Patrick Mullins, The Trials of Portnoy".
During the final week of the election campaign we are unlocking all of our journalism. A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.
Letters & Editorial