September 22, 2008
Philip Roth: Patrimony
Occasionally – well, quite often, if I’m truthful – I have a sudden urge where I need to get a specific book, right now. A few months ago it was Philip Roth’s memoir of his father, Patrimony. I tried my local bookshops but without success. I ordered it online and clutched it with glee when it arrived. Then, in the usual fashion, I didn’t want to spoil the anticipation by reading it too soon and stuck it on my shelves.
Patrimony (1991) is subtitled A True Story, but we know Philip Roth too well to take such a claim at face value. His book Operation Shylock, subtitled A Confession and ostensibly a non-fiction account narrated by ‘Philip Roth,’ ends with a postscript: “This confession is false.” His autobiography The Facts is interrupted (and critiqued) by Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s fictional alter ego. We’re used to seeing Roth’s formidable literary muscle being flexed via complexity, reflexiveness, even something like postmodernism – so it’s extraordinary to see it being exercised in the service of something much more direct and simple, and retaining all its awesome power. This time, it really is true.
In 1988, when Roth was 55, his 86-year-old father Herman developed something which was initially diagnosed as Bell’s Palsy. “Look, count your blessings, the doctor said; except for a blind eye, a deaf ear, and a half-paralyzed face, he was as healthy as a man twenty years younger.” However, when a brain scan is carried out, and Roth sees the results before his father does, he is moved not just because of the inevitable presence of
the tumor invading the brain but simply because it was his brain, my father’s brain, what prompted him to think the blunt way he thought, speak the emphatic way he spoke, reason the emotional way he reasoned, decide the impulsive way he decided … and now it was being compressed and displaced and destroyed. … God’s will erupted out of a burning bush and, no less miraculously, Herman Roth’s had issued forth all these years from this bulbous organ.
This inspires a journey backward and forward, to his father’s past and his – not a spoiler, I think – short future. “He was still, systemically, a marvel, and therefore fated to be spared nothing.” The past begins with Roth’s mother’s death, seven years earlier, after which Herman embarrassed Roth and the funeral guests by spending the day clearing out her personal belongings: “They were all items for which my father could imagine no function now that she who had treasured them was gone.” Roth, despite his discomfort, sees something to admire in this, an example of his father’s “refusal to sidestep the most brutal of all facts.” It is a refusal which Roth has inherited, not least displayed in this volume. “He could be a pitiless realist, but I was not his offspring for nothing, and I could be pretty realistic too.”
Following his wife’s death, Herman begins to deteriorate at least socially, and Roth has to encourage him to live again, as well as to help him with his basic hygiene, and there is something extraordinary in reading of the great novelist scrubbing his father’s bathroom like, well, like a normal person. Then again, even he acknowledges, when standing over his mother’s grave, that “at a cemetery you are generally reminded of just how narrow and banal your thinking is on this subject.”
Patrimony is not without comedy or drama, and Roth cannot quite restrain his novelist’s skill at painting a scene. There is a skit where Roth poses as a psychiatrist to avoid the attentions of a volatile cab driver, but ends up ‘treating’ him (“You know something, Doc, my old man’s in his grave now without his four front teeth. I knocked ‘em out of his fucking mouth for him”), and there is a brilliantly funny set piece where Roth attends a string quartet recital with his father and elderly friends, in aid of the Jewish poor in Florida. After suffering a performance “as alarming as it was heroic, as though these four aging people were trying to push free a car that was mired in the mud,” the audience is frustrated time and again as they rise to go to the refreshment tables and are ushered back by the club president for the next movement. Eventually it ends.
“Bravo! Bravo!” The applause had turned into a rhythmic pounding with wild overtones of a kind you couldn’t have imagined emanating from this temperate crowd, but their relief at being sprung was that great. The applause was loudest from those who had bounded out of their seats and were already lined up two deep in front of the refreshment table. “Bravo!”
On it went until, in a triumphant voice, the president announced above the tumult, “Ladies and gentlemen! Ladies and gentlemen! Good news! The artists are going to give you an encore!”
I thought there would be a riot. I thought plates would go sailing through the air from the direction of the refreshment table. I thought somebody might just walk up and put a foot through the cello.
Much of the book, however, concerns the literal life or death decisions that come from long conversations with specialists. Roth is perpetually horrified by the various expectations the doctors have of his father: that he can withstand an eight hour operation, two eight hour operations, two, three or four months’ convalescence, learning to walk again. When one consultant tells Roth that what he has in mind for his father is “a routine operation,” Roth “had thought, ‘Sure it is – routine for you.’”
[My father] managed to take that in without flinching, which was better than I did. Eight to ten hours, then five to six days, and what would he be worth after that? After the impoverished childhood and the limited education, after the failure of the shoe store and the frozen food business, after the struggle to gain a managerial role in the teeth of the Metropolitan’s Jewish quotas, after the premature deaths of so many loved ones … after all that he had weathered and survived without bitterness or brokenness or despair, wasn’t eight to ten hours of brain surgery really asking too much? Isn’t there a limit?
The answer is yes, yes absolutely, yes to the thousandth degree – this was asking too much. To “Isn’t there a limit?” the answer is no.
Roth is unsentimental in his portrait of his father – stubborn, unseeing, cruel to Lil, the woman he later shared his life with – but also understanding of his need to reminisce all the time, everywhere they go.
You mustn’t forget anything – that’s the inscription on his coat of arms. To be alive, to him, is to be made of memory – to him if a man’s not made of memory, he’s made of nothing.
This takes forms which we might not and yet – given Roth’s fictional interests – might well expect of him. Helping his father in the bath, he can’t help noticing his penis.
I looked at it intently, as though for the very first time, and waited on the thoughts. But there weren’t any more, except my reminding myself to fix it in my memory for when he was dead. It might prevent him from becoming ethereally attenuated as the years went by.
Roth has done his father justice, and done him proud – and if he himself comes out of it pretty well (the dedicated son, the worried carer, the fixer of memory) then so be it. I was reading my copy on a plane, stuck on the tarmac as a thunderstorm raged overhead, and I had my mini Ikea pencil for marking notable passages jammed in an awkward pocket. It was so much trouble to fish it out each time, and I fished it out with such frequency because it all was so quotable, that in the end I kept it out, clutched like a cigarette as I marked one joyous paragraph after another of this sombre and lively and brilliant book.
“I must remember accurately,” I told myself, “remember everything accurately so that when he is gone I can re-create the father who created me.” You must not forget anything.