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.


  1. Well it is a tremendous book, Rob! Yes, I did see that interview. Something slightly shifty in McCrum’s style, I thought. But for an interview-shy author, Roth doesn’t half seem to be doing the rounds – this is the third UK interview I’ve seen for Indignation (reviews of which so far I haven’t found enormously tempting), after Radio 3 and the Independent.

    If you have the time and inclination, I strongly recommend this interview with Roth by Hermione Lee in the Observer last year, for Exit Ghost. Lee is Roth’s authorised biographer (whether the book will appear in his lifetime I don’t know) and they clearly have a rapport which McCrum doesn’t.

  2. I know the feeling of needing a certain book immediately. In my case it would never be a Philip Roth book. I can’t stand him.

    To continue our recent political discussion a bit, and to give you an idea of what life is like in the heartland of the U.S.A., this past weekend I discovered that good friends, my idiot brother and many others I would have thought better of are planning on voting for McCain. Some of the people in our lovely heartland who were undecided are now planning on voting for McCain because “Palin’s hot”. What a country.

    I would ask you to pray for us but I am an atheist.

  3. Thanks Linda. As I mentioned to Rob above, I’m probably going to skip Indignation for now as most have agreed with your assessment. In any event I’ve plenty of Roth backlist to keep me going, including I Married a Communist, which will probably be my next one after The Counterlife – I’m trying to go through the Zuckerman books in order, but have already read American Pastoral (which would otherwise come between those two chronologically).

    So as I don’t want to read any spoilers, and as you’ve upped your rating of the book since then, I’ll skip your review for now, and take it with a pinch of salt when I do read it. 😉

  4. The review that Linda provided is the same one that we looked at on Trevor’s site ( in the discussion about American Pastoral — as I said then, I think it is a very good, critical, but accurate overview of Roth. If she hasn’t seen the discussion, she should drop in on it, because it morphed into a look at why all the “best U.S. author” lists have so few females on them, a subject indirectly addressed in the review. I’d love to see her thoughts on what, to date, has been an all male discussion on Trevor’s site. We have been having a tough time coming up with female novelists who are in the first rank — something that I don’t think is the case in either the U. K. or Canada (where we may have a tough time getting names of living male novelists into the first rank).

    My mother died in February and my mother-in-law last month — so this particular book is one Roth I think I will leave for a year or two. The review serves me just fine for now.

    Indignation raises other issues for me. It does seem that established authors (MacEwan, Byatt, Atwood) are now writing quick-to-market (coda is a nice choice, kiss off might be more grumpy) books that I can’t help but think are designed to exploit the market. I would exempt Bennett, because he only writes short books. I do feel that as a book buyer, I am being taking advantaged of with this practice. I have nothing against short books — it just looks to me that some authors, their agents and publishers are looking for an easy hit. I would be happy to be disabused of that cynical impression.

  5. I think that Roth’s great, overlooked work is Sabbath’s Theater, his first post Zuckerman. For me it’s a toss up between this and American Pastoral.

    As for why no great women American novelists, I have some thoughts on that.

  6. I went through a period of obsession with Philip Roth, he is such an interesting and raw writer. I agree with Linda about ‘Sabbath’s Theater’. The energy and exhaustion of that work is incredible. He is one of those writers that I accept purely on his own terms; even when there are flaws that I sense in this or that novel, they never detract from the work, never detract from my eagerness to place each individual work in the context of his artistic journey over the last four decades, to trace his fascinating development, it never detracts from my willingness to accept the reading contract on his terms, to trust him to engage me as he sees fit to, past the mechanisms and contrivances of that thing called ‘The Novel’. I find his writing to be that compelling.

    I have to mention ‘The Counterlife’ and ‘Operation Shylock’ as well as being amongst his finest, most original and restless work. Restlessness is what gives his writing such energy, I feel. This great, burlesque, ceaseless literary restlessness, this unceasing literary imagination in revolt against itself, against the body, against all things here and there.

    I’m fascinated by his background too; how he and Saul Bellow and other writers, sons or grandsons of Jewish immigrants, were able to bend the American novel into their shape, their narratives and concerns became the open eye and open arms of post war American literature. I wonder about the British novel, where this restless energy could come from, if this could be a template amongst the descendants of immigrants or others who feel this traction between themselves and their society – but this is just thinking too deeply. With this body of writing you can just put it down to a simple thing, that in Roth there is a reckless writer of such energy, consideration and endless obsession and examination. It’s so easy to get lost in his writing. What a talent he is.

  7. I absolutely agree with Paul, that you just have to take Roth on his own terms. Which is why I accept his misogyny.

    On why there seem to be no British equivalents, I think it is down to something Roth said himself: that Jews, along with Italians and Irish, had played their part in the formation of the national identity. In Britain the national identity was formed before any large scale immigration. You are (I am) always knocking against that identity. America is a continent of immigration, Roth, Bellow, Malamud etc wrote its literary history because they were immigrants.

    Incidentally, part of the difficulty I have faced in finding a US publisher, currently being rectified, is that they are not interested in British Jews because ‘we have our own Jews’ and Britain is simply associated with a different literary form. Our ancestors are Greene and Waugh and if you don’t write in that tradition, you don’t fit in anywhere.

  8. I’m with Linda as well: Sabbath’s Theater is his best — a long rant that never feels like a trudge and it’s so affecting. But American Pastoral is the one I reread the most.

  9. (wistfully) Oh yes, I remember. You’ve brought it all back to me John. As you say, to have a novelists skill brought to a memoir makes for a rich and rewarding read. John Burnside, whom we have commented on in the past, also wrote a great memoir ‘A Lie About My Father’, which is filled with brutality and compassion. Allan Seager, (who you can read about here: wrote a book called ‘A Frieze of Girls: memoir as fiction’ which is filled with great humour. Both books tap into that idea about the unreliability of memory and how all memoir has an element of fiction to it.

  10. Linda, I’d love to get your views about U.S. women authors. As Kevin indicated, after I posted a review on American Pastoral we started asking where these authors were. We can come up with names, but none that we’d say are top rank. They all seem to have passed with the first-half of the 20th Century in my mind. Here’s the post: Roth Discussion.

  11. Very interesting Linda. It seems to me that there was a receptive space for writers like Roth, because American literature has always had a tradition of declarations of independence, from Walt Whitman onwards, it has partly been concerned with defining a difference between America and the old world, of apprehending the sense of what America is, and so when Roth, Bellow and others came along, their impulse to re-imagine themselves through their reconfiguring of the American novel found echoes in one of the most basic impulses of American literature itself.

    I just wonder though, if this traction, this friction that arises between the sons and daughters of immigrants and the identity of Britain will produce writers as ambitious in scope, paying as much attention to form and newness as writers like Roth and others did in America. I think it was Martin Amis who said in an interview about Saul Bellow, that the Jewish American novel as an important phenomenon in the history of the English language novel is over, because of assimilation. If they don’t let you in, tear down the walls with your originality.

    Linda, when you say “our ancestors are Greene and Waugh and if you don’t write in that tradition, you don’t fit in anywhere” — isn’t part of the challenge to make a space for yourself, to find a space of your own, to initiate your own house in this tradition?

    I can’t help feeling that restlessness of Roth comes partly from this impulse, and in his late period now, it all resonates on the level of the body, ‘the dying animal’, a rage against death, both physical, and the death of possibility. That first howl of Portnoy was from the sense of a life of possibility being denied by family and traditional expectation.

    This is quite a schematic idea though, that originality arises from opposition and social experience. Roth’s writing provokes this kind of thinking, first of all because of his talent. He is a ‘living’ author, in as much as his writing has this kind of life, it has consequences and questions.

  12. When I said that ‘you don’t fit in anywhere’, I meant in the minds of people in publishing who are looking for a certain type of British fiction which is in that literary tradition, which I’m not, and are not interested in the British Jewish experience because they feel they have that base covered.

    My last novel, Still Here, was written as a way of creating a Rothian female character with all that rage and sexual energy. Although very well reviewed in Britain, it did not do well in terms of sales and could not find an American publisher.

    Another issue of course, is that more women than men read fiction, but while women read fiction by both men and women men generally read fiction only by men.

    But I agree in general with what you say about Roth.

  13. ==

    “I meant in the minds of people in publishing who are looking for a certain type of British fiction which is in that literary tradition”


    I get you, the old tale of publisher fetishisizing and lazy eyes, and not being able to see what is in front of them.

    John, you just activated my Philip Roth Hadron Collider which had been dormant for the last year or two. I just ordered Exit Ghost from Amazon to respond to this switch, funny how that happens with some writers. Get yourself a copy of Sabbath’s Theater, it’s filthy and brilliant.

  14. For a female American novelist coming from the same immigrant Jewish tradition, what about Cynthia Ozick? She’s practically unknown in the UK, and I’ve only read a little of her, but The Shawl put me in mind of Roth, and indeed she’s broadly his and Bellow’s contemporary (a little older than Roth and a little younger than Bellow). I’ve since picked up her novels The Puttermesser Papers and The Bear Boy (US title: Heir to the Glimmering World) as well as her collected stories. I am to read more of her soon.

    As to Sabbath’s Theater, I suspect I would agree with the praise if I read it now. Unfortunately it was the first Roth I read, a dozen years ago, and I had not acquired the taste. Sabbath is hardcore Roth – literally – and not for beginners. Frankly, I hated it. But I very strongly suspect I would love it now, and no doubt will find out soon enough.

    Kevin, your point about established novelists knocking out quickies (as it were) may have some merit. I’ve no doubt they’re under pressure from their publishers to produce regular content – if you look at McEwan, what popular novelist let alone a ‘literary’ one can expect to sell 100,000 copies in hardback? Then again, as writers of integrity and – yes – no little wealth, they should be able to resist such overtures. Roth has spoken of the desire to write something longer again, as his last three books and his next (The Humbling, I believe) are relatively short. As we know from Patrimony, his father was in his mid-80s and still hale and hearty, so why not start something that will take a few years? Plus he’s always saying in interview how he hates beginning a new book.

  15. Oh and William – funnily enough, I have Burnside’s A Lie About My Father which I bought a few weeks ago on the recommendation of Quink, a sometime commenter on this blog. Post-Patrimony, I’m interested in other books about fatherhood, and also picked up Auster’s The Invention of Solitude at the weekend. Any other recommendations welcome.

    And welcome, nicknick, and thanks for your comment – the idea of re-reading Roth seems delicious to me, but I’ve too much of his stuff to get through first time yet…

    1. Hi John,

      I just came across your great site while researching Patrimony and responses to it. If you are still interested in good books written by sons about their fathers, you might check out the following: List of Favourite Matremoirs and Patremoirs (more or less in order of preference)

      1) Patrimony by Philip Roth
      2) Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
      3) Father and Son by Edmund Gosse
      4) Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
      5) There is a Season by Patrick Lane
      6) Maus by Art Spiegelman
      7) Swing Low by Miriam Toews
      8) The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search for Her Father by Mary Gordon
      9) The Measure of A Man by J.J. Lee
      10) My Father’s Fortune by Michael Frayn
      11) I Had A Father: A Post-modern Autobiography by Clark Blaise
      12) The Invention of Solitude by Paul Auster

      I would also add Raymond Gaita’s Romulus, My Father to that list. For more thoughts about my favorites you can visit blog #87 on my Patremoir Press website, and if you want as thorough a list of father or mother memoirs as possible just visit any of my recent blogs and click on the appropriate matremoir list or patremoir list link.

  16. As much as one may like Roth and Bellow, I think it is simply ludicrous to pretend that British writers of the modern era do not compare. In fact, they have done every bit as good a job — and I would say better — of exploring change in the modern world and put their American counterparts into a W-like hole when any comparison is made. Certainly, Roth and Bellow do an excellent job of describing the Jewish American post WWII experience. But to put them atop of Byatt, MacEwan, Drabble, Banville, Trevor, Grant, Mitchell, Freyn — not to mention Amis, Barnes and the modern crowd — is quite wrong. Roth and Bellow did what they did well, for sure, but don’t pretend that they have not been overtaken by writers who are equally good, if not better. And of course Paul you overlook Rohinton Mistry, Vasannji and a host of Canadian writers — and there are an equal number from the Antipodes. I think your characterization of the American writing experience (you leave out Lahiri and Diaz, both of whom I think are more up to date) is a fair representation of 30 or 40 years ago — I don’t think it speaks to the present case. Roth is undoubtedly quite good. It is very unfair to other writers to try to make him any better than that and dreadfully chauvanistic to place him above writers from other countries who are clearly every bit as good.

  17. I don’t think a writer like Roth knocks out quickies for commercial reasons. You can only write a big book if there is a big book inside you to be written. From what I have heard via mutual friends (I’ve never met Roth but a couple of people I know are close to him) he may have written these three short books in order to keep writing something. I think Indignation is a small masterpiece, but it is small compared to the rest. What is most noticeably missing is the intense mastery he has always had over a sentence, the sense of grammar being driven like a coach and horses across the terrain of his choosing.

  18. I think Linda Grant’s last comment does a very good job of justifying why “coda” (and there is nothing the matter with good codas) was the perfect first description. I will tone my cynicism down to skepticism and gratefully acknowledge that even the most established longer writers sometimes finds a small gem to be appropriate. And as the last sentence in the previous post indicates, that almost always means that something is lost.

  19. I’ll accept that Linda; plus he’s a damn hard worker. He says something in a recent interview about how writing stops his mind from spinning like car wheels in snow, and I was reminded by that of what E.I. Lonoff said in The Ghost Writer, and guess Roth must have been talking about himself then too:

    I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning. And if I knock off from this routine for as long as a day, I’m frantic with boredom and a sense of waste.

    Kevin, I take your point also but I’ll venture that Roth is more than ‘quite good’. He has written a significant number of very good books – the four Zuckerman Bound books, the 1990s American trilogy, Patrimony, and I haven’t touched on his very recent or very early stuff (which I’m less familiar with). I think there are very few British writers with that many titles of consistent quality to their name.

    But yes, it’s unfair really to compare any writer to any other. One of Roth’s qualities is his rampant productivity, and a writer who takes five years over every novel but produces something extraordinary each time – such as Ishiguro – is equally valuable. And all this is – isn’t it? – ultimately subject to the vagaries of personal taste anyway.

    I too am interested in Linda’s views on the great female American writers (and where they are), either here or at Trevor’s existing discussion linked above.

  20. Kevin, I really wasn’t doing any of those things, I was simply discussing the work and achievment of a writer that I admire very much, and whose literature I find fascinating. Let me put a disclaimer up here: none of my comments on Philip Roth and his writing are intended to marginalise the talent and achievment of X, Y and Z writers from A, B or C country; please don’t take my enthusiasm for just one writer to suggest that, or identify it as chauvinism.

  21. Toni Morrison is an obvious candidate and I think Joyce Carol Oates has been overshadowed and underestimated, partly, I think, because she’s neither male, nor is she regarded as part of a feminist canon.

  22. No problem Kevin, no need to apologise at all.


    “the sense of grammar being driven like a coach and horses across the terrain of his choosing”

    Yes, that describes it so well. That’s excellent.

  23. Morrison – of course! I never did finish Beloved but know that was my fault and not hers. Oates is someone I’ve been too intimidated – or baffled – to approach – and now I will sound like a hypocrite having praised Roth’s prolific productivity – simply because of the volume of her work. (Subsidiary to that is the nagging feeling that writing produced so quickly can’t be that great, but that’s purest prejudice.) A quick scan on Wikipedia just now suggests that she has written over 120 books in the last 45 years – about half of those novels, but also collections of poetry, essays and stories. Actually that’s a good question: where does one start with Oates?

  24. I’ve read a tiny fraction of them, but the one I started with was Blonde, which is a fictional account of Marilyn Monroe. I think she absolutely nailed her, and if I had time I’d read that again.

  25. Oates has been hit-and-miss for me. I’m sure some of it is me, but I think some of it is her too. She’s incredibly prolific, and there are a few in there that I began and never finished.

    I wonder if one reason she’s not so well read is because she’s so prolific. John has a good question: where does one start with Oates? I think a lot of people stop there, especially those who really like to dig into an author’s work. Others pick a book, and it’s one of her duds, and that ends it. For better or for worse, she seems to have diluted her ouevre, making it intimidating to search through to find her gems.

  26. I’ve read ‘Middle Age: A Romance’ by Oates and did enjoy it very much, but I haven’t been moved to try anything else by her.

    What I’ve read of Toni Morrison I’ve really really not liked, but I do rate her fellow countrywoman Marilynne Robinson, author of ‘Housekeeping’, ‘Gilead’ and ‘Home’.

  27. Many thanks, Linda, Trevor and Sam. Yes, the difficulty I have with Oates is just as Trevor describes it. In the UK at least, the only books of hers that are in print are her most recent ones, which is the sort of thing that usually happens to popular novelists rather than ones whose books will last. But that, too, is mere prejudice.

    Sam, you are notably silent on Roth. Are you joining the love-in?

    Paul, I wrote about Exit Ghost here last year and highly praised it. Now, having read more of his stuff (notably The Anatomy Lesson and The Prague Orgy), I recognise that it’s not up to the standard of his best stuff. But I look forward to hearing what you think of it.

  28. You can divide Roth roughly along these lines:

    The apprentice novels, Goodbye Columbus etc

    Portnoy’s Complaint, in a a league of its own, a great comic novel and the precursor of things to come

    The Zuckermans, hugely inventive, clever funny, playful ideas-driven novels. All immensely enjoyable

    The serious work which begins, I think, with The Professor of Desire, and resumes decades later with Sabbath’s Theater which is Roth’s purest, most Rothian work and goes on to American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, Human Stain and Plot Against America

    The minor works -The Great American Novel etc from the early period and the late coda novels, like Exit’s Ghost and Indignation

    I love the Zuckermans and re-read them for pleasure all the time but the greatness is in that cluster of novels which deal with America itself. I have read more than once all of these apart from Plot Against America which I’ll do quite soon.

    Earlier this year David Malouf introduced me to Richard Ford and I was knocked out by Independence Day, but I can’t remember too much about it now, though I could summarise it as a work. When I think of Roth’s late works I remember them as memory, as if I were remembering, intensely, my own life.

    And I have never stepped foot in New Jersey.

  29. Hi John,
    On the subject of fatherhood, I’m looking forward to JG Ballard’s third autobiography ‘Miracles of Life’ – which is supposed to touch more explicitly on the loss of his wife and subsequently having to raise his children alone. I loved ‘Empire of the Sun’ and ‘Kindness of Women’ but it’s strange how the three books overlap – all dealing with his childhood in Shanghai for instance – each adding a layer of clarity (or perhaps abstraction) to his life story.
    Otherwise I am left a bit blank on ‘fatherhood’. A previous comment mentioned Rohinton Mistry – certainly ‘Family Matters’ and ‘Such a Long Journey’ are interesting works on this theme, especially the former. Roth’s ‘American Pastoral’, of course, but I found this a dense, suffocating novel (and not in a good way!). Or – and I am only semi-serious about this – Brett Easton Ellis’ ‘Lunar Park.

  30. John, I haven’t anything intelligent to add to this wonderfully interesting discussion, as I haven’t read enough of these American greats yet to form an opinion, but I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed it. Your review of Roth was brilliantly compelling reading. Thank you.

  31. John, I’ll let you know my thoughts on Exit Ghost when I get through it. Really, I’m just fascinated to see how it all fits in, how the Zuckerman story ends, to just round off my reading of him.

    As I said before, there are wrong notes I sense in some of his books, criticisms I could make. But like only a few contemporary writers whose work I follow, I accept the contract he brings to the table, and that is because of the restless artistic integrity of it all, a certain energy which is hard to describe, but draws me to him with some fascination. Demob Happy mentions above a quality of suffocation he found in American Pastoral, and yes, I can see this, not only in that novel but in others too. But for me that is part of the brilliance, part of what makes his writing so compelling.

    “When I think of Roth’s late works I remember them as memory, as if I were remembering, intensely, my own life.”

    Yes, the vividness of experience is something that is hard to analyse, how that is achieved by a writer. But he achieves it, he inscribes the raw nerves of living and memory so well.

    What I like as well is the reflexiveness of his work. He really hit a six when he wrote The Counterlife, and even before that, you can see how his writing becomes simultaneously about the act of writing and the outside world itself. He writes inwardly, about the process of literature and fiction, and a certain charge is formed with the outward life, the world he must confront, these two impulses like the negative and positive charge of a magnet create this fission (think of the breathless originality of Operation Shylock). Roth is like plutonium, he just has this energy that doesn’t deplete.

  32. A very lively and enlghtening discussion, indeed! On very few occasions I’ve seen commenters come in with so much intensity and earnestness to talk about their favourite writer. Linda Grant, of course, steals the show. But Paul and our John also did very well. However, the point is, great writers are always geat talking points. And Philip Roth still matters.

  33. Thanks for the comments again, all. (And thanks for the kind words, Victoria, and I agree about the discussion everyone has contributed to here.)

    Linda, that’s a valuable categorisation. I read The Professor of Desire a couple of months ago but never got around to writing about it as it was just before the Booker circus began (remember that?). I found it excellent in places – in many places – but not up to the same standard as his later work.

    Demob Happy, thanks for the recommendations. I read Miracles of Life earlier this year, and have written about it here somewhere. I thoroughly enjoyed it but haven’t read Empire of the Sun or The Kindness of Women. Aren’t they strictly speaking novels, or is the autobiographical content so high? Also Family Matters was one of the first books I wrote about on this blog, early last year!

    Paul, The Counterlife and Operation Shylock have always appealed to me precisely because of (what I understood to be) their looking-in-looking-out quality: in a less dramatically intense writer we might call it ‘playfulness’. Indeed The Counterlife is praised widely as among his very best work, though for some reason it’s much less well known than the Zuckerman quartet (quintet?) and the American trilogy.

  34. You chose an interesting Roth to write about — one of his lesser known works and one I haven’t got round to yet, but certainly hope to in the future. I’m tempted by Indignation — though reviews have been mixed, here‘s a very flattering one. A return to form, perhaps, after Exit Ghost, which I read recently and barely enjoyed at all.

    I can only agree that the sequence from Sabbath’s Theater to The Human Stain represents Roth at his most essential — American Pastoral being his greatest work. The prose in Sabbath is magnificent, but I think Roth at his best is Roth applying his formidable talent to broad conflicts in American culture.

  35. On the fatherhood front, consider Ann-Marie Macdonald’s Fall on Your Knees. Now it has to be admitted that she is a lesbian, now a mother, with a wonderful partner who is a theater director — so the traditional notion of fatherhood is not really up her alley. On the other hand, this book explores what the notion of fatherhood is (albeit in a very dark manner) in a most compelling way. Perhaps more important, it also explores the impact that the parent has on the child. It gets a bit contrived at the end, but is an excellent book — one of those that Oprah chose and you kind of wish she hadn’t. Although Oprah’s choice meant that Ann-Marie and her partner now have an economic security that most authors can only contemplate.

    I’ve enjoyed and learned from the Roth discussion even if I am in the minority who doesn’t think he is quite as good as others do — but I am still willing to reconsider and will approach some texts with a more positive frame of mind. I do think the American Pastoral, Communist, Stain trilogy is a very significant part of American literature — I had more trouble with the first four Zuckerman books, which generally get better critical comment.

    And finally I will admit that I stopped reading Oates some years (maybe decades) ago. She writes in so many genres, and writes so much, that it became impossible to separate out which books spoke to my tastes.

  36. Jonathan I am with you in regarding the later Roth works as his finest. The tortoise and the hare springs to mind when comparing Roth with the other American literary luminaries Bellow and Updike he’s often comared to in that Roth’s literary powers have increased rather than diminished as he went past the 60 threshold.

    On the quickie v the big book front, perhaps the extent of the book is dictated solely by the nature of the underling themes. Some themes and characters simply require more amplification than others. Doubtful a writer of Roth’s class would set out to write a quick book.

  37. More thoughts on fatherhood, John. I think you should read An American Childhood, but from a quite different perspective than is normal.

    Trevor has posted an excellent review about this book, that would reflect his own experience. I have added my comments, which do come from a different generation.

    My suggestion is that you read this book from the point of view of “what would I have done if I was Annie Dillard’s father?” Certainly, her father is a major framing character for the memoir, but it is interesting that he is not fully developed — we actually know more about her mother than her father. And, yet, her father probably influenced her more. And he is never absent from the book.

    I admit that this would be an unconventional reading of the book, but given your interests and background, not one that is without reason. Don’t even consider this as a recommendation — just a provocative thought.

  38. Hi John,
    In answer to your comment, Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women are both strictly autobiographies – which is why I found it odd Ballard has another one out covering similar parts of his life. I’ve also learnt – with great sadness – that he has terminal cancer, so Miracles of Life will certainly be his final memoire.
    I’m off to read your review of ‘Miracles …’ and ‘Family Matters’ !

  39. Kevin, the angle you suggest for An American Childhood sounds very interesting. I noticed the constant presence/absence of her father, but didn’t think that much of it. Now that you mention it though, I think that would be a very rewarding way to look at the book. I’ll keep it in mind when I reread it again – which I already look forward to.

  40. Hi John,
    I stand corrected ! I just looked into Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women and apparently while they draw heavily on life experiences they could only be described as semi-autobiographical. Funny, when I read them I was convinced it was non-fiction. Oh well … back to Philip Roth !

  41. John, happy to join the love-in but I don’t really have anything significant to add. ‘The Human Stain’ is probably the Roth that I’ve enjoyed the most, though I can see that ‘American Pastoral’ is the grander achievement.

    On a slight note of dissent, I’m encouraged that you found ‘Patrimony’ unsentimental, because I have sometimes found sentimentality to be a weakness in late-Roth. Barely a novel of his goes by these days without a homily looking back to a strong honest hardworking Jewish family, spending all day and all night in the glove factory (‘American Pastoral’) or jewelery store (‘Everyman’). And he does get very misty-eyed on the subject of brothers (‘Sabbath’s Theatre’ and ‘American Pastoral’) and on fathers/sons: this from ‘Everyman’, where a father visits his son’s hospital bed:

    “You can do it, son. … It’s like when I give you an errand to run on the bus or a job to do at the store. Whatever it is, you never let me down. Reliable – my two reliable boys! I pop my buttons when I think about my boys. Always, you do the work like the thorough, careful hard-working boys you were brought up to be.”

    I mean, really? This is just ethnic kitsch. And I can’t help thinking that Roth doesn’t get pulled up more on it simply because he is Jewish. But anyway, it’s Roth and he’s always great to read.

  42. Sam — interesting thoughts. I don’t have the relevant passages to hand, but I’m always inclined to think Roth is secretly cackling through scenes of that nature. These elegiac flashback passages expose the tragic, laughable stupidity of the novel’s present moment. American Pastoral wouldn’t be the same without those wonderful glove chapters. Swede’s fall from grace has to be set against an ironically idealised portrayal of the grace.

  43. I totally agree that the glove chapters are great; in fact they’re what I recall most vivdly from ‘American Pastoral’, along with that thrilling, long-forestalled meeting between the Swede and his daughter, Merry.

    But I fear the sentimentality is earnest in intent. It must be his age.

  44. I’m not sure I agree, Sam, though I’m still going to think about it. A passage that comes to my mind is at the end of Zuckerman Bound when Nathan returns to New York but decides to take a slight detour through Newark. It’s far from sentimental. This is earlier Roth, but I read many of his later passages from the same angle. Usually the character thinking on the scene is incredibly cynical. It’s ironic to me, not sentimental, that that same character feels a twinge of idealism while reminiscing about a past he usually tried to escape in one way or another. And I love how in American Pastoral what is often a nostalgic, sentimental scene – a nice holiday barbeque with the neighbors is subverted to devestating effect at the end of the novel. I also call to mind Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road where these idealized images are torn to shreds.

  45. The sentiment thing is a matter of personal palatability, I think. That’s never been an issue for me with Roth, although certain other things have stood out now and again.

  46. I kind of agree with Kevin’s last post on the sentimental aspect of Roth. Plus, so much of his work has been a panting, screaming, ravaging piss-take of the sentimentality of families, the sentimental ruses of parents, in particular, as he writes, of the aspiring, assimilating middle-class American Jewish family, just one step away from the immigrant generation. It’s tough to recover poignancy and resonance from this kind of thicket.

  47. I am always happy to be cited, even when in error — although I do agree with Trevor’s thoughts, so there is no error.

    The Troublemaker in me (and it is definitely a part of my character) can’t help but note:

    1. Number of comments on this site on this subject: 52.

    2. Number of comments on any subject on the Man Booker website in the same time frame: 0 (or should that be Nil?).

    When people write about real literature, they inspire debate. When they play a marketing game, the response is zero (or nil, depending on where you live). Philip Roth obviously provokes comment, but I don’t think that means that no novelist wrote a book worthy of debate this year.

    If I was the administrator of the Man Booker, I would be preparing an abject letter of resignation, acknowledging my failure at being the steward of a truly important icon and getting myself out of the way. If I was a trustee of the Man Booker, I would be preparing an agenda item asking for that letter.

    As I said starting this post, I am always happy to be cited even when in error — and I do sometimes make errors. This time, I don’t think I have.

  48. Periodically those of us who live seven time zones west of GMT (and hence miss the early day debate) get to provide middle-of-the-night outrageous comments in compensation.

    Sorry about that, but I could not resist. I expect a number of responses by the time that I rise — remember, I’m seven time zones out of touch.

    That brings the number of comments up to 55. No moaning, whining or vested interests were involved in any comment.

  49. I agree with you Kevin. I have noticed the lack of discussion on the Booker site too. Though I check it everyday to see if there’s anything new, I don’t really have anything to add about any of the books at this time.

  50. Yes there has been little comment on the Man Booker site, though as has been suggested there, this might be to do with the six-week longlist period this year which enabled many interested parties to comment on the books as they read them, and who now, like Trevor and me, have nothing left to say. Then again it occurs to me that quite a lot of the early discussion on that site – for books like Child 44 and Girl in a Blue Dress and even The Enchantress of Florence – was along the lines of “I can’t believe they’ve longlisted this terrible book” and “why didn’t they longlist Book X instead?” which isn’t exactly a vote of confidence.

    All sites have their ups and downs. Until this discussion, there was a drop-off in the number of comments here compared with the activity while I was writing about the Booker longlist. The post before this, on Richard Price’s Lush Life, attracted just six comments in the three days it was up. And I’m willing to bet that the book I write about later this week – a popular science title – will not draw much interest either!

  51. The difference is that the Booker site lacks a blog. If the judges actually stuck their necks out and published their thoughts on the books they’ve read, you’d see loads of activity. So far Portillo has shockingly revealed that:

    “The judges commend the six titles to readers with great enthusiasm. These novels are intensely readable, each of them an extraordinary example of imagination and narrative. These fine page-turning stories nonetheless raise highly thought-provoking ideas and issues. These books are in every case both ambitious and approachable.”


  52. I do think the Booker site, before the release of the shortlist, had a very encouraging debate. I found as many titles that didn’t make the longlist as those that did — a tribute to those who took part in the site. Since the shortlist was announced, it has pretty much been inactive. John certainly offers one explanation — but one would like to think that the shortlist would at least provoke some new interest. It hasn’t.

    I have a personal request — actually, a wife request. She is hiking in Italy and called today to say that she wants two books recommended: 1) A fictional account of the Medici influence on Italy and 2) A non-fiction book that looks at the family political and artistic influence. I have a number of books in mind for 1) but would certainly appreciate thoughts. I’m not a non-fiction reader, so all thoughts on 2) are more welcome.

  53. I loved Patrimony. After reading all the Zuckerman books this year, it was incredible to meet an undisguised Philip Roth in its pages and see him writing so plainly and effectingly. The books is so warm and brutal and unflinching in how it documents death, and I shivered at the description of the dying body as ‘escape-proof’. The dream Roth has at the end is very beautiful and, as John says, there are moments of humour, like Roth’s father constantly chiding his eighty-year-old friend to get out more and meet women – ‘What am I gonna do with this guy?’ 🙂

    Have to say, I really struggled with The Counterlife, which takes Roth’s levels of self-absorption to new levels, but was surprised how much I liked ‘Exit Ghost’ given the criticism it received. And I agree with all the praise for ‘Sabbath’s Theater’ which is savage and profane and brilliant.

  54. I quite agree, gavin – Patrimony’s clear-eyed narrative is like a palate-cleansing sorbet after Roth’s more self-reflexive (but equally impressive) efforts. To me, his vulnerability was its strength. I was reminded of another author (let’s call him Philip Roth here, although it wasn’t him), who was asked by a fan at an appearance:

    When you have an argument with your wife, don’t you ever want just to clinch it by saying: “But I am Philip Roth!

    We’re so used to seeing him as the omnipotent artist that it’s quite disarming to see him as helpless as the rest of us in the face of life’s low punches.

    Rather apprehensive about The Counterlife now, which was to be my next Roth. I like it a bit of self-absorption in fact – though from what you say, it sounds as though I’d need to like a lot of it.

  55. I don’t think you should get too discouraged about The Counterlife, John. I still liked The Ghost Writer and American Pastoral more, but The Counterlife was fascinating. It actually seemed to me that Roth was less self-absorbed there than in the Zuckerman books; that is, he seems to be reaching beyond himself, into other experiences, becoming less “insular.”

    Also, in The Counterlife I was finally able to sever the link between Zuckerman and Roth, which I hadn’t been able to do before. I finally saw Zuckerman as a subject for Roth and not as an alter ego. I can’t remember right now how or when that happened, but I remember wanting to write it in my review of the book – whoops!

  56. I’m taking a little diversion from fiction and reading some highly literary nonfiction, starting with Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life. I’m now just about to finish this fantastic little memoir. I would have read it eventually, but it was your review that caused me to get it sooner rather than later (only took me a year and a half to pull it off the shelf). And now, having almost finished the book, I appreciate your review even more.

    By the way, it’s been — what — a year? more? now since you said you were going to read The Counterlife. What happened?! Have you fallen off the Roth-wagon?

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