Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 16 Feb 2018

Patrimony by Philip Roth

Philip Roth, as well as playing postmodernist games with his own life and writing novels using three different alter egos – including Philip Roth – has written works claiming to be autobiographical. The Facts, published in 1988, was one of these, but I seem to recall that it was recounted by such an unreliable narrator that it could scarcely be called autobiographical.

Patrimony, however, from 1991, is a different matter. I had forgotten what a marvellous book this is and rereading it recently was therefore a double treat.

Of course, for a Jewish writer such as Roth the term patrimony is not used loosely: with its allusions to inheritance, to things of importance or value passed from generation to generation through the male line, to the transference of legacy, estate, values, even perhaps maleness itself, you can be sure that Roth uses the term in all these ways.

The book recounts his father Herman Roth’s final years and approaching death, having been diagnosed with a brain tumour which, while operable, involved surgery he would be relatively unlikely to survive. It was written, according to Philip Roth, even as his father was dying.

Of course, one might say that anyone who has witnessed the decline and death of a parent will probably know at least some of what this book is about. But that is its power: a little like his short novel Everyman (which I wrote about here), Patrimony tells us something about universal experiences. What makes it special is the quality of Roth’s prose, his steely, unflinching gaze, and his ability to find humour and warmth and the deepest affection in the most forbidding of material.

But Patrimony is also important because it also tells us what made Roth the writer – and this too is part of his patrimony. For it becomes clear that his father, even as the brain tumour that would end his life continued to grow, was a compulsive memorialiser. ‘You must forget nothing,’ he would say, and a gentle enquiry about his own health would prompt an unstoppable flow of stories – pre-war Newark, the lost generations of the Roth family, the streets he trod endlessly as an insurance salesman, the old Jewish  characters he kibitzed and wisecracked with, stores that closed their shutters decades ago, a river of cherished memory. But Roth senior is also an obdurate and stubborn man, a born manager, and memory is also a means of control and correction, a way of ensuring that what everyone else does wrong or recalls inaccurately can be set right by example, by a lifetime’s experience.

It is hard not to see Roth the novelist in this compulsive memorialising; perhaps to some degree he also shares his father’s stubbornness. But there is a difference. While his father remembers in order to forget his declining health and the anxieties pressing in upon him, the son remembers in order to face facts, to look life – and death – in the face, to pay a debt of gratitude, to confer dignity, and perhaps most importantly and no matter how uncomfortable, to tell the truth.

Now approaching thirty years old and tucked away between the hefty novels that came before and after it, it is easy to overlook Patrimony. But it is one of Roth’s most moving books and nowhere near as blunt and artless as its diary-like approach may sometimes suggest. Perhaps the most sacred part of Roth’s patrimony has been the responsibility to bear witness, and this is precisely what he does in this wonderful mid-period autobiography. Much of what makes Philip Roth the man and the novelist can be found between the covers of this book and its prose has an often exasperated, anguished and loving beauty. Don’t on any account miss it.


Alun Severn

February 2018