Philip Roth (1991) – Patrimony

I am known to be a curmudgeon when it comes to memoirs.  I am, thus, both pleased and abashed to report that I found Philip Roth’s memoir of the events of the last years of his father’s life to be amusing, insightful, and satisfying.  In this I find myself conflicted.  I acknowledge that Herman Roth suffered on the way to his death, but I found the man to be insufferable.  He was unflaggingly critical of those closest to him and took pride in the doggedness of his criticisms (hocking, he calls it, using a Yiddish word).  The author reproduces a letter written by Herman Roth to his other son, Sandy, explaining how and why he was nagging Sandy’s son Jon to save and not to spend so much.

… there are two type’s [sic here and throughout] of .. Philosophies.  People who care, and those that don’t.  People who do and people who Procrastinate and never do or help….   I tell Jon and hock him….  I don’t tell him once, I keep telling or Hocking, why, because he forgets, like a compulsive drinker, or drug taker, etc.  Why do I continue hocking?  I realize its a pain in the ass, but if its people I care for I will try to cure, even if they object or wont diceplin/disaplin themselves….  I have many battles with my conscience, but I fight my wronge thoughts.  I care, for people in my way. (p.81)

From this letter, we learn that Herman Roth thinks he means well.  This is a second order truth.  It is not a truth about what he says; it is about the armor he always wears to justify himself, to protect himself, to keep from acknowledging his profound hunger to be superior to anyone he gets close to—anyone he cares for.  It is what justifies the anger he channels into his attacks on them.  When he finds a fault, he doesn’t just critique, he lays siege.  Day after day, week after week, year after year.  He wages a war of attrition.  This is soul murder.

But he means well.  This is not a justification, it is just a fact that makes it more difficult for the victims of his emotional abuse to deal with his criticisms.  The psychiatrist R. D. Laing called this “crazymaking”.  In crazymaking, a person gets “you are crazy” messages when he or she correctly objects to disparaging or unreasonable personal attacks, and “you are not crazy” messages when he or she accepts such attacks without objection.  Either way, you lose.  Herman Roth was a crazymaker of the first order.

Philip visits his father in Florida.  His father is sharing the condominium of

his old friend Bill Weber… a good-natured, even-tempered [man] … whose failings he could correct unceasingly…. [M]y father berated Bill for his social shortcomings.  “Ask her to a movie … don’t just sit home night after night.”  “I don’t want to take her out Herman.  I don’t want to take anybody out.”  “You’re antisocial.”  “If that’s what you call it, okay….”  “You live like a hermit.”  “Okay.”  “Not okay.”  “…I don’t want a woman….  I’m eighty-six years old.”  “I don’t understand you, Bill.  I don’t understand why you fight me like this when all I’m trying to do is help you out.” (p.53)

The initial suggestion: “take her to a movie” swiftly escalates to name-calling: “you’re antisocial” and then to aggrieved posturing: “I don’t understand why you fight me like this.”  This is serious crazymaking. 

Philip eventually takes a little tiny stand against his father on this kind of behavior.  Near the end, Herman Roth tells Philip on the phone

“She can’t even buy a canteloupe,” … and because I had by then heard just about enough on the general subject of what Lil could not do, I answered, “Look, a canteloupe is a hard thing to buy–maybe the hardest thing there is to buy, when you stop to think about it.  A canteloupe isn’t an apple, you know, where you can tell from the outside what is going on inside.  I’d rather buy a car than a canteloupe—I’d rather buy a house than a canteloupe….  I’ll tell you about making a mistake with a canteloupe: we all do it.  We weren’t made to buy canteloupe.  Do me a favor, Herm, get off the woman’s ass….”

“Well,” he said uncertainly, taken aback a bit by my thoroughness, “the canteloupe is the least of it . . .”  but for the time being he had no more complaints to make to me about Lil.

Well, it was about time, but truly too little and too late.

Patrimony is the story of Philip Roth trying to understand—in the emotional maelstrom focused on his dying father—who and what his father was, is, and will be in his life: the patrimony of the title.  It is at the same time the story of how Philip Roth, forced to deal with the impending death of his father found himself (not necessarily unwillingly) in a disconcerting role reversal in which he became the nurturing parent to his failing parent. 

Lil phoned … to ask how he was doing.  I overheard him saying to her, “Philip is like a mother to me.” (p.181)

In a similar vein, Philip, tired of putting up with his father’s general recalcitrance surprises himself in what starts as the repetition of a situation that has occurred hundreds of times before.  Philip cajoles, his father demurs. 

“Look, put on a sweater and … your walking shoes, … I’m going to call Lil, and … we’re all going outside for a walk.  It’s a beautiful day and you can’t sit around inside like this with the shades drawn….”

“I’m fine inside.”

But this time is different.

I then spoke four words to him, four words that I’d never uttered to him before in my life.  “Do as I say,” I told him.  “Put on a sweater and your walking shoes.”

And they worked, those four words.  I am fifty-five, he is almost eighty-seven, and the year is 1988: “Do as I say,” I tell him—and he does it.  The end of one era, the dawn of another. (pp.82-3)

The son is now acting in loco parentis and the father does as he is told.

At one point, Philip gets into a cab to go visit his father in the hospital.  The cab driver is a huge, frighteningly feral man who tells Philip, “my old man’s in his grave now without his four front teeth.  I knocked ‘em out of his fucking mouth for him….  He was a shit-heel and a failure and he wanted me to fail, too.”  (p.156)  The episode is told amusingly (believe it or not) and Philip, who has represented himself to the driver as a psychiatrist, ends up giving the driver a pep talk worthy of a real therapist when the brute says unexpectedly, “Doc, I’m insecure.”  The obvious subtext here is that Philip, in spite of a constitutional aversion to any form of violence, recognizes that at times he would have liked to smash his father in the mouth, too.  He avoids saying it as baldly as I just did, but I’m willing to say the thought was available to him.

Philip Roth knows how to tell a story.  He captures the anxiety of not knowing—not knowing what is causing his father’s neurological problems, then not knowing if the tumor revealed in the x-rays is malignant, then not knowing whether the tumor is operable and if so, how to balance the possibility of improvement against the possibility of turning his father into a vegetable.  He balances intensely serious episodes against humorous episodes in such a way that the reader is not overwhelmed by the emotional weight of his father’s deterioration. 

The last funny—hilarious even—anecdote Philip tells dates from a few months before his father died.  To a family dinner his father brings an acquaintance—a holocaust survivor who is writing a memoir of his experiences during the war.   His father wants Philip to help this man, Walter, “a friend from the Y who was in Auschwitz.”  “[Y]ou could give him some [publishing and writing] tips,” (p.210) his father says.  Thus ambushed, Philip has to read the half-dozen sample pages that Walter hands to him.  It turns out to be pornography.  In it Walter portrays himself as a Jewish stud muffin who spent most of the war—thanks to  the enthusiastic cooperation of the otherwise unoccupied women who hid him from the Nazis—having and giving tremendous orgasms. 

The anecdote is a can-you-top-this story and the revelations just keep coming.  Walter casually says that he has finished the manuscript and “It only needs my daughter to edit the English.”  (p.217)  Two days later, Philip is talking with his father on the phone.

“Guess what [Walter’s] book’s about.”

“Well, it’s about his incarceration.”

“No, no,” I said.

“It’s about his days in Germany.”

“It’s pornography.  Did you know that?”

“I don’t know anything.  I didn’t read any of it.”

“It’s all about fucking.  Every page.  He makes me look like a piker.”

We were still laughing when my father said, “Maybe it’ll be a best-seller like Portnoy”

“Of course.  A pornographic best seller about the Holocaust.”  (p.220)

Philip Roth devotes eighteen pages to this wonderful silliness.  Another ten pages and his father is dead.  Sixteen more and the book is over. 

I found the ending unsatisfying.  The author spends three pages describing a strangely unmoving dream involving inter alia a “defunct warship drifting blindly into shore,” which he interprets to symbolize his father.  If you say so, Philip.  This he follows with another dream in which his father complains about having been buried in a shroud.

He said, “I should have been dressed in a suit.  You did the wrong thing.”  I awakened screaming….

In the morning I realized that he had been alluding to this book….  The dream was telling me that, if not in my books or in my life, at least in my dreams I would live perennially as his little son, with the conscience of a little son, just as he would remain alive there not only as my father but as the father sitting in judgment on whatever I do.  (p.237-8)

Again, if you say so, Philip.

The problem here is that the author really doesn’t seem to have figured out by the end of the manuscript just what his patrimony is, or at least how to tie up the material of the book in a satisfying way.  The evocation of the image of God the Father sitting in judgment is a bit much, but if that’s the way Roth felt, that’s the way he felt.  And I suppose there are people who will resonate with those feelings.  I did not. 

The book shows us how the challenge of dealing with the prolonged death of a parent can be agonizing, but not insurmountable.  Some of us know or will eventually know that first hand.  Others are spared the experience.  There is no surprise in this, but it is worth considering from time to time.  It also shows us that Philip Roth has within him an improved version of his father’s unflinching realism, a willingness to confront difficult situations and make difficult decisions as they present themselves, but without the need to coerce others to conform to a uselessly rigid agenda.  That, I would say, is his patrimony.

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