How to be your father’s mother

Adam Phillips

  • Patrimony: A True Story by Philip Roth
    Cape, 238 pp, £13.99, April 1991, ISBN 0 671 70375 7

A crucial incident in Patrimony comes when Roth’s aged and ill father, Herman, ‘beshats himself’, as he puts it:

  ‘Don’t tell the children,’ he said, looking up at me from the bed with his one sighted eye.

  ‘I won’t tell anyone,’ I said. ‘I’ll say you’re taking a rest.’

  ‘Don’t tell Claire.’

  ‘Nobody,’ I said. ‘Don’t worry about it. It could have happened to anyone. Just forget about it and get a good rest.’

Where there is shame there is always the possibility of the direst indiscretion (and between fathers and sons, of the most bemusing kind of triumph). But it is the novelist-son, not the father, who demands, by promising, the larger reticence. ‘Fate,’ Roth writes towards the end of Patrimony, ‘had given me a fiercely loyal and devoted father who had never found a thing in my books to criticise.’ As the story of his father’s death, Patrimony is the first of Roth’s books that his father would never read.

Roth is the least sentimental and therefore the least cynical of writers, and Patrimony is remarkable, among other things, for the complexity of the affection he feels for his father. Roth is at pains at this moment of the book to show his father, and not only his father now, that it is not the fact of his incontinence alone that is humiliating: it is trying to live in such a continent world. We are not humiliated by our acts but by our ideals. In this incident, Herman Roth – not by choice, it should perhaps be said – joins his son’s fictional pantheon, so to speak. The heroes of Roth’s novels usually have the defiant but slightly embarrassed wish to be celebrated for what they have been educated or encouraged to deprecate. They have the courage of their brashness. ‘Going wild in public,’ Roth has written, ‘is the last thing in the world a Jew is expected to do.’ Roth has been inventing, that is to say, a new kind of heroism, the heroism of incontinence. ‘Portnoy,’ Roth remarked in an interview, ‘wasn’t a character for me, he was an explosion.’ As most of his fictional heroes and some of his heroines know, there’s no good performance – no performance, indeed – without indiscretion, or its possibility.

Deception, Roth’s previous book and the novel he was finishing while his father was dying, is full of people accusing the Roth-Person of exploiting relationships, and even other people’s suffering, for his writing. A ‘friend’ informs him at one point: ‘He didn’t fuck her the way you fucked her, for her stories. He fucked her for fucking ... Life before the narrative takes over is life.’ But the Roth-Person has a few things to tell the Truth-Tellers, all those people who are eager to tell him, by way of accusation, what Life is. After all, who decides what we are allowed to use relationships for? And what is our sense of betrayal, or deception, telling us about our ideas of privacy, or honesty, or the sacredness of coupledom? ‘Discretion,’ he writes in Deception, ‘is, unfortunately, not for novelists,’ and because Roth, at least since Zuckerman Bound, has been his own most ferocious critic in these matters within the novels, ‘unfortunate’ seems the fortunate word. Roth has always written interestingly about the uneasy relationship between confidence and confiding in someone, about the sense in which every story is an act of betrayal. The writing usually sharpens, or gets hilarious, at the moment of conspiracy in a conversation, the moment that often only one person in a Roth conversation is pushing for. The moment, that is, in which someone invites the possibility of a betrayal, or just tells someone a good story. Conspiring is inspiring.

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