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.

Roth has certainly been suggesting in his recent books that what people think they can say that will betray their partner – or their family, or friends – reveals something about the imaginary crime they are committing together (or wish they were committing). Deception, I think, was greatly underrated, partly because of its minimalism, at least by Roth’s standards, but also because he was on to something so discomforting: that one way we get to know people is by betraying them, and that we can suffer most as adults from not being able to let people down. And one lets people down – or ‘deceives’ them – when one refuses to be only one version of oneself. Consistency is compliance. So when people are alone in Roth’s novels – or with people who don’t know them – they come to a certain kind of life: as though fidelity, particularly to oneself, constrains the repertoire. ‘Being by myself,’ Roth writes in Patrimony, having to deal with the news of his father’s brain tumour, ‘allowed me to be as emotional as I felt, without having to put up a manly or mature or philosophical front’ – the fronts that all Roth’s heroes are cramped by and suspicious of in others, the fronts that define a certain version of adulthood (the Jewish heroes of Roth’s novels sometimes experience the Gentiles as people who pretend they were never children). We may regularly be asked to protect people’s favourite versions of themselves, but we don’t always have to agree. Roth’s novels have shown us what it looks like when we don’t, and how relieved we are when we do.

Children are compelled, at least at first, to take their parents on their own terms – until they find terms of their own, which usually begins with a vengeance in adolescence. In fact, children are the only people who know what adults are, because adults are people who don’t know what it is to be an adult. Roth has always used adolescence – that twilight of the idols – as a state of mind, which it is, and not as some putative stage to be outgrown (the real problem of adolescence is that most people can’t sustain it). ‘Adolescent’, like ‘immigrant’, is mostly used, and often for comparable reasons, as a pejorative. Roth has implicitly exploited the connection between these two kinds of arriviste who threaten the composure of the locals by not subscribing to composure. ‘It’s the tirade,’ as Roth once said, ‘that’s taboo.’ And it is usually in adolescence that the Roth hero famously starts to confront his fictional immigrant father. In Patrimony, which is not a novel, the son is freer to realise, once the father is old and dying, how compatible they have always been, even through their differences – that patrimony is what they have always had in common.

‘I listen,’ says the Roth-Person in Deception, a combination of an analyst and a sitdown comedian: ‘I’m an écouteur – an audio-philiac. I’m a talk fetishist.’ He talks ‘openly’ only about his father, the man with whom the middle-aged novelist says he has to ‘suppress being a 14-year-old’. Accused of being oversensitive about anti-semitism in England, he is then accused by his lover of something else:

  ‘God, you are your father’s son, aren’t you?’

  ‘Whose should I be instead?’

  ‘Well, it’s just all a bit of a surprise, after reading your books.’

  ‘Is it? Read ’em again.’

If, in Roth’s novels, the sons can never take the fathers on their own terms, in Patrimony the son begins to see the survival value, the sense, of those terms. Patrimony is an extraordinary book about what it is to know a father, because Roth manages to find a language for an unidealised celebration, and this involves realising the virtue of the father’s vices for both the son and the father. ‘He understood,’ Roth writes of his father, ‘like the rest of us, only what he understood, though that he understood fiercely.’

As a true story – the kind of story that Roth’s father would think of himself as telling – Patrimony describes in often gruelling detail Herman Roth’s final illnesses and death form a brain tumour at the age of 86. The candid resilience of the man amid so much humiliation – a version, as Roth acknowledges, of the ‘stubborn prick’ that infuriated him as a younger man – is indeed inspiring. The descriptions of what the body can do to itself makes ageing seem far more terrifying than the conventional drama of sons killing fathers. In fact, the Oedipus story, which Roth doesn’t allow to ghost-write his book, seems rather comforting in comparison. It is at least intelligible. Herman Roth’s question ‘Why should a man die?’, stripped of its portentousness because he was clearly a man who didn’t need to be grand, becomes a good question, again. Roth refers to his father here as a ‘pitiless realist’, confirming, as he does throughout this wonderful book, that the antagonist of his adolescence turns out to have been his Muse, his Double and his Child.

If the ‘Bard of Newark’, as Roth calls him – ‘he taught me the vernacular. He WAS the vernacular, unpoetic and expressive and point-blank’ – was his Muse, he was also the source of much of his amusement. The hilarity of Patrimony, the double act of father and son and the father’s false teeth, for example, or the concentration-camp-survivor pornographer, is Roth unbound at his best. When someone compliments Herman Roth on his son’s sense of humour Roth immediately points something out, and the chosen word doesn’t make a modesty of it all: ‘“The jokes,” I told her, “originate with him.” ’ The jokes and the continual telling of family stories. It is the inheritance that they are both possessed by, and obsessed with. The difference is that for the father, at least in Patrimony, the telling of family history is a way of consolidating the family, while for the son it is, and always has been, potentially a betrayal. Because another difference, of course, is that only the son is a writer. In other words, only the son went to college.

In Roth’s earlier novels, culture is what Jewish boys try and kill their fathers with (could one take seriously a father who didn’t read Partisan Review?). Their worldly, immigrant fathers struggled to provide, and idealised the kind of education that would secure the continuity of the family through the success of the sons; and it was this very education, especially when it was literary, that armed the sons with the weapons for a daunting critique of the family. They went to college and learnt mandarin table-manners. They found a world of words their parents could never enter into. Invidious comparisons were available that could be used to ironise the struggle of their parents’ lives. Compared with what appears in the novels of Jane Austen or Henry James, Jewish family life does look a bit fraught. With the comfort and protection worked hard for by the parents, the children could entertain ideas. The irony of their disparate experiences, the new kind of conflict between the generations, was never lost on Roth, and was the subject, or one of the subjects, of My Life as a Man. ‘Suffering and failure,’ he wrote there, ‘the theme of so many of the novels that moved him, were “human conditions” about which he could speak with an astonishing lucidity and even gravity by the time he was a senior honours student – astonishing in that he was, after all, someone whose own sufferings had by and large been confined up till then to the dentist’s chair.’

Traditionally, education and learning had signified continuity for Jews. They now began, in post-war America, to threaten the rupture of tradition and the repudiation of family ties. In an increasingly secularised world ‘suffering and failure’ became a ‘theme’. The catastrophe of the Second World War made the disowning of history, or the appropriation of other traditions, or even the invention of that most improbable figure, a Jewish Emersonian, particularly tempting for the children of immigrants. But the study of literature as an education in high-minded composure, combined with the traditional image of the Jew as ethical standard-bearer, had serious consequences for the literature written by Jews after the war. ‘The sympathetic Jewish hero,’ Roth wrote in his 1974 essay ‘Imagining Jews’, was associated with ‘ethical jewhood as it opposes sexual niggerhood, with victimisation as opposed to vengeful aggression, with dignified survival rather than euphoric or gloating triumph, with sanity and renunciation as opposed to excessive desire – except the excessive desire to be good and to do good.’

Oppositions like these too easily promote the stereotypes they are trying to avoid (‘You know something,’ the Roth-Person’s lover tells him in Deception, ‘you’re hypnotised by bad behaviour. You think it’s stylish’). But Roth has always had a strong and exhilarating sense that character – especially perhaps for the children of his parents’ generation of immigrants – is not so much the acquisition of virtue as its defiance. Virtue can merely mean compliance, a fear of the repertoire of private and public parts. Defiance of virtue requires impersonation; the excessive desire to be not too good is suited to the ventriloquence of fiction. ‘In my imagination,’ the Roth-Person says in Deception, ‘I am unfaithful to everybody.’ But there is a kind of survivor-guilt in the children who are free to invent themselves. The guilt that writing entails, and that Roth has been increasingly explicit about in his books, has something to do with this. The freedom to proliferate selves is subsidised by lives that have been severely circumscribed.

One thing, of course, that novels can do is make new kinds of people available to us. Literature may not be, as Roth remarked in an interview, ‘a moral beauty contest’, but it can at least show us new styles. Once Roth had, in Portnoy, rejected the traditionally good Jew – and so, by implication, his father and the world his father carried on his back – he had denied himself, as he does several significant times in Patrimony, something of his inheritance. But patrimony – unlike matrimony, Roth implies – is an offer one can’t refuse. Getting away from his father was usually a way of rejoining him: at school he had the ‘impassioned, if crazy, conviction that I was somehow inhabited by him and quickening his intellect right along with mine.’ At college, his father was ‘the intellectual homunculus for whose development I felt as responsible as I did for my own’ Education might make one believe that what one needs to know one learns in school; and that not only does one’s father need an education, but one needs other fathers. The fathers one finds in books are quite different from the father one finds at home. They are made only with words. What Roth suggests in Patrimony is that one may need these other fathers to help one find one’s father. That this is what other fathers are for.

Patrimony is deadpan about Hamlet – ‘I find that while visiting a grave one has thoughts that are more or less anybody’s thoughts and, leaving aside the matter of eloquence, don’t differ much from Hamlet’s contemplating the skull of Yorick’ – because Roth’s affiliations are elsewhere. Patrimony begins with a diagnosis and ends with an interpreted dream about the death of a father. And in between, so to speak, in a kind of benign rewrite of Kafka’s ‘Letter to his Father’, Roth celebrates what an indulgent and zealously devoted father can do for his son’s well-being. Kafka and Freud, the two great Jewish parodists of patriarchy, who showed in their writing that there is no authority, only authority figures, have always been Roth’s chosen patrimony. In this context, when Roth realises, in the extraordinary scene in which he clears up his father’s shit, that ‘THAT was the patrimony. And not because cleaning it up was symbolic of something else but because it wasn’t, because it was nothing less or more than the lived reality that it was,’ he is saying something that cannot be simple. For Kafka and Freud, survival depended upon interpretation, and interpretation represented the refusal to be dominated by one truth. On the one hand, Roth’s refusal of symbolism – the dream of the literal, of the body or the world exempt from interpretation – is the acceptance, or protection, of his father at the cost of the world of his chosen fathers, a world relentless with meaning. On the other hand, Roth is suggesting that what you inherit is what you have to get rid of. But what seems so unacceptable, all the shit, may not be so bad after all, just another front: ‘once you sidestep disgust and ignore nausea and plunge past those phobias that are fortified like taboos, there’s an awful lot of life to cherish.’ This, admittedly, is not a pastoral for the squeamish, but then, unlike most versions of pastoral, it affirms something without making callous exclusions. It allows the possibility of embarrassment, and terror.

Roth is quite explicit that to acquire his patrimony, to see it for what it is, a son may have to become a mother to his own father. Children first become moralists when they realise their parents are children. In Patrimony the son writes about the father with astonishing lucidity and tenderness, as though they were similar kinds of people. One of the continual revelations – or rather, one of the running gags – of Patrimony is that the antagonism between them was always a form of affinity.