Roth Patrimony: a guide on how to say goodbye

It’s no secret that I love Philip Roth. He’s my favorite author of all time, because of his deft use of English (the language I love almost as much as my blood relatives) and his total honesty in what he writes in that language. I thought, over these many years of reading and rereading him, that I’d gotten him figured out. Think again, O deluded self.
I’ve just reread Patrimony, Roth’s account of his father’s descent to death. The title itself poses a question. Matrimony and patrimony are both derived from Latin: the first from the word mater — mother; the second from the word pater — father. But in our translations, look at the difference: Matrimony equals marriage; patrimony equals what’s passed from father to son. What a difference.
I’ve also always thought this was the most personal of all Roth’s many books, and I still think I’m right. But my rereading has helped me realize that all the others are just as personal, the difference being that he has fictionalized them. However, not this, which is 100 percent first-person feeling, right out in the open with the all raw emotions it exudes.
Follow with me, if you are a Roth lover — or even if not: In Goodbye Columbus, his first book, he is the boy having his earliest sexual experiences, making mistakes and suffering from them. In Nemesis, that terrifying tale of polio in the 1950s, he is the young man for whom devotion to duty causes great mental and physical suffering. In American Pastoral, he is the “golden one,” that fair-haired “god-on-earth” to whom all is given — but ultimately has all taken away.
These may not be actual experiences, but they are certainly drawn from Roth’s personal history, played out in his own exemplary fiction. Taken together, and if read as I propose, the total of Roth’s voluminous output equals his own life in its entirety.
I can’t be the only one who thinks this. However, I’ve never seen or heard it articulated just this way before.
Patrimony is a wonder, a deeply personal and no-holds-barred look at a son’s struggle as his father’s life ends — perhaps even more than the father struggles to deal with his own inevitable, forthcoming death. The father’s troubles are basically physical, although physicality calls into play much else; the son’s troubles are basically rooted in memory: How could I have forgotten X? Why didn’t I handle Y differently? Have I ever made clear to my father how highly I really regard him? And if I haven’t — why not? These are questions all of us ask at the bedside of a terminal parent, but not all of us can answer them. Roth struggles to do so, and he succeeds. He is able to identify the patrimony — what passes from his father to him. And it is not always pleasant, not always what he might want, but he recognizes it for what it is.
Many of us have experienced this painful role-reversal, unimaginable in our lives until it happens: We may become the parent to a parent of our own. It is not a welcome or easy stage of existence to deal with, but we have no choice. Roth takes up the challenge and tells us all about it, in all its pain, with all the soul-searching, the self-accusations, the love that is in every thought and every word — even though the latter might not sound exactly that way. This book is a manual for how to say goodbye when that is all there is left to say. And it is the ultimate, very human, picture of esteemed author Philip Roth.
My own parents are long gone. Now, I’m passing my new appreciation to my children, asking them to send it along to my grandchildren — and beyond. If you have current struggles, or have ever struggled with these issues, I recommend this book: Philip Roth’s remarkably honest best. Because someday, you’ll need it.

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