I first picked up Patrimony more then a decade ago, curious to see how Philip Roth would go about writing a memoir. I was an enthusiastic fan of his fiction, but I approached this remembrance of his father with some trepidation. Celebrated novelists have a tendency to slum a little when they turn to nonfiction; their memoirs often have an off-duty, slapdash quality. I’m a memoirist myself, and I tend to get a little defensive about this form, which has been badly used by many people in many different ways.
I needn’t have worried. This remembrance is Roth at his best. Most time-and-place memoirs are rather static, but Patrimony moves with the same tidal power as his fiction. In other hands, a portrait of a stubborn-but-endearing old guy like Herman Roth might fall into sentimental stereotype, but Roth burrows down to consider the mysteries of his father’s personality. How is it, for example, that this devoted husband and passionate family historian feels compelled to get rid of any object that means anything to him, including his own tefillin (which he surreptitiously drops off not at the synagogue but at the local YMHA), his son’s stamp collection, and all his late wife’s clothing, which he stuffs into plastic garbage bags even as funeral guests circulate out in the living room?
Unlike many writers’ memoirs, Patrimony stands free of its author’s oeuvre. You don’t read it to identify characters and themes or to compare the life to the art–though a Roth fan will certainly do both. You read it because it’s deep, elegiac, and funny, and because it tells a big story about change and loss, about what we can retain of the past (mostly words, Roth seems to suggest) and what we must abandon.
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