On Memoir and Philip Roth’s Patrimony

I’m relatively new to creative non-fiction/essay/memoir writing, and I’d like to blog some short review-ish pieces about what I’m reading as a way to stoke closer reading. My current craft guide is Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, and I’ve gathered some of her recommended readings for study. Not only was I reminded that I already own Roth’s memoir, but also that I’ve read it before, years ago. (More on that later.)

I’m still writing and submitting fiction, and in fact, I have a novel that I’m trying to place at this time. I also have another novel (my second) that’s about halfway complete, so I don’t intend on abandoning the genre any time soon. Lately, however, I’ve been thinking about my life and my progress in dealing with my mental health, and with the encouragement of my partner (a licensed psychologist), I’ve begun to explore the possibilities of essay/memoir. So far, I’ve completed a short essay and lots of notes, and I’ve realized how difficult it is to write factually and to deal with all the related worries that it brings. I’ve had moments where I thought it might be better not to write CNF and avoid all the hassles, guilt, etc., but I’m committed now to carrying on.

That said, and with more to come in the future, let me get to Roth’s memoir.

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220px-Patrimony

Patrimony: A True Story, Philip Roth (Simon & Schuster, 1991)

One of the biggest struggles many memoir writers deal with is writing honestly and deeply about family. No matter how small the detail, unless it paints a perfectly nice and normal picture, there’s a chance that someone you love will take issue with it and with you. To be honest, one of my small concerns is just this, and it rubs right against my desire and determination to write my truths. Some of my various starter pieces clearly demonstrate this struggle, and so reading Roth’s deeply personal exploration of his father’s decline and death, preceded by his long life as an insurance man, husband, father, etc., was an excellent primer.

Patrimony begins with a frightening sudden change in Roth’s father’s health. It turns out to be a rare type of brain tumor, and the news sets off associations with Roth’s mother’s recent death, the author’s loneliness, and as we discover as the narrative evolves, his father’s almost constant recitation of events and recollection of individuals from his, his neighborhood’s, and his fellow Jews’ past as a coping mechanism. Herman Roth manages to pull himself out of his darkest moments only through these stories and also his near constant criticisms of his partner, Lil, whom he meets not long after his wife passes away, and who can never measure up in Herman’s estimations. It’s so consistent that I can’t help but read Herman’s fears here, as if he feels he’ll wither and disappear if he wasn’t trying to improve someone’s life with his, to his mind, sound advice.

Meanwhile, Philip is trying to deal and stay afloat with his sudden shift in familial responsibility. A common story: the child becomes the parent. Herman, even if he hates it, has inevitably become dependent on his sons (mostly Philip, it seems), and his dwelling on his past glories is another method of dealing and self-soothing. As a result, Philip understands a portion of his own self, a part of him that, as a young man, he might’ve denied or repressed. It occurs to him that, as a college student, he thought of his degree as enlightening both him and his father, as if he had done Herman a favor of sorts by pursuing an education in his stead. As his father’s health deteriorates and he shares his stories about a neighborhood now almost unrecognizable, Herman has become the educator, the one conferring his crucial knowledge to the son. Philip has begun to understand his true patrimony.

The narrative is straightforward, and the only difficulty may be witnessing a frank and unflinching depiction of a human being’s decline and demise. The structure moves from the present of his tumor diagnosis and his final months into the past, from the struggles of Herman dealing with his wife’s death into the old neighborhood in Newark, Herman’s career, and so on. The structure is familiar, often used in memoir, but it works. The tension is appropriately maintained throughout, and I often felt as if I was sitting in those waiting rooms myself.

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