75 at 75: Claudia Roth Pierpont on Philip Roth
A special project for the Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to a recording from our archive and write a personal response. Here, Claudia Roth Pierpont writes about Philip Roth’s reading from Patrimony. It was recorded at 92Y on March 22, 1993.
Posted on Oct 23, 2013
The voice of Herman Roth comes slowly to life—the inflections, the insistence—as his younger son, getting comfortable at the lectern, moves from recitation to impersonation and finally to something very close to incarnation. It’s a familiar voice in many ways. By 1993, when this reading at the Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y took place, Philip Roth had already given his readers several fictional versions of this remarkable yet utterly ordinary voice: Gabe Wallach’s father in Letting Go, David Kepesh’s father in The Professor of Desire, Nathan Zuckerman’s father in The Ghost Writer. (Further versions appeared, a few years later, in American Pastoral and The Plot Against America.) All are strong-willed old men, forthright to a fault, painfully meddlesome yet intensely loving, ethnically Jewish yet decisively American. Roth has said that he had to lock the door and put the furniture up against it to keep his father out of a book. And it’s true that these voluble figures steal the scene whenever they appear. But Roth made Patrimony, published in 1991 and subtitled A True Story, an outright gift to the flesh-and-blood man who is the source of them all.
Yet it might be better to call Patrimony a fair exchange. Late in the book, Roth explains how his father “taught me the vernacular”—that is to say, taught him the fundamentally blunt and honest American language that Roth has relied on throughout his career. And more: “He was the vernacular, unpoetic and expressive and point-blank, with all the vernacular’s glaring limitations and all its durable force.” Roth admits that it took him a long while to see his father this way, to get over the anger of his adolescent years and his shaming desire to have a father who was more educated—Herman Roth left school after eighth grade—or more dignified. But in 1988, when this book was being written, Herman Roth was eighty-six and dying of a brain tumor. Philip Roth was fifty-five, and the unostentatious heroism and pathos of his father’s life had never been more clear to him. Patrimony is a book both point-blank and expressive, entirely unsentimental yet painfully tender.
It is also as much a comedy as a tragedy, thanks to the lively brashness of that vernacular voice. “Will I Be a Zombie?” is the title of the chapter that Roth is reading here. The question is asked by Herman on hearing that he will need an operation to remove the tumor. Being nothing if not what his son calls a “pitiless realist,” he proceeds stoically through his final months, shored up by endless family memories, preparing for the end. Undiminished in energy, he tirelessly admonishes his female companion—his wife has been dead for years—on everything from how much she eats to how to open a can of Campbell’s soup. (“Why can’t you just do what I ask you when I ask you . . . Hold it from the bottom.”) His preparations for death, meanwhile, entail the disposal of every material possession that he can wrap in an old newspaper or paper bag and return or abandon. This includes all the gifts and mementos that his son has given him over the years: sherry glasses, a fancy tablecloth from Spain, napkins from Ireland, place-mats, steak knives, a vase. All are handed back without a sign of awareness that any insult might be taken from the old man’s declaration, at once heartbreaking and hilarious, “What the hell do I need them for?”
The most meaningful objects he rids himself of are his tefillin. As Roth explains in the book—he throws in an “of course” for his New York audience—tefillin are “the two small leather boxes containing brief Biblical extracts that an Orthodox Jew fastens to himself by narrow thongs” when he begins to pray. Herman Roth was not a religious man while his son was growing up, but since his retirement he had begun to attend synagogue regularly, finding consolation in “the sense of unity it bestowed on his long life,” Roth explains, “and the communion with his own mother and father he told me he felt there.” Nevertheless, he did not give his tefillin to his rabbi but, with mysterious logic, left them in a paper bag in an empty locker at his local Y. At first Roth thinks his father was merely ashamed to admit to the rabbi that he was “ditching his tefillin,” but he quickly comes to see the reason and even the wisdom of his father’s choice. It is especially touching to hear Roth explain to an audience at the Y that his father’s act was nothing less than “a declaration that the men’s locker room at the local YMHA was closer to the core of the Judaism he lived by than the rabbi’s study at the synagogue . . . Yes, the locker-room of the Y, where they undressed, they schvitzed, they stank, where, as men among men, familiar with every nook and cranny of their worn-down, old, ill-shapen bodies, they kibitzed and told their dirty jokes, and where, once upon a time, they’d made their deals—that was their temple and where they remained Jews.”
In the end, Roth gets something from his father that he really wants: his grandfather’s shaving mug, a modest object with the name “S. Roth” and the date “1912” inscribed in faded gold lettering. It had been kept for Herman’s father, Sender Roth, in a barber-shop on Bank Street in long-gone Jewish Newark, where young Herman sometimes got his hair cut while his father got a shave. Herman explains that this solid piece of family history came into his hands through an older brother: “Ed took it after Pop died and I took it from him. I think it was the only thing that was ever left to me. And it wasn’t even left to me. I took it.” He had wanted it ever since he was a little boy, and Philip admits that now he wants it, too. Because—and here Roth reaches back to an earlier chapter of the book to fill us in—the barber’s ten-cent weekly shave suggests his grandfather’s freedom, for a moment at least, from the dour exigencies of immigrant life. And because, even in Roth’s childhood, when he’d seen the mug in the family’s Newark bathroom, “it had the impact on me of a Greek vase depicting the mythic origins of the race.” And so his father presents him with the ancestral relic, wrapped in a couple of brown paper bags that have been twisted to accommodate its shape and bound with Scotch tape. (“I spotted the wrapping as his handiwork,” Roth says.) On the exterior of this unlovely package—which Roth is glad to take in place of a financial inheritance—Herman Roth had inscribed, with Magic Marker in uneven block letters, “From a Father To a Son.”
Claudia Roth Pierpont’s new book is Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books.
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