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April 08, 1991 12:00 PM

“I must remember accurately,” I told myself, “remember everything accurately so that when he is gone I can recreate the father who created me.”

—Philip Roth, Patrimony

In an 18th-century farmhouse that dries the tongue with its parched New England style, author Philip Roth, 57, speaks of his late father, Herman, a bulldog urbanite, and their last days together.

“He rattled around when he staved with me up here,” he says of Herman, a retired insurance man who spent the first part of his professional life pounding the pavements of Newark to extract overdue three-cent premiums from clients. “There was nothing for him to do. And on the days when he was well, I’d hear him raking. He’d come into the house, his face flushed and proud, and say, ‘You know where I been? I been out raking.’ ”

Even at 86, when he had a lethal tumor pressing on his brain. Herman Roth was not the sort of man who could sit idle and enjoy the rustic charm of Connecticut. And Philip, the author of such distinguished, if outrageous, fictions as Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint, is not the sort of son who could let such a man go without some literary tribute.

“I kept a journal,” says Philip of his father’s nearly two-year illness. With some misgivings, because his father might have disapproved, Roth developed the entries into a book, Patrimony: A True Story, published in January by Simon and Schuster and now climbing the best-seller lists. It recounts in vivid, moving detail his fathers death in October 1989, as well as the author’s own emergency quintuple heart bypass the previous summer. But more than that, the book reasserts a literary voice that critics had lately accused of intellectual vagrancy and self-indulgence, of mumbling to itself in such works as Deception and The Facts. The New York Times reviewer, however, called Patrimony, his 19th book, “a highly moving and beautifully rendered portrait.’ ”

Still, it is Roth’s father who has the last word. Herman, an Old Testament-style character with strong opinions about everything from how to clean a house to the proper way to open a can of soup, visits his son in a dream at the end of Patrimony to complain that he should have been laid to rest in a suit instead of a shroud. I had dressed him for eternity in the wrong clothes.

Patrimony is imbued with the haunting symmetry of father and son, life and death. It opens in 1988, when Herman Roth, robust at 86, wakes up to find the right side of his face sagging, seemingly lifeless. He pushes it back in place, holds it there with his hand, because he is that kind of practical man. But eventually even he cannot hold back the tumor, and he has to call on his son for help.

Roth, in addition to undertaking the day-to-day care of a difficult man, must cauterize the unhealed emotional wounds left over from the author’s childhood. It seems like an old story: the demanding father who ruled his family with an iron hand and a son who bristled under the oppression. The account of the illness triggers genealogical ruminations that suggest his father was the source of Philip’s ruthlessly unsentimental style. On the day he is to tell his father that he has a brain tumor. Philip takes a wrong turn on a familiar road and winds up at the cemetery that is the site of his mother’s grave. Bessie, who died in 1981, was the gentle martyr to Herman’s domestic tyranny. (After he retired as an office manager, Herman tried to manage Bessie’s housekeeping.) Philip stands there for a moment, starts to speak, but doesn’t. What cemeteries prove, at least to people like me, is not that the dead are present but that they are gone. At the moment he must convince his father to sign a living will to avoid a painful and lingering death. Roth is momentarily astonished at Herman’s businesslike approach to his own mortality. How could I have forgotten that I was dealing with somebody who’d spent a lifetime talking to people about the thing they least wanted to think about?

Yet neither father nor son is without sentiment. Philip is moved when he finds his grandfather’s shaving mug in his father’s apartment. Herman has kept it for reasons he cannot explain, but which are clearly emotional. Gradually, Philip comes to see how much his own life and his father’s are inextricably entwined. It wasn’t that I hadn’t understood that the connection to him was convoluted and deep. What I hadn’t known was how deep deep can be.

If Philip needed any further proof of where his scrappy warrior genes originated, he had only to look at his father’s life-long saga. Despite being Jewish and despite having only an eighth-grade education, Herman battled his way into the management of an insurance company that had a reputation for anti-Semitism. Philip’s childhood was freckled with their differences. Early attempts to resolve them led to a typically Rothian fantasy. When he was a student at Bucknell University, he says, he had the “impassioned if crazy conviction” that he carried his father from classroom to classroom, as if both were being educated so that they could duel on the same intellectual plane.

Herman was a tough eccentric in his own way. During his retirement, when robbed at gunpoint, he gave up his $23 but demanded his wallet back and then yelled after the mugger. “Don’t go out and spend it on crap!” A few years later, this same feisty man broke under the weight of the brain tumor, which leaves him half-blind and almost helpless. After an arduous hospital biopsy, Herman fouls himself in the bathroom of the farmhouse that his son shares with his second wife, actress Claire Bloom. When Herman tries to clean it up himself, he makes matters worse. The son finds his father in the midst of the feces and takes charge. He showers his father, dresses him in pajamas and puts him to bed. Surprisingly the experience yields the satisfaction he has been seeking. So 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.

The “lived reality” has always been more or less ambiguous, if not downright fluid, in the case of Philip Roth. The younger of two sons (brother Sandy, 63, is an artist in Chicago), he was born in Elizabeth, N.J., to Bessie and Herman, themselves the children of Polish immigrants. Philip started out to become a lawyer. “We were all lower-middle-class, academically disciplined and well-behaved.” he says of that period.

“He was definitely a trendsetter,” says Martin Weich, a Manhattan psychiatrist and childhood friend who still sees Roth socially. “He introduced us to good books. It was Phil who branched out and went to college. He led us into three-piece suits.”

After college Roth served in the Army, then taught while writing Goodbye, Columbus, which won a National Book Award for fiction. In 1960 he won a Guggenheim grant. He went to live in Italy, then England. His brief, tempestuous marriage to Margaret Martinson, a divorcee whom he had met when they were both graduate students at the University of Chicago, ended in a bitter divorce in 1963.

If there is a balance to his life, it comes in the classroom. “I must always have a quiet place in which to write, but I find that I enjoy teaching,” he says. In fact he still drives three hours to Manhattan twice a week to teach an advanced literature course at Hunter College. “I can imagine nothing more wonderful than to sit in a room with 20 bright students for three hours and discuss books,” he says. “It also forces me to read a book a week, which is good discipline.”

As for his writing, “I started my career with a very clear idea about my work,” he explains, adopting a cool, pedagogical form of intimacy that does not invite contradiction. “Each book had to be different from the previous one—a corrective to the last. If I write some abstract piece of dialogue in simple sentences without much sense of place, the next book will be precise and filled with descriptions and complicated turns of phrase.” While the themes involve the clash between men and women (with lots of explicit, and usually hilarious, sex scenes), his books are narrated in the high-stress voice of an ambivalent Jew who is always inspecting the nature of what is true and what is imagined. “I’m not always sure I know the difference.” the author says.

During the span of his career, he scandalized fellow Jews with his voyeuristic rendering of conventional Jewish mating habits in Goodbye, Columbus, then in 1969 alarmed them again with the lurid and uproarious Portnoy’s Complaint. Yet he insists, lifting the eyebrows that hang over his eyes like dark thunderclouds, “My work was never as controversial as they said it was.”

Roth’s extensive output also includes Letting Go, My Life as a Man, Zuckerman Bound and The Counterlife. But those books are suspended between the twin towers of Portnoy and Patrimony. “Portnoy was blunt about sex, and Patrimony is blunt about death,” Roth says, acknowledging the enhanced stature that his new book has brought him. Last month he was awarded the National Arts Club Medal of Honor for the body of his work.

If there was turmoil in his off-duty moments, his art was always solid and a consolation for the failed marriage and relationships. “When I came out of the Army [in 1955], I thought that I needed $1,200 a year to live on,” he says. “The University of Chicago offered me $2,300, and I thought that was wonderful. It was possible to be poor then. You could live without much money. I ate tuna fish like a cat and lived in a room the size of a box.” He pauses, having heard something in his own words. Then the novelist in him spins out a more lyrical version: “We lived like cats in those days, eating tuna fish out of cans and sleeping in little boxes….”

In 1976, after a long and “interesting” bachelorhood in which he found a variety of female companions, a calming stability came into Roth’s life. He and Claire Bloom met at a party and eventually moved in together. They got married last April. She spends half her time in London, where she has a daughter, Anna, 31 (by former husband Rod Steiger), and the rest in Connecticut, in a region where the stone walls look like stacks of wood and the neighbors are a drive away.

If the Connecticut setting seems stark, it suits Roth’s need for isolation. The two-room cottage where he writes is across a patch of lawn from the main house, which dates back to 1790. “I spend nine hours a day in the cottage,” he says. There are couches, desks, an electric typewriter, a bed, and notes slacked in military order, like the stones in the fences outside. There is also a telephone to which only Claire has the number. She uses it when dinner is ready. “I go to work in the morning and wait for the 20 minutes of inspiration,” Roth says. “One page a day. If I produce more, it is too much. Less, it is not enough. I want to go only as fast as I want to go. I don’t want to feel any pressure to go faster.” Out of that, with six to eight drafts for each, comes a book every two years.

He tried living in London for 11 years, but found that it robbed him of a crucial part of his writer’s vision. “I do not see out of the corner of my eye in England,” he says. “In America, I see all around me. He recalls his relief when he returned to America two years ago and visited a friend in a hospital. Someone got on an elevator and said to the then 55-year-old author, “Hey, young man, you wanna push five?”

“I missed that sound,” says Roth. “I’m an American. I like the sound of the language. I’m thrilled to hear people say anything.”

He makes occasional forays into a small town near his farmhouse, listening to the natives complain about dry rot and weather and taxes. He walks four miles a day, counts his cholesterol and is content. Herman was not at home there and might not have approved of the book that his son suffered through like kidney stones. And yet, given who they both were, there was never really any choice.

“I don’t really miss him,” Roth says of his father. “I have him in the book.”

In the spare heart of his Connecticut home—many miles and many years away from the struggles of his youth—Roth glances out of the window, as if there is just a chance that he will see Herman in the backyard, raking up the past.

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