Academic journal article Shofar

Death, Mourning, and Besse's Ghost: From Philip Roth's the Facts to Sabbath's Theater

Academic journal article Shofar

Death, Mourning, and Besse's Ghost: From Philip Roth's the Facts to Sabbath's Theater

Article excerpt

Roth's autobiographical The Facts (1988) and Patrimony (1991) are preoccupied with themes surfacing in the novel Sabbath's Theater (1995). There, the ghost of Sabbath's mother appears as the Lacanian "Real," an irruption into ordinary reality of death and mourning. In The Facts, the Real circulates around Besse Roth, in Patrimony around Herman Roth. But Sabbath contends less with the death of a mother than with an unresolved mourning of a brother and of a self unwittingly denied existence by his mother when his brother was killed in World War II. Finally sorting out these issues, Sabbath resolves not to commit suicide.

Memories of the past are not memories of facts but memories of your imaginings of the facts. There is something naive about a novelist like myself talking about presenting himself "undisguised" and depicting "a life without the fiction. "

- Philip Roth, The Facts

Oddly, perhaps, though it is a life in each case upon which they focus, it is death, not life, that lies behind Roth's two autobiographical works of nonfiction, The Facts (1988) and Patrimony (1991). Patrimony somewhat fills the gap of years between Roth, age about 35, covered in The Facts and Roth, age about 55, when in Patrimony he produced his affecting account of his father's life and death in 1989 of a brain tumor. The Facts ends in about September 1968, at a time just before the publication of Portnoy's Complaint made Roth rich and famous (well, rich and notorious). But it was neither wealth nor fame that drove Roth to write The Facts. According to Roth, that book was as much a response to death as was Patrimony. Whereas Patrimony emerged from Roth's foreknowledge that his father was dying of the tumor and thus was written from notes Roth made as the tumor progressed, the earlier Facts came as a response to the other parent's death, to the death of Besse Roth. In a "letter" to Nathan Zuckerman prefacing The Facts, Roth confesses some of the motives that underlay his writing the book. One motive, he suggests, is that he was tired of creating "self-legends" in his fiction; another is the "crack-up" that resulted from his having taken the drug Halcion while recovering from a knee-surgery that went wrong; yet a third and to Roth the most prominent was his mother's death. "Though I can't be entirely sure," he tells Zuckerman, "I wonder if this book was written not only out of exhaustion with making fictional self-legends and not only as a spontaneous therapeutic response to my crack-up but also as a palliative for the loss of a mother who still, in my mind, seems to have died inexplicably - at seventy-seven in 1981."1

But this motive is augmented, says Roth, by another that, as we will learn from Patrimony, has an oddly ironic, almost uncanny, portentousness to it. The writing of The Facts may also have provided a way, says Roth, "to hearten me as I come closer and closer and closer to an eighty-six-year-old father viewing the end of life as a thing as near to his face as the mirror he shaves in (except that this mirror is there day and night, directly in front of him all the time)" (F, 8-9). The irony here occurs not in the father's knowledge, but in Roth' s lack of knowledge about his father' s health. Thus The Facts provides knowing readers an uncanny portent of Patrimony not only in its most brutal "fact," but also in the metaphor of illness Roth uses to speak of a father he still thinks is healthy. "Even though it might not be apparent to others," says Roth of the earlier book, "I think that subterraneanly my mother's death is very strong in . . . [it], as is observing my provident father preparing for no future, a healthy but very old man dealing with the kind of feelings aroused by an incurable illness, because just like those who are incurably ill, the aged know everything about their dying except exactly when" (F, 9).

Soon enough, both Roth and his father will learn that the old man's good health is an illusion and that the specter of his death will become visible in the tumor's effect on his motor skills, facial muscles, and ability to swallow. …

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