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'Everything in Patrimony did indeed happen'


Intimacy with my father
Philip Roth Writer
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At one point when he was staying with me, he wanted a bath. And so I took him into... ran the bath, took him into the bathtub... I remember – I don't even know if this is in the book – I now remember that he... he showed me how he gets into the bathtub to be sure he doesn't fall, and it was a very elaborate crawl... crawling-like manoeuvre and... and very touching, because my father had been a very strong man. And, yes, that's what I saw when I saw his... him in the bathtub. He was almost like a child playing in the bath. He patted the water, you know, it felt good. And what I was seeing in many ways was the end, the end was being... the end was being enacted in front of my eyes. There was no pain involved, fortunately, but just the... the diminishing, diminishing, diminishing, diminishing. And in the bathtub...

I haven't read, as I say, I haven't read the book in years so I don't... I don't really remember what I wrote but I think I wrote this – that needless to say, of course, I looked at his penis. Why wouldn't I? But what's interesting I probably... is I probably hadn't seen it since I was a boy when father and son do things together and it's absolutely natural, and when we would go swimming together when I was a kid, or he used to take me to the... the Turkish baths in... in Newark, my brother too, and we would all be naked, and we would have sheets around us. It was a great thrill as a kid to be amidst all the men, all his friends. These old men in their toga-like sheets, you know. And so then we all saw each other. I remember... I was a little boy, of course, being... fascinated by all these... all these balls and bellies and so on, and... and the farting. And... and we'd go on in the... in the... one room we slept in after we took the baths, we'd sleep in these sheets up on cots and there'd be a lot of men there, and there'd be this sort of concerto of... of farts, all of which delights and shocks a little one.

So I hadn't really seen him without his clothes on since I was 10 years old. And now I was almost 60 years old, and he was no longer 30, he was 80. And so the... the intimate knowledge of... of the other person floods in on you, especially in their helplessness, their vulnerability. I mean, doctors and nurses see this stuff every day, but we don't. And so I wrote that scene... that scene too.

The fame of the American writer Philip Roth (1933-2018) rested on the frank explorations of Jewish-American life he portrayed in his novels. There is a strong autobiographical element in much of what he wrote, alongside social commentary and political satire. Despite often polarising critics with his frequently explicit accounts of his male protagonists' sexual doings, Roth received a great many prestigious literary awards which include a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1997, and the 4th Man Booker International Prize in 2011.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: father, bathtub, naked, penis, Turkish baths, fart, vulnerability, aging

Duration: 3 minutes, 39 seconds

Date story recorded: March 2011

Date story went live: 18 March 2013