Roth’s autobiographical writings

Hana Wirth-Nesher*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


“You remember Lou Holtz? He used to say, ‘Vas you dere, Chollie?’” “Is that who said that? I’ve often wondered. I always say it to Claire but I never knew who the comedian was. He’s before my time, Lou Holtz. Vas you dere, Chollie?”1 This exchange between the ailing Herman Roth and his son Philip in the account of his father’s last days in Patrimony can serve as a signature of Roth’s autobiographies as literary, historical, and ethical works. First, no matter how skeptical we may be about the truth of any autobiography, we rely on the author’s account of his or her own life because we would always have to reply in the negative should the author ask his readers, “Vas you dere, Chollie?” Although we have learned to read autobiographies for emotional or psychological insights glimpsed through partial memory, evasion, and desire, we continue to search for truths unlike the ones we expect to uncover in fiction because we could never be “there,” inside someone else’s life. That is the great appeal of this literary genre-the transitory glimpse into the life of another. It is a clever move on Roth’s part to splice this quip into his memoir, a disarming technique that he will employ in his other autobiographical writings, to anticipate and defuse our skepticism. This apparently ordinary conversation between a father and son who both know that the father is facing imminent death and that no amount of sympathy can bridge the gap between the dying and the spectator-“vas you dere?”-locates Philip Roth not only artistically, as a comic, unsentimental, yet touching writer, but also historically, as a generation removed from Lou Holtz and borscht-belt humor.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to Philip Roth
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)9781139001304
ISBN (Print)9780521864305
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2007


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