The great Jewish American novelist Philip Roth tends to be reclusive and rarely grants interviews. But in a revealing PBS documentary from the American Masters series, Philip Roth: Unmasked, due to be broadcast on March 29 at 9 p.m., he displays a loquacious side.
For reasons that remain undisclosed, Roth – the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and twice winner of the National Book Award – gave filmmakers Livia Manera and William Karel unprecedented access. Over 12 hours during a 10-day period, he reflected on his life and career in what is billed as the first biopic on Roth.
Happily enough, Roth, who marked his 80th birthday on March 19, is open and lucid.
Better still, his observations, at once serious and funny, are supplemented by perceptive comments from critic Claudia Pierpont, a staff writer at the New Yorker; the novelists Nicole Krauss, Jonathan Franzen and Nathan Englander, and a procession of Roth’s friends.
With 31 novels and collections of short stories to his credit, Roth is a veritable writing machine. But as he admits toward the close of this 90-minute film, he never fails to wonder, at least between books, whether he can pull it off yet again.
Flitting between an Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan and a cottage in rural Connecticut, Roth works constantly, standing as he writes. He claims that the only reader who counts is himself, but that is not entirely true. Upon completion of a manuscript, he submits copies to trusted friends for input.
Roth, whose novels grapple with moral struggle and moral ambiguity, as Krauss points out, does not just tap into his formidable powers of imagination. Likening himself to a journalist, a comparison most creative writers would eschew, Roth says he often relies on news stories, past and present, for inspiration.
He candidly discusses the sexuality in his novels, but acknowledges that the escapades he describes so luridly and hilariously are not necessarily based on real experiences.
The film unfolds in chronological order after a heated denial by Roth that he is a “Jewish” writer. “I don’t write Jewish,” he declares indignantly, describing himself as an “American” writer.
He denies being a self-hating Jew or an antisemite, which some critics claimed he was following the publication of Goodbye, Columbus (1959), a book that gained him national attention.
As Pierpont says, Roth launched his career by drawing on his childhood in Newark, N.J., where he was born in 1933. He was the son of middle-class Jews, but his grandfather was an immigrant from Eastern Europe who spoke only Yiddish. Roth’s father, whom he calls “a terrific pain in the ass,” expected him to be a lawyer. However, Roth had his sights set on literature.
Although there were few books in his household, Roth began to read at the age of 12, and the Irish novelist James Joyce was one of his most formative influences. “That changed everything,” he muses.
Desperately seeking to assert his independence, he left Newark at 16 to attend university. “I just wanted to get the hell away,” he says.
At university, Roth turned to writing, but he dismisses his early stories. He began writing in earnest while in the army, and Franzen claims he became “the central figure” in his novels, which range from American Pastoral to The Human Stain.
There were bumps on the road. As a result of a “brutal and lurid” marriage, he developed a writer’s block and his self-confidence fell away. Cured by the balm of psychoanalysis, Roth wrote the ribald bestseller, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969).
As he mischievously recalls, he had to “prepare” his parents for its publication. True to his prediction, it was immensely popular. “Suddenly, I had money,” he says. Buoyed by its success, he bought his first car and house and sent his parents on a cruise.
Given his advanced age, he dwells on the spectre of death.
A painful back ailment prompted him to contemplate suicide, he admits.
The topic induces Roth to discuss the panoply of famous novelists who’ve committed suicide.
The prospect of death generates fear and sadness, but not rage, in him. “Time is running out,” he says in a tone of resignation.
Quickly regaining his composure, he suggests that he is good and ready for his rendezvous with mortality.
Whenever he leaves this vale of tears, Roth can take solace from the fact that he has truly lived life to the full.