The PBS American Masters series marks the 80th birthday of a true master of American literature on Friday, March 29 with the premiere of Philip Roth: Unmasked. The documentary is largely an hour-and-a-half monologue in which Roth talks about his life and work, interspersed with commentary from friends and other writers, and when you have a subject this charming, intelligent and honest about himself and his work, it is an hour and a half that flies by leaving you wishing for more.
Beginning with his childhood in Newark, where he grew up in a loving family that was not particularly religious, he talks about a home where books were largely absent, although he remembers getting books for his mother from a drugstore lending library (an institution long gone). Still, in his early teens he was reading if not always understanding books like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. In college at Bucknell, he edited the literary magazine, primarily, he quips, to publish his own stories, which weren’t all that good—sensitive, he adds, but not very good. He did a stint in the army, continued writing, and there, he says, he wrote one of his better known stories, “The Conversion of the Jews.”
He is not shy about the controversies surrounding his early work. “Defender of the Faith,” his very first published story, raised a furor in some quarters of the Jewish community. He was accused of being anti-Semitic. He was accused of being a self-hating Jew. And the other stories later published in the Goodbye, Columbus collection just added to the criticism. Interestingly, he cites Isaac Bashevis Singer’s answer to those who asked him why he found it necessary to write about Jewish whores and pimps: Who do you want me to write about? Portuguese whores and pimps? Jews are human, with all the flaws inherent in the human condition, and it is the function of the artist to paint what he sees.
Then there was the smirking brouhaha over the frank sexuality of Portnoy’s Complaint and the troublesome confusion of the author with his hero, or anti-hero. This of course has been a problem that has haunted Roth through the whole of his career—Nathan Zuckerman, David Kepesh, Mickey Sabbath, all have been identified with the author by one critic or another. Roth, while recognizing that elements of his life have gone into the composition of his novels, insists it is naïve to equate an author with his characters.
He tells the story—a story I imagine he has often dined out on—of how he warned his parents about the commotion likely to be raised after the publication of Portnoy. He explained that if journalists called with questions they should just hang up. His father tells him that his mother was in tears after he left them. Why? She couldn’t believe what had happened to her son, how he had gotten such a swelled head.
As far as his personal life is concerned he does mention an unhappy first marriage, but he doesn’t have anything to say about his marriage to the actress Claire Bloom and her ugly depiction of him in her memoir, Leaving a Doll’s House. And he has only little to say about his own I Married a Communist which some critics have seen as a reply to her criticism. Indeed, aside from the early years, he is rather reticent when it comes down to his later life. He talks about the death of his father, an ordeal he deals with emotionally in Patrimony. But there is little in the way of biographical information about most of his adult life.
The focus is on his books, and in some sense that is how it should be. After all, were it not for his books would there even be a documentary? His opening remark makes his attitude perfectly clear. At his age he only has two things to look forward to, and both are bad—death and a biography. If this documentary does nothing else, it gives him the opportunity to frame the discussion of his work. He unmasks himself, and while there will be those who suspect still another mask beneath, for many this will be the man revealed.
Although Roth is the central voice in the film, there is also commentary from admiring writers like Jonathan Franzen, Nicole Krauss and Nathan Englander, New Yorker critic and staff writer Claudia Roth Pierpont, and friends like Jane Brown Maas and Mia Farrow.
Since the filming of the documentary, Roth has announced that he has now retired from writing, but as Ms. Farrow tells us in the course of the film, she’s heard this kind of thing before, and she’ll believe it when she sees it. She knows the man, masked or unmasked—there’s more than a good chance that she’s right.