‘Philip Roth: Unmasked’ Might Convert Skeptics, But Doesn’t Do Much Unmasking

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I’m not a Philip Roth fan. To be fair, I haven’t tried very hard to be. Sure, several years ago, at the insistence of a (male, Jewish) friend, I tried Portnoy’s Complaint, but couldn’t make it past 50 pages. It’s not that I found it shocking, of course – I was mostly just bored. Since then, Philip Roth has settled into the category of authors I vaguely feel that I should be reading, but who I can never seem to get to when there are so many Calvino and Nabokov and Gaitskill books to divert my attention. This lukewarm disinterest has been encouraged by reports from the front – of Roth’s rampant misogyny in both life and art, of his distracting self-obsession in the same, of the idea that “he goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.” Now, where’s that ragged copy of Pnin?

But, ever your dutiful literary editor, I sat down to watch PBS’s American Masters documentary Philip Roth: Unmasked with an open mind. After all, Roth is a titanic force in the landscape of American fiction, whether I personally care for his writing or not. I’m glad I did, because from the very first moment of the film, Philip Roth began to charm me. “In the coming years, I have two great calamities to face,” he begins, his eyes twinkling, “death and a biography. Let’s hope the first comes first.”

He goes on to give as much biographical information as a layperson like myself could hope for – stories about walking to the pharmacy to rent books for his mother, musings on the writers whose work set him ablaze (Beckett, Joyce) and his own experiences with reading. “What I liked very much was one line in Ulysses that made a deep impression on me,” he remembered. “It’ll show you how childish I am. At one point Bloom, the hero of the book, goes down to the waterfront of the shingle to watch a girl, Gerty McDowell I think her name is… she’s young and pretty, and he puts his hand in his pocket, and he has cut the lining in the pocket so his hand can go right through to his privates. So Joyce tells you what’s going on, but you still don’t get it, until the next paragraph begins ‘At it again.’ I loved ‘at it again.’ I think it should be on my tombstone. At it again.” With that, I was in Roth’s pocket – a wholly untampered-with pocket, mind you. As the film goes on, Roth explains his writing practices, talks about his family’s reaction to his work, and is altogether loveable. Even after all the reports of grouchiness and sexism, I found myself a fan – at least of the man, if not the art.

However, as charmed as I was by the presentation of Roth as a witty and affable, if completely unapologetic, old man, I was not fooled into thinking that this adoring portrait was any sort of candid view into the author. There’s no unmasking in Philip Roth: Unmasked. Yes, we get to sit with the notoriously interview-shy (or perhaps just interview-indifferent) Roth for some 90 minutes as he tells stories about his life, talks about craft, and considers his old age – his monologues only sparingly augmented with devotional commentary from the likes of Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Franzen – but the film carefully shies away from the issues that might be truly revelatory. There is little discussion of Roth’s tumultuous personal life, which served as source material for several of his novels. While he shrugs away what must be a question about the much-criticized sex obsession that plays out in his novels, there’s no attempt to address the accusations of misogyny that have been levied at Roth’s work as well as his life. And perhaps most surprising of all, there’s no mention of Roth’s retirement from fiction, something that has inspired much speculation from fans and other members of the literary community over the past few months. Indeed, the Roth of this film sounds like he will never stop writing. “I keep doing it,” he says. “I never quit. My worst times are when I’m not writing. I’m prone then to be unhappy, depressed, anxious, and so on.” Even Mia Farrow is on hand to disbelieve any suggestion that any novel might be his last. Sure, the announcement could have come after the filming of the interviews – but the filmmakers, William Karel and Livia Manera, could have always called for a voice-over quote, or re-edited.

The result is this: I like Philip Roth a little better. I have resolved (as I admit, I have resolved before) to read Sabbath’s Theater. But those looking for a peek at what’s behind the Great American Novelist mask won’t find what they’re seeking here. Philip Roth stays safely behind his screen. He’s probably making a face at us while we all smile along.

Philip Roth: Unmasked airs Friday at 9pm on PBS’s American Masters.