Philip Roth is considered one of the great American writers — to some, the greatest. He is also one who is, as the New Yorker’s David Remnick once put it, single-mindedly devoted to his work in a way few artists can match.
Now 80 years old, he has produced prolifically and often brilliantly for half a century, filling seven hefty volumes of Library of America editions. He has had best-sellers (most famously Portnoy’s Complaint), and more than one screen adaptation (Goodbye, Columbus; The Human Stain), and offered meditations on all of the preoccupations of American culture, particularly sex and politics. When he speaks about writing, people who care about art should listen, especially now that Roth claims he has retired.
But that’s not to say we should listen uncritically, especially when Roth is talking to sympathetic ears, accompanied only by the voices of friends and admirers, when there are plenty of others who would question Roth’s view of the relationship between men and women, of turning life into art, of brutal frankness and of events in his own life.
Watching the American Masters episode Philip Roth: Unmasked, airing on PBS at 9 p.m. on March 29, you may ponder why someone who, according to writer Jonathan Franzen, “doesn’t care what the world thinks of him,” has at times demonstrated an urge for recognition — even admitting to a cabdriver named Portnoy that he, Roth, wrote the book that made the name so notorious.
You may long more than once for the vivid words of Claire Bloom, who spent 18 years with Roth as companion and later wife, and whose book Leaving the Doll’s House portrayed a Roth whose brilliance and charm were counterweighed by a coldness and insistence on control which came from more than just strict devotion to his work.
But Bloom is not heard in the program, possibly because her 1996 account falls under the “no gossip” rule imposed by Unmasked’s co-writer and co-director Livia Manera. In American Masters notes, she calls herself a friend of Roth’s for 15 years, which may have prompted protectiveness. It may also be that, on some subjects, Roth kept the mask firmly on, and that Manera was content to let Roth tell his story and explain his books in his own way — because, again, he should be heard.
And heard he is, objecting to critics who have seized on the Jewish strand in some of his writing, or the often raw depictions of sex (if you remember the shock over Portnoy’s, imagine even more stunning extremes in Sabbath’s Theater). He explains the way little found moments have pushed along big writing. He notes bouts of depression, and matter-of-factly says that writers don’t have to look hard for suffering because “it will find you soon enough.”
But as closely as I listened to him, it too often felt as if things were left unsaid — or that Roth wanted his writing to do the speaking for himself.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.