Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Celebrating Philip Roth

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Celebrating Philip Roth

Article excerpt


"Well, in the coming years, I have two great calamities to face: death and a biography," 80-year-old Philip Roth says with a wry smile. "Let's hope the first comes first."

Actually, what has come first is a 90-minute biographical documentary, "Philip Roth: Unmasked," which airs on PBS' "American Masters" series and mostly lives up to its title. Roth scholars may zero in on omissions, but those who are just generally acquainted with his work will probably find it enlightening.

Filmmakers Livia Manera, an Italian newspaper literary correspondent, and William Karel, a French director, get the notoriously media-averse Roth, who announced his retirement from writing last year, to open up about his life -- beginning with his Newark childhood -- as well as his enormous body of work.

The Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning author candidly discusses all he has produced in the 54 years since "Goodbye Columbus," his collection of short stories, gained him attention in 1959. Ten years later, with "Portnoy's Complaint," Roth, at age 36, completely lost his anonymity but finally made some real money.

Roth talks about the back story for each book and the controversy that surrounded many of them. He even talks some about his process (he writes seven days a week while working on a book, standing up, which frees his imagination), and how after he finishes a book he makes four or five copies of it.

"And I mail them to friends whose critical acumen I trust," says Roth, who then meets with each person to talk the book over. "And I tape-record, so I don't have to take notes and not be involved in a conversation with them."

Reading all 31 novels

Before conducting 10 days of interviews with Roth at his Upper West Side apartment and his 18th-century farmhouse in Connecticut, Manera read all 31 of Roth's novels.

The film has insightful commentary from New Yorker critic and staff writer Claudia Roth Pierpont (who addresses how Roth "reinvented himself so many times over the decades"), dentist Bob Heyman, a Weequahic High School classmate who's still a close friend (who remembers Roth's home as "mirth-filled"); Mia Farrow, another friend and neighbor in Connecticut; advertising maven Jane Brown Maas, a friend of Roth's since their days at Bucknell University, and novelist Jonathan Franzen, who praises Roth for "how brave he must have been to have methodically offended everybody and to have exposed parts of himself no one had ever exposed before."

In Newark, he grew up the second son of a Newark-native father and a mother who'd been born in Elizabeth to Jewish immigrants -- and adored him, Roth says, quoting a Freud line: "He who is loved by his mother is a conquistador."

His Jewish household was not particularly religious, he says, and the family owned only "three or four [books] that had been given as gifts. …

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