Judge P.S. Colbert recently entered a twelve-step program for recovering Catholics.
"In the coming years, I have two great calamities to face: death and a biography. Let's hope the first comes first!"—Philip Roth
No such luck. Philip Roth: Unmasked (which premiered as a March 2013 episode of the PBS American Masters television series,) finds the literary lion very much alive, and still virile on the eve of his eightieth birthday.
Even better, the lion is roaring. About his life and his work (if one can imagine them as separate entities—Roth doth protest too much that his fiction isn't autobiographic!), about marriage, divorce, death, politics, debilitating physical pain, his influences, his failures, and even his successes; all with a rapier wit, a glass-smooth deadpan, and an endearingly authentic self-deprecation.
What I found most striking and most surprising about him during the course of this fascinating documentary was Roth's seemingly genuine "just another mensch" affability—this man won the National Book Award for Fiction (with his first novel, no less!), the Pulitzer Prize, and just about every other citation of merit the literary world has on offer. Wasn't he one of the dreaded, egg-headed "New York Intelligentsia?" Had he forgotten his tenure as a writing instructor at the venerated University of Chicago?
Where was the sex-crazed intellectual pornographer? Where was the Anti-Semitic, self-hating Jew?
These were some of the choice epithets being hurled Roth's way in the days immediately following publication of "Portnoy's Complaint," his fourth, and best-selling novel, in 1969. An angst and lust-ridden confession by one Alexander Portnoy from the couch in his psycho-analyst's office, this dark comic masterpiece made the author a household name and a fugitive from celebrity at the same time.
"The New York Times had interviews of my high school teachers, can you imagine?" Roth recalls. "There were television programs—six Jewish mothers on to talk about my book…and me!"
"I got literary fame, sexual fame, and even madman fame! I had lots of opportunity to ruin my life."
Fortunately for the rest of us, Roth chose instead to keep working, and though he recently announced his retirement after over a half-century of toil, those closest to him (including longtime friend and neighbor Mia Farrow, who supplies a great deal of information here) know better than to take him at his word.
Aside from enlightening and unobtrusive cameos by some of the author's childhood friends and a cabal of today's brightest young literary voices (Jonathan Franzen, Nicole Krauss and Nathan Englander), documentarians William Karel and Livia Manera wisely keep their cameras where they belong, and this attention to detail is echoed by a sterling anamorphic widescreen presentation from PBS with crystal clear Dolby Digital stereo sound to match. English SDH subtitles are available, and for those who don't want the party to end so soon, there are extended interviews and readings by Roth from his own canon.
Though never reclusive on the order of Salinger or Pynchon, the New Jersey born novelist has, before now, generally preferred to put it in writing, effectively eschewing the limelight. And while Philip Roth: Unmasked is by no means a glitzy, gala affair, it's most likely the closest you'll ever come to an intimate encounter with an (alleged) intellectual pornographer.
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