Writers’ epitaphs can be unbearably maudlin — Frost’s “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world” comes to mind, but there are others — which is why I’ve always liked the legacy Philip Roth proposed in The Counterlife. “If you’re from New Jersey,” says his alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, “and you write thirty books, and you win the Nobel Prize, and you live to be white-haired and ninety-five, it’s highly unlikely but not impossible that after your death they’ll decide to name a rest stop for you on the Jersey Turnpike. And so, long after you’re gone, you may indeed be remembered, but mostly by small children, in the backs of cars, when they lean forward and tell their parents, ‘Stop, please, stop at Zuckerman — I have to make a pee.’ For a New Jersey novelist that’s as much immortality as it’s realistic to hope for.”
The rest stop hasn’t happened — yet — but Philip Roth: Unmasked, written and directed by William Karel and Livia Manera, will have its nationwide debut on PBS on March 29, just ten days after Roth’s 80th birthday. Culled from twelve hours of interviews conducted over ten days, the program was recorded shortly before Roth’s surprise announcement in October, to an interviewer for the French magazine Les inRocKs, that he has retired from writing fiction. He has not, however, put away his papers entirely, and is collaborating on a biography — not because he likes the idea, he told Les inRocKs, but because biographies are inevitable, and so he may as well have some say over one. “Well,” he tells the camera before the opening titles in Unmasked, “in the coming years I have two great calamities to face: death and a biography. Let’s hope the first comes first.”
The American Masters series began in 1986 and represents pretty much exactly the PBS-ifying of Culturally Significant Lives you’d expect. The full roster is bracketed at the high end by names like Rubinstein and Noguchi, at the low end by Harper Lee — and reminds me of a moving scene in Roth’s The Professor of Desire where David Kepesh’s decidedly low-culture immigrant father presents his literature-professor son with an album of collectible “Shakespeare Medals,” each depicting a scene from one of the plays on one side, a quotation on the other. (“That’s what’s so useful,” the senior Kepesh explains proudly. “It’s something not just for the home, but that he can have ten and twenty years from now to show his classes.”) The people who collect sterling-silver commemorative medallions of Shakespeare’s plays are not, one cannot but think, the people actually spending much time reading Shakespeare; and anyone who has read much Roth is likely to have the same feeling about Unmasked.
That he should be collaborating on it in the first place is surprising: Through a half century of collecting practically every literary award — except, as we’re annually reminded, the Nobel Prize — Roth has made few public appearances and granted only occasional interviews. His work habits sound decidedly monastic: a solitary life in Connecticut, lots of quiet, music. He even writes standing up. One thinks of E. I. Lonoff’s unglamorous characterization of his craft in The Ghost Writer: “I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around . . .” One could hardly quarrel with the results: The enfant terrible who antagonized Jewish leaders — and, at 26, scooped up his first National Book Award — with Goodbye, Columbus would go on to produce a body of work of astoundingly high quality. As Booker Prize judge Rick Gekoski put it in 2011: “Tell me one other writer who fifty years apart writes masterpieces.”
If there’s not really much unmasking going on in Unmasked, perhaps that’s only to be expected. Roth gave The Facts the subtitle “A Novelist’s Autobiography,” for instance, and much of it seems to do what it says on the tin. But in the last fifth of the book, Nathan Zuckerman, having read the preceding pages, writes back: “Don’t publish — you are far better off writing about me than ‘accurately’ reporting your own life. . . . You, Roth, are the least completely rendered of all your protagonists.” He’s not the only one to have thought so. When rumors were swirling last year of an authorized biography, Jacques Berlinerblau observed that “we need Philip Roth to be on intimate terms with his biographer like we need a pyromaniac manning the graveyard shift over at the old Fireworks Factory down by the children’s hospital.”
Which is not to say Unmasked isn’t engaging. We hear about the idyllic childhood in Newark, the college years, the disastrous first marriage, the psychoanalysis. We meet a former classmate or two, and are shown some wonderful, antic stills of the young Roth, who looks more alive in photographs than most people do in real life. There are funny stories about the notoriety that came with Portnoy — the cabbie he met actually named Portnoy, who found himself the butt of endless jokes after the book’s release and had a thing or two to say to that goddamned son-of-a-bitch who wrote it; the guy who yelled across a street one day, “Philip Roth, the enemy of the Jews!”
But, frustratingly, it all seems tailored primarily for an audience that hasn’t read his books. It’s possible he was given better prompts that he declined, of course — which can be the price of getting this kind of access. But the sense I had watching Unmasked was that it hadn’t occurred to the writers to think of challenging questions in the first place. Thus, we’re given Roth quoting Chekhov on the duty of the artist (“the proper presentation of the problem,” rather than political action), or Roth admitting that he has thought of suicide at times in his life, and musing that a significant number of good writers seem to have ended that way. These are not only softballs — they’re not even interesting softballs. What high-school sophomore couldn’t tell you that gifted writers have a tendency to kill themselves?
Jacqueline Susann famously quipped to Johnny Carson, “Philip Roth is a good writer, but I wouldn’t want to shake hands with him,” and Roth has been getting mistaken for his characters ever since — even in Unmasked, he’s still protesting: “Whether it’s believable or not, most of the events in my books never happened.” That said, he does use real life as raw material, and we’re given some examples here: a trip to Tanglewood with Mia Farrow that turns up in The Human Stain, a real-life gravedigger (“I don’t like that for you, Mr. Roth. There’s no legroom”) who helped inspire Sabbath’s Theater. These things would be fine as filler, but in Unmasked they’re passed for substance. Or take the discussion of The Plot Against America. The book, in which Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh wins the presidency in 1940, was read by many as an allegory for the Bush administration; Roth tells us this was not his aim in writing it, but “if it addressed emotions that people had at the moment, fine.” I am an extremely partial reader of Roth; I don’t believe we’ll see another writer of his stature in my lifetime. But my reaction to The Plot Against America was not “Is this or is this not an allegory for the Bush administration?” — but something more along the lines of: Wow, yeah. It certainly is a good thing FDR was in office, so that we didn’t wind up with any internment camps in this country. I don’t mean, of course, that we need Roth to write about Japanese Americans. But for alternative history, The Plot Against America was bizarrely myopic about actual history. Unmasked would have been a lot more interesting if its subject had been asked to look at his work with a critical eye, and not merely a nostalgic one.
Documentaries are probably a better fit for musicians or artists. A musician can make music, after all; an artist can show art. What can a writer do on camera, other than act like somebody acting like a writer? To convey the desired gravitas, the directors of Unmasked have included scenes of Roth standing at his desk, walking up to his Lonoff-like country house, or just sitting solemnly in a chair while classical music plays. There is even, heaven help us, footage of him walking along a beach amid whirring gulls. What does Roth himself make of all this posing? one wonders. “I was educated to believe,” he wrote in The Facts in 1988, “that the independent reality of the fiction is all there is of importance and that writers should remain in the shadows.” Maybe he’s changed his mind since then, or maybe he’s just resigned. For now, I count my blessings: At least nobody’s making him join Twitter.
– Emmy Chang is a freelance writer living in New Haven, Conn.