The Arty Semite

Will the Real Philip Roth Please Stand Up?

By Jason Diamond

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For Philip Roth’s upcoming 80th birthday on March 19, New York magazine assembled a “Literary Caucus” to assess the career of a writer that some love, others hate, but everybody who knows anything about literature respects. While Roth himself had no hand in the piece, the 28 men and five women who weighed in on Roth’s life, times and books were more than enough to add fuel to an already fiery conversation. It didn’t help that n+1 co-founder Keith Gessen answered the question, “Is Roth a misogynist?” with: “If you hate women, why would you want to spend all your time thinking about f*cking them?”

The piece sent readers and writers into a tizzy, prompting discussions on everything from the gender imbalance of the “caucus” to Gessen’s answer, and on the decades-old discussion about Roth himself. What people failed to mention is that while Roth and his work have been stirring up controversy since the 1950s, this conversation was something totally different — Philip Roth was able to enrage people by proxy. He did nothing but serve as a starting point for several different debates. It is a testament to Roth that in his eighth decade he doesn’t even need to write anything and can still cause trouble.

On March 29, PBS will be airing “Philip Roth: Unmasked,” as part of its American Masters series. The documentary debuts March 13 in New York on the big screen at Film Forum, and will no doubt spark more discussion about Roth and his work. But this time it will be about things Roth actually says, rather than what a bunch of writers he influenced have to say about him.

Roth no doubt saw the American Masters profile as an opportunity to show the real Philip Roth, the now-retired 80-year-old writer who just wants to enjoy life. But this is Philip Roth we’re talking about, and there is plenty to chew on. Authors Nicole Krauss, Nathan Englander and Jonathan Franzen, all discuss his life and work. Mia Farrow does as well, leaving one to think that Farrow might be the perfect person to write a book on Great Neurotic Jews of the postwar era, considering her friendship with Roth and her relationship with Woody Allen. With all those guests, however, it is Roth that does the most talking.

He talks about his books, offering insight into what he went through to write them, and what he dealt with after they were published. “I’m not crazy about seeing myself described as an American Jewish writer. I don’t write in Jewish,” Roth says. He tells an anecdote about the time he took a cab ride with a driver named Portnoy, who cursed up and down about the book that ruined his life (Roth finally admitted to the driver that he wrote the book), and he recalls charges of being a self-hating Jew. Roth talks about the sex in his books, defending his work by saying that, “I’m not horny while I’m sitting there writing it,” and offers up some brilliant quotes on everything from his critics to the readers he goes back to again and again. (“I think I saturated myself with Kafka.”)

Aside from his work, the other thing Roth talks about is death. If you played a drinking game where you took a shot every time Roth makes a quip about death, you’d be drunk by the time he got to the mid-1970s. He discusses a phrase from Joyce’s “Ulysses,” “at it again,” when Bloom is touching himself through a hole in his pants pocket, as being the perfect epitaph for his tombstone. He talks a good deal about cemeteries and grave-diggers, and says that as you get older “You look at your address book, it’s like walking through a cemetery.” Roth also discusses his own suicidal thoughts, which turns into a montage of writers who took their own lives. It makes for one of the most depressing, but also interesting things you’ll watch this year.

“Philip Roth: Unmasked,” doesn’t really dispel any of the myths about Roth that are floating out there (that he’s neurotic, crass, and brilliant), but it gives us moment to pause and to be thankful that he’s still around. He’s probably just enjoying all of us talking about him while he sits back and takes in the show.

Watch a preview for ‘Philip Roth: Unmasked’:


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