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The American Masters episode “Philip Roth: Unmasked” debuts tonight on PBS at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 8 p.m. Central and Mountain in most markets. You should check your local listings.

In a profile of Philip Roth published in Life magazine in 1969, Albert Goldman described a typical chance encounter with the novelist at “a little breakfast shop in Manhattan’s East Sixties. I’d be sitting there enjoying the peace of the morning hour and the soothing influence of an egg and butter, when my mood would be shattered by a reproachful voice: ‘Albert, your father and I have been worried sick about you!’ Looking up I would see, not my Jewish mother magically transported from Santa Monica to New York, but Philip Roth glaring at me maniacally… Slipping into the chair next to mine, fixing me with a hooded maternal gaze, he would continue his exhortation in that guilt-inducing, this-is-not-your-mother-but-your-conscience voice: ‘Two weeks and not a word. How is it a writer, a person who sits all day behind a typewriter, can’t put two words together to send a message to a mother who lives three thousand miles away?’ Then a hyena laugh, fracturing that sorrowful maternal stare into the crazy lights and angles of a Cubist portrait.” Having finished his opening routine, Roth would suddenly start “doing all the voice from the Jack Benny show…Everybody would be asking himself, ‘Who the hell is this guy? He must be some famous Jewish nightclub comedian who hasn’t gotten to bed yet.”


Those were the good old days. By the time that issue of Life was on the stands, Roth’s fourth book, Portnoy’s Complaint, was a runaway bestseller, and the 36-year-old author had money for the first time in his life. But he was also a celebrity, being recognized and shouted at by strangers as he was trying to mind his own business, walking the streets of New York. Roth had experienced fame and controversy before, when his short story “Defender Of The Faith,” about a Jewish army sergeant who has to deal with a Jewish recruit’s efforts to guilt-trip him into awarding him preferential treatment, got him accused of being a “self-hating Jew”—an experience that he would plow into The Ghost Writer (1979), the first of nine books about the novelist Nathan Zuckerman. But that was confined to the literary scene and a few touchy rabbis, who asked him things like, “Would you write these stories if you were in Nazi Germany?” Now he had people who knew nothing about his latest novel except for its title and the fact that the hero talked about masturbation leaning out of their car windows to yell, “Hey, Portnoy! Cut it out!”

In this American Masters documentary, directed by William Karel and Livia Manera, the critical essayist Claudia Roth Pierpont comments on the degree to which Roth has “reimagined and reinvented himself” throughout his long career, and the man who appears on-camera here doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who’d interrupt your morning Danish to do Jolson impressions. But he’s still an amazing talker, and Karel and Manera have had the good sense to shape this production as an illustrated monologue, with the subject doing all the heavy lifting of filling in the details of his life, describing his work process, and explicating the meaning of his work and the intentions behind it. There are only occasional interruptions, mostly from a few select “friends” (including, distractingly, Mia Farrow) and younger writers.

Of the guest talking heads, Claudia Roth Pierpont makes a few useful observations, but none of the other novelists contribute anything interesting enough to justify interrupting the flow of Roth’s words. Probably they’re not here for their words. Nathan Englander may be here to show that, unlike those people who canceled their subscriptions to The New Yorker back in 1959, today’s Jewish literary figures “get” Roth, and Nicole Krauss could be included to show that not all women think the guy’s a misogynist. Jonathan Franzen, who acquits Roth of the charge of narcissism—an accusation commonly made, he says, among writers and readers of “my generation,” maybe because he has several million people of a certain age confused with David Foster Wallace—is here because, well, so was the cameraman. You have to feel for Franzen: Between the literary discussions and the bird-watching documentaries, the poor guy is in such demand that he doesn’t even have time to shave between interviews.


Portnoy’s Complaint was one of the big transitional events in Roth’s career. As a college student, he had, he says, edited the campus literary magazine so he could get his own “bad little stories” in print. They were written under the sway of J. D. Salinger; reading him, Roth says with no detectable sneer, “I wanted to be sensitive, too.” He got over that. Portnoy, which he describes as “performing on the page,” was the culmination of a period when he had cast off the chains of his “brutal and lurid” first marriage and was wandering the metropolis, looking for men with whom he shared a sense of humor, who he could—as he did for Albert Goldman—perform for. Portnoy’s amounted to “performing on the page,” a commercial and creative breakthrough for a man who had discovered that a sense of shame is incompatible with being a writer.

Roth talks about the value of a inventing a “stand-in” character who “frees you to draw on your own experience and to invent off of your own experience. It’s a mask, and in masks, there is freedom.” At the same time, he takes exception to the charge that all his masks are the same. Zuckerman is always being described as “sex-obsessed,” because everyone who thinks they know more about contemporary literature than they do thinks that Philip Roth is sex-obsessed, but the characters has barely ever gotten laid on the page, and in his last few appearances was impotent. Where Zuckerman has virtually “ no sexual experience,” David Kepesh is “a learned hedonist” who “has only sexual experience. (Kepesh starred in three novels, starting with the 1972 The Breast. In that one, he was lying in a hospital bed, hooked up to various feeding contraptions, having been transformed into a 150-pound female breast, but then he got better.)

He never used Portnoy again, although in an interview in the ‘70s, he said that “Portnoy” amounted to an “explosion” for him, and that each of the wild-man’s novels he composed in the aftermath of that explosion—Our Gang (1971), The Breast, The Great American Novel (1973)—amounted to “Portnoy in another book.” Those books get short shrift here; the filmmakers are eager to move on to the amazing run of novels dealing with “politics and history” that commenced in the 1990s: American Pastoral (1996), I Married A Communist (1998), The Human Stain (2000), The Plot Against America (2004). These are more clearly PBS-friendly, canonical works, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fascinating to listen to him talk about them.


Roth caused a stir recently when he announced that he wouldn’t be writing any more fiction—we’ll see about that—and that, at 80, he has no interest in reading any more of the stuff. That last claim seems quite reasonable in light of his remarks here about how much he’s enjoying re-reading all the books he loved as a boy, now that he can experience them as an old man. “In the coming years,” he tells the camera, “I have two great calamities to face: Death and a biography,” adding, “Let’s hope the first comes first.” His insistence that he’s written his last book is the self-protective impulse of a man who’d rather not start something he might not be able to finish, but Mia Farrow says that she’s heard him say it before. After finishing The Plot Against America, his solution to this problem was to switch gears and concentrate on writing a string of short novels that only took him a year or so to complete. Maybe now, he should start a podcast. Albert Goldman is dead, but there are still plenty of people who’d love to hear America's greatest living writer do his impressions of Jack Benny and Rochester.