Philip Roth, one of the few living lions of the generation of American writers who came to prominence in the 1950s and '60s, turned 80 years old March 19.
Roth made headlines last year when he announced in an interview with a French magazine that he had retired from writing fiction — a highly unusual move for a successful author, especially one who had remained prolific and critically acclaimed well into his 70s.
On March 29, the American Masters series will air Philip Roth: Unmasked, a 90-minute film made up mostly of interviews with Roth, at his homes in Manhattan and rural Connecticut.
Roth's fans won't get the inside scoop on his reasons for retirement — the interviews were filmed in 2009, before he made the decision. But they will get a glimpse inside the mind of the man who has been writing with satirical brio, sexual daring and sharp insight about American life for more than half a century.
Although he's known to dislike interviews, Roth is relaxed and articulate on camera. He's also happy to poke fun at himself; early on he says, "In the coming years I have two great calamities to face: death and a biography. Let's hope the first comes first." (He must have relented on that; he is working closely with award-winning biographer Blake Bailey, who has chronicled the lives of writers Richard Yates, John Cheever and Charles Jackson.)
Supplemented by clips of interviews with writers Jonathan Franzen, Nicole Krauss and Claire Roth Pierpont and with some of Roth's friends, including actor Mia Farrow, the film covers Roth's career more or less chronologically.
It doesn't bring a lot of dish; Roth refers only to his first marriage (as "lurid"), not at all to his bitter second one. Nor does it dwell on his stacks of honors and awards — three PEN/Faulkner awards, two each from the National Book Awards and the National Book Critics Circle, a Pulitzer and lifetime achievement nods from the National Book Foundation and the Man Booker Awards, just to name a few.
Instead, the film is mostly a great writer talking about writing, and wonderfully so. He takes pleasure in dismantling stereotypes, as when he describes his warmly happy childhood and rejects descriptions of himself as a "Jewish writer."
"I don't write in Jewish. I write in American. . . . I'm an American writer."
Roth's first novel, Goodbye, Columbus, won a National Book Award in 1959, but his big breakthrough came a decade later with the publication of Portnoy's Complaint. The novel is technically experimental — a long monologue by a young man speaking to his psychoanalyst — but that wasn't what made it a bestseller. Its explicit, vivid and very funny descriptions of various sex acts, especially masturbation, turned it into a pop culture sensation and a signature work of the swinging '60s.
Roth recalls getting hundreds of letters (including some from young women who enclosed photos of themselves in bikinis), being recognized on the street and confused with his fictional creation — "Hey, Portnoy, leave it alone!" — and making enough money to buy an apartment and send his parents on a cruise.
Roth talks about his early influences — reading James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man "changed everything" — but says, "After the first 10 years, the influences fall away and you're pretty much yourself."
He discusses how politics and history became moving forces in his major novels during the 1980s and '90s, and points out an irony in public perception about Nathan Zuckerman, his alter ego in nine novels.
Roth is frank about how aging and loss shaped his later works, such as his poignant last novel, Nemesis. "I wanted to write about how dying affects the lives of those who are about to die." At his age, he says, "Looking through your address book is like walking through a cemetery."
Philip Roth: Unmasked is a worthwhile look at the writer behind more than 30 books, many of them among the finest in contemporary American literature.
It's not meant to be a writing workshop, but Roth does offer one bit of sound advice: "Shame isn't for writers. You have to be shameless.
"I feel plenty of shame in my own life, don't get me wrong. But when I sit down to write, I'm shameless."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.