Philip Roth is an American legend whose fame draws tourists to literary tours of his native Newark as James Joyce’s does to Dublin. Newark is a universe that Roth recorded lovingly, wittily, and at times with gnawing anger, for decades. From his early short-story collection Goodbye, Columbus to canonical novels like American Pastoral, Roth has embraced polemics, celebrating zany absurdity but also neck-breaking minutiae of labor. That labor, as craft, was the subject of his nonfiction Shop Talk, and is on display in William Karel and Livia Manera’s documentary Philip Roth: Unmasked. In Shop Talk, Roth shared his admiration for artisans, for humble, concrete tasks—like a carpenter making a stool, or a glove maker whose trade Roth immortalized in rich detail in American Pastoral. Menera and Karel’s film offers glimpses of Roth’s own work ethos—he writes standing up, at a lectern in his house, so he can pace—and his confessions on mid-career crisis, travails in psychotherapy, and his discovery that writing could be performative, funny, and scathing.
In spite of the film’s exhaustive chronology, those who deduce from its title that they’re in for an unveiling, or an unraveling, of a major literary figure may come out empty-handed. The “unmasking” reveals less than the mask: There’s the loving protective mother, the father whose ethics were admirable, but who could be “a pain in the ass,” at first not supportive of the budding writer. Roth was popular with the ladies, and so we learn that some of his writings drew, indirectly, on personal conquests. Structured as a sit-down chat with Roth, splicing in a few illustrious talking heads (writers Jonathan Franzen and Nicole Krauss, New Yorker staff writer Claudia Roth Pierpont), the doc has all the gentility of a PBS special, but none of the juice that one might expect from the sensualist dandy who used to anger rabbis and shock readers, earning him many die-heart followers, but also the wounding, incongruous label of an anti-Semite.
For years now, Roth has removed himself from Newark’s hubbub to bucolic Connecticut, its quiet isolation captured in The Human Stain. There’s a sense that Roth, ever a candid realist, would now rather endear himself to his viewers, and has reserved his caustic humor and intellectual scowl for private conversations. The romantic piano soundtrack only reinforces this effect. The rarefied aura is at times punctured by an old friend from outside the literary pantheon. But one wishes that more voices free of awe—if possible—shed light on Roth’s shortcomings, in addition to the accolades, rendering the subject flawed, but also human. After all, this is Roth’s crowning achievement: the complexity, vigor, and gravitas with which he has endowed the righteous, but also the self-destructive, the unlikeable, and the doubt-ridden. There’s instead a sense, perhaps aptly, that Roth, not the filmmakers, is in control of the storytelling, with a neatly woven thread, and less moral fallibility and risk that, as Nicole Krauss points out, is what we go for to his literature—or great literature, period. Europe had its Milan Kundera, and Roth, in many ways, carried over the intellectual-libertine streak to the American letters. He combined it with more earnest, agonizing works, delving into the universe in which the mantra of hard work and civic citizenship was being destroyed by darker, sinister forces in American life and politics.
In spite of the film’s shortcomings, Roth is too great a subject to resist. In the few moments when he opens up about his darker episodes (his chronic back pain, fleeting thoughts of suicide), his charisma and bracing matter-of-factness are likewise irresistible, though it doesn’t seem that Karel and Manera dared to prod deep, or to create tension. After having laid down his pen for good, he says he faces two things: “Death, and a biography.” He adds that he hopes that “the first comes first,” but surely tongue in cheek; the biography, by Richard Yates and John Cheever biographer Blake Bailey, is already in the works.