After an opening Roth quip expressing hope that his death precedes the release of his biography, we hear straightaway from a pair of women, New Yorker staff writer Claudia Roth Pierpont and novelist Nicole Krauss. They begin the smart, admiring commentary that dots this carefully constructed 90-minute American Masters PBS documentary premiering nationally March 29, ten days after Roth’s 80th birthday (New Yorkers can see it right now for free at the Film Forum through March 19). We hear as well from a former female classmate at Bucknell (she remembers Roth’s wit, most of all) and from the writer’s close friend Mia Farrow, whose stories of her own childhood polio contributed to the fabric of Roth’s 2010 polio-themed novel Nemesis.
Claire Bloom, Roth’s actress second wife, goes unmentioned, nor is Roth’s first wife Margaret Martinson Williams named (Williams, whom Roth met as a grad student in Chicago in the mid-fifties, died in a Central Park car-crash in 1968, five years after their four-year marriage ended). Roth’s language gets dramatic, even operatic, though, while alluding to this first marriage. “Brutal, lurid,” is the way he sums up the failed union. Afterward, he fell apart. “I was a wreck,” he says of a five-year crisis during which he wrote only “crap” and published nothing. Adds the Newark native: “I was derailed. I was shunted off the track. My confidence was shot. I was in hell.” The only thing that helped, he found, was talking about it – in psychotherapy. So talk he did, three or four times a week for some time, and this, along with a realization that the jocular performing – his word – he did while conversing with his best buddies could become an energizing mode if transferred to the page. He was funny, he could talk, he had a need to talk, and now he had a technique. This freed him. Psychotherapy unlocked him. He wrote Portnoy’s Complaint. A book-length comedic monologue. A guy talking and talking, uncensored – patient Alexander Portnoy unloading to his psychoanalyst Dr. Spielvogel.
The future Pulitzer winner was back on track. This intelligent, respectful documentary co-directed by French filmmaker William Karel and Italian journalist Livia Manera focuses on – and excels at delineating – Roth the writer. (Ironically, Manera recently suggested to the Associated Press that Roth’s ease and generosity in the 2012 interviews may have partly stemmed from his much-discussed “retirement” from writing: the page was not pulling his mind away.)
Not that there’s any hint of the author hanging it up here. On the contrary, Roth only speaks of how anxious, depressed and miserable he gets when not writing. While conveying this, as in the many other candid interview clips, he’s relaxed, entertaining, informative, warmly reflective. Dressed in a series of blue cotton workshirts, shown writing in both his Upper East Side apartment and rural Connecticut home, Roth comes across as a likeable, ribald, funny uncle: full of stories, quick-witted but not intimidatingly so. Here and there even a bit corny.
We see him standing, not sitting, as he writes (“My mind feels freer. When I get stuck, I can walk around. My mind, my imagination, begins to go…”) He talks about Newark, family, his religious heritage (“I don’t write in Jewish, I write in American”), chronic back pain, a suicidal period, Saul Bellow (“The greatest American writer” of the postwar era), his habit of listening alone to opera at night, his Salinger-inspired “sensitive” early stories. He talks about his catalyzing encounters with Joyce and Turgenev, Hemingway and Kafka: “I was saturated in Kafka as a young man.” He talks about re-reading these same writers sixty years later, as an “old man” with “fresh eyes.” He talks brilliantly about his books, one after another, and charts his literary phases, from the antic first-person “performance” of Portnoy’s to a middle phase of big, ambitious novels alive with “history and politics” to the recent series of “condensed” novels like The Dying Animal and The Humbling, books that explore aging, illness, and death.
Brown eyes shining with delight, he celebrates his character Drenka, “heroine” of Sabbath’s Theater, an “exuberant adulteress” whom Roth calls “strong, funny, ambitious, sexually rambunctious.” On the subject of sex, which he deems “vast,” the author confesses that he “loves” to write about it, but objects to the notion that his work is all-sex, all the time. He rattles off nine novels, the Zuckerman books, where to his mind sexual experience is not front and center. On a related topic, Roth says: “I feel plenty of shame in my life but when I sit down to write I’m free of shame. Shame is not for writers. You have to be shameless.”
The look at his creative process is deftly handled. When it comes time to revise a first draft, Roth says he sends the manuscript to four or five close friends with “acumen” who tape-record their reactions. Later he listens to their thoughts, and transcribes some of the material for reference. The way these friends “describe” his book helps “open up” his thinking: “And it doesn’t matter if I don’t agree. Even when they’re wrong they’re right.” Discussing how his imagination works, Roth says: “I need something from the real world to invent from. A person, an event. I rub two sticks of reality together to get a fire of reality.”
The documentary does not intend a full biographical portrait. Nor will it settle debates about Roth and women. And the stage is Philip Roth’s: authors Jonathan Franzen and Nathan Englander join Krauss and Pierpont in smartly commenting, but their time is short, their contributions accent marks. You’re there, the film-makers rightly decided, for the guy pushing eighty. The raconteur talking politics and personae, mortality and fictive magic. The Jersey native reading resonant passages from Sabbath’s Theater, The Human Stain, Exit Ghost. The writer remembering horny Leopold Bloom in Ulysses and the beauty of Mahler’s Third.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.