‘American Masters’ tonight: Philip Roth talks about his art

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Don’t let the advance nitpickers put you off from watching “Philip Roth: Unmasked,” the new “American Masters” special that PBS is unveiling tonight at 9 p.m.

The carpers have all zeroed in on the fact that there is no mention of Roth’s bad marriage to the actress Claire Bloom, but why should there be? The 90-minute film is the creation of a French team that got rare access to the great writer, and they chose to focus on his work rather than his personal life.

The documentary gives us the vicarious feeling of visiting Roth at his Roxbury home for a series of master classes on the art of fiction, and what sensible person in that position would waste time on a long-ago personal disaster? (A topic already covered, in too much depth, in Bloom’s unfortunate memoir, “Leaving a Doll’s House”).

My jaw dropped as I read some of the advance wire reviews of the documentary which seemed to be calling for an “E True Hollywood Story” approach to one of the foremost American writers of the past century. Why would anyone want to hear rehashed gossip when given the chance for an extended account of the creation of such landmark books as “Portnoy’s Complaint” and “American Pastoral”?

“Philip Roth: Unmasked” is not meant to be a biography of the writer, but an extended interview with the man about his working methods and his body of work, and on that score it succeeds spectacularly.

Of his generation, Roth has been the least public of novelists. Not for him the embarrassing spectacle such peers as Norman Mailer and Truman Capote made of themselves on the talk show circuit in the 1960s and 1970s (back in the day when talk shows were interested in serious writers).

Since he has always been portrayed as reclusive and slightly forbidding, it is a bit of a shock to see Roth so loose and so funny in his interview with writer-directors William Karel and Livia Manera. Roth is also attractively self-deprecating as he talks about the various reactions to his work, especially the monumental fall-out from “Portnoy’s Complaint,” which was immediately embraced as a masterpiece by some in 1969, but attacked by many others as above-ground pornography.

A good chunk of the film is devoted to “Portnoy’s Complaint” which proved to be one of the most influential books of its time. Roth’s wild humor and Jewish angst would influence the work of many writers and it also filtered down to movies and TV in the work of Woody Allen and Paul Mazursky and series such as “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Roth talks about the personal liberation he felt when he found the unique style of the book — a guilty Jewish man’s extended session with a psychoanalyst — and we hear from critics and friends how the novelist was able to channel his own gift for hilarious storytelling into the book.

Bravo to PBS for presenting this indispensable personal view of a genuine American master.

Joe Meyers

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