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March 28, 2013 - Image 64

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Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2013-03-28

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64

March 28 • 2013

fter having read all of his
novels and autobiographical
books, you might be forgiven
for thinking you know Philip Roth. As
novelist Jonathan Franzen says, Roth
"exposed parts of himself no one had
ever exposed before
You would be wrong, of course,
but that is the heart of the novelist's
craft and art, a kind of psychological
striptease in which misdirection gives
readers the false impression of candor,
but also the false impression of conceal-
ment.
The new documentary Philip Roth:
Unmasked merely reinforces the illu-
sion. That Roth can still maintain some
air of mystery after more than 30 books,
countless interviews, essays, analyses
and this 90-minute documentary, while
still conveying a quite sincere air of can-
dor, is part of his charm and the heart
of his genius.
Written and directed by William
Karel and Livia Manera, the film debuts
on PBS stations on March 29 in honor
of Roth's 80th birthday (he reached that
milestone on March 19). Interviewed
at his New York City apartment and
Connecticut farmhouse, Roth reflects
on his upbringing in Newark, N.J.,
writing process and psychoanalysis, as
well as the inspiration behind his most
famous characters.
Acclaimed by some as "America's
greatest living writer:' Roth announced
his putative retirement from fiction
writing recently. It's hard to say which

was more surprising, the announcement
coming from one of our most prolific
and persistent authors or that it did not
engender more end-of-career retro-
spectives. Perhaps nobody believes his
stated intentions; most of us are hoping
the announcement was a perverse prac-
tical joke.
Unmasked doesn't mention it so one
assumes the film was completed before-
hand, but there is a strong foreshadow-
ing of the announcement in its wry but
unmistakably elegiac final moments,
and hints of retirement are sprinkled
throughout.
"Between books it's easy to think you
can't do it again:' Roth confesses with a
smile. And the film ends with his dead-
pan meditation on his own demise, "I'm
not worried, I'm sad. ... The time is run-
ning out. I can't do anything about it:'
That air of rueful resignation is
consistent with the shadows that have
grown around his fictional protago-
nists over the past 20 years. Maybe we
expected more fight from the man who
created Nathan Zuckerman, Alexander
Portnoy, David Kepesh and Mickey
Sabbath.
If there is one thing that Unmasked
makes abundantly clear, it's that Philip
Roth is utterly his own man, highly
conscious of his effect on his readers,
his fans, his multitudinous detractors,
but unperturbed by the occasionally
tsunami-like splashing in his particular
pond.
He's the kind of guy who will take his
parents to dinner before the publication
of Portnoy's Complaint to warn them of
the disturbances on the horizon (with a

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