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March 28, 2013 - Image 65

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2013-03-28

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

"I'm not crazy about seeing myself

described as an American Jewish

writer," Philip Roth says in the film

Philip Roth: Unmasked. "I don't write

in Jewish. I write in American."

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Philip Roth as a younger man in his
hometown, Newark, N.J.

hilarious response from his mother that
he recounts in the film) but is prepared
to ride those big waves himself with
panache.
If there is a central theme to the film,
other than the sheer pleasure of watch-
ing Roth talking about his work, his
methods and his life — and he is a won-
derful talker — it is the constant bal-
ancing act between public and private
that is central to the great novelist's art.
What can you do when the city of
Newark, where he spent his childhood,
renames the street where he was raised
"Philip Roth Plaza" and declares the
family's pleasant but otherwise unex-
ceptional three-story house an "historic
site"?
Roth is understandably detached
from the furor surrounding Portnoy
40 years on, and it is hard to recall the
shock of the book in an age in which
standup comics regularly riff on more
scurrilous behavior on broadcast televi-
sion.
Happily, Karel and Manera offer
author Nathan Englander's explanation
of the book's power to shock someone
who, as he did, grew up out of earshot of
that national shouting match; coming to
the novel from his sheltered Orthodox
upbringing, Englander experienced the
force of its full-frontal ribaldry.
In addition to Franzen and Englander,

others providing commentary include
some of Roth's oldest friends — Mia
Farrow, who inspired part of his last
novel Nemesis (2010), high school friend
Dr. Bob Heyman, college friend Jane
Brown Maas and army comrade Martin
Garbus — as well as The New Yorker's
literary critic and staff writer Claudia
Roth Pierpont and younger American
writer Nicole Krauss.
The film, however, is a determinedly
chronological affair, for better and
worse, workmanlike and a bit dogged.
Portnoy's shenanigans receive no more
screen time than some of Roth's other
books, and while controversy is a fre-
quent topic, it doesn't dominate.
The film is about Roth the author
more than Roth the celebrity. Although
he speaks with admirable sincerity
about a nightmarish first marriage, to
Claire Bloom, there is remarkably little
said about his personal life, perhaps to
underline and support his adamant,
understandable and undoubtedly
truthful disclaimers about the fictional
nature of his creative enterprise.
To that end, it strikes this observer
that the key moment in the film comes
early, when Roth talks about the thrill
he got from first reading Saul Bellow's
breakthrough novel, The Adventures of
Augie Marsh.
Roth says, "It gave me freedom, the
freedom to use your own background"
in writing fiction. To that point, he had
been writing stories that he character-
izes as "very bad:' trying to imagine
himself into the genteel world of upper-
class WASPs or English gentry. Now, he
could write about Jews from Newark
who grew up in ordinary houses, little
suspecting that they would become
landmarks.
In short, his new freedom allowed
him to be Philip Roth, and we are much
the richer for that transformation. The
last line of the film is Roth saying, "Let
that be the end:' If it is, I am almost as
sad as he, but at least we will be able
to read and re-read the books after his
final curtain. ❑

Philip Roth: Unmasked debuts
nationwide Friday, March 29, on
PBS's American Masters; check
your local listings. Detroit Public
Television has the program
scheduled for midnight Friday
night, March 29, on Channel 56.2
DPTV Plus.

-••••

-

- -

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013

THE DR. COLEMAN MOPPER MEMORIAL LECTURE

THE ROYAL COLLECTION
ON SHOW:

HENRY VIII TO HER MAJESTY
QUEEN ELIZABETH II

Jonathan Marsden, Director of the Royal Collection
The Queen's Gallery, England

SATURDAY, APRIL 6, 2 P.M.

Jonathan Marsden, the Director of the Royal Collection
at Buckingham Palace, explores how, where and by whom
the collection of nearly one million objects has been
displayed and appreciated over the past 5o years.

Free with museum admission.

DETROIT

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Sponsored by the Dr. Coleman Mopper Memorial Endowment Fund in conjunction with the Visiting
Committee for European Sculpture and Decorative Arts and the European Paintings Council

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