Philip Roth’s recent kerfuffle with Elizabeth Gilbert (if one can even call it a kerfuffle) didn’t help to soften his image as a miserable curmudgeon. But that Roth is nowhere to be seen in Philip Roth: Unmasked, the documentary about the author’s prolific career that opened this weekend at Film Forum (tickets are free!). A few words of caution: don’t see this for some revelatory experience about how Roth is like Portnoy or Zuckerman. Do not expect a great feat in documentary film, either: mostly, Unmasked is Roth and his admirers talking to the camera, about, well, what else? His writing.
But I didn’t care to know more about Roth’s childhood or marriage. I just wanted to know how he does it. Write. So damn much, and so damn well. Full disclosure: I’ve only read three of Roth’s 27 novels, and while I respect him as a master of language and story, I’m not one of the many Roth fanatics out there. The Jewish women in the ones I’ve read have been portrayed as unattractive harpies, which rubbed me the wrong way as a Jewish woman. But let’s just leave that off the table for now. The real question is, how does he do it? Not just continue to write, but constantly provoke, push, and strike a nerve?
Roth talked quite a bit about shame, and how you have to leave it aside when you’re putting your world on the page. I wonder if women have more shame than men, and if there’s a certain resentment that, say, Portnoy’s obsession with his salami would come off as a slutty nympo if he were a she. Shame. This seems to be one of the hardest things about the job for writing: for me, it’s not the story or the language or the ideas that don’t come. It’s getting over the fact that every story I desperately want to write feels cringeworthy, embarrassing, and truer than the truth. Those moments, of course, are the “hot spots” – the hidden geisers of of honesty that should explode on the page. The hot spots burn. Honesty is water in your lungs. The fact that Roth churns out books year after year (whether or not I like them) suggests, to me, that the floodgates are wide open, and for all these years he’s been unafraid to get swept up the current.
I don’t know. Maybe I just always find myself partial to old Jewish men who use terms like “lady friend.” In truth, Roth was far more affable and approachable than the reputation that proceeds him would suggest. When he talks about how Portnoy’s Complaint “changed everything” with people calling his name on the street, it comes off as sentimental, not swagger (were their really tons of people who recognized him on the street? Or are the handful who did magnified in his memory?) He talks about needing “two sticks of reality” to rub together to make a spark of reality. We get a poignant shot of him standing up as he writes so his imagination can wander, and even if he doesn’t agree with the critique of the friends who read his drafts, they open him up to thinking in a very different way. This reveals a certain openness to the ideas of others, a certain humility about the craft, that one might find refreshing. Even Roth doesn’t have a perfect draft right out of the gate.
So perhaps I have a late-blooming interest in Roth because I’m looking at his path more than the person. I’m intrigued with how he looks back on the road he took precisely because mine, and probably yours too, is still so unclear. And that Roth has managed to create and traverse his own path time and time again makes him worth listening to. And to return to the kerfuffle, though he has devoted his life to writing and clearly loves it, love is not necessarily pleasure. Love hurts a lot of the time, love takes work, and love is something that you simply can’t live without. To feel so compelled to do something like writing, otherwise you feel anxious or slightly off, as Roth notes, is both a blessing and curse. It’s worse, says Roth, when I’m not writing. I agree.
So perhaps Roth saying “it’s an awful business” was a way of a test. Perhaps, like many writers, he was simply having a moment – one of those common instances in which many writers question the isolating, circumstances of their craft. At the end of the day, Roth shows he trusts himself, and his art.