Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning novelist Philip Roth has remained elusive and controversial since his entrée on the literary scene more than 50 years ago. He’s granted relatively few interviews for someone of his stature. In the closest he’s come to a memoir, the deceptively titled The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography, he lays out the story of his life. Then, in a long epilogue in the voice of alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, he assaults the validity of the narrative.
Philip Roth stands in the garden of his Connecticut home during filming for American Masters Philip Roth: Unmasked. Photo courtesy of François Reumont.
Literary journalist Livia Manera, who co-directed (with documentarian William Karel) Philip Roth: Unmasked, had her work cut out for her when she set out to interview Roth. The 90-minute film, an episode of PBS’ American Masters, premiered on March 29 in honor of the novelist’s 80th birthday. She had interviewed Roth a number of times for print publications and had developed a friendship with him, but she’d found that even with no cameras rolling, the writer could be a less than ideal interview subject. “He would let you know after maybe 45 minutes or an hour that he’d had enough,” she recalls of her previous sit-downs with Roth. “Maybe you could stay and chat about something else for awhile and he might be very open and funny, but he’d make it very clear he’d had enough of being interviewed.”
Unknown to her, the on-camera interviews she conducted along with director of photography François Reumont and sound recordist Theo Caris, were with a Philip Roth easing into the idea of retirement. “As he says in the film,” she recounts, “whenever he was between books, he tended to be depressed and anxious. So he was not an ideal interviewee. And when he was writing a book, he wanted to concentrate, and something like an interview was just a nuisance that came between him and serious work.”
Philip Roth and co-director and co-writer Livia Manera during filming for American Masters Philip Roth: Unmasked. Photo courtesy of Livia Manera.
But when she sat down with the writer, first for ten hours over a five-day period in his Connecticut home and then for five hours over three days in his New York apartment, she was dealing with a Philip Roth who had completed what he says is his last book, Nemesis, and no longer felt his normal compulsion to start another. “Who would have guessed that he was at a moment in his life—even he didn’t know—in which he could really take pleasure in remembering and talking about the past?” the interviewer muses.
Initially produced in a shorter form for French production company Cinétévé, the project was picked up by PBS’ American Masters and expanded to include interviews with Roth’s friends, including the actress Mia Farrow, and young American writers including Jonathan Franzen and Nicole Krauss.
While the author famously mixes autobiography and fiction in ways designed to obscure his true nature, Manera insists that the man captured in her documentary is, in fact, the “real” Philip Roth. “I’ve known him for many years,” she explains, “and I always noticed the difference between Philip Roth the ‘professional writer’ and Philip Roth the person with whom I would have dinner around the corner from his apartment. The professional writer is very controlled. Cold. Hard. He’s always interesting but often impatient. The friend is very talkative and generous and unguarded.
“And that,” she declares, “is the person I was lucky enough to get in front of the camera for this documentary.”