'American Masters' profiles Philip Roth
OTHER HIGHLIGHTS CRITIC'S CHOICE SERIES NOTES LATE NIGHT BY KEVIN McDONOUGH,
Reading is fascinating; writing is boring. The act of sitting before a desk and a blank piece of paper or a typewriter or a laptop is about as solitary and unexciting as it gets. But that fact is what makes the "American Masters" (9 p.m., PBS, channels 12 and 33, TV-PG) presentation of "Philip Roth Unmasked" so remarkable.
With the exception of a handful of brief clips of fellow writers, critics and old friends, "Unmasked" consists of an extended conversation with the novelist, who sticks pretty much to the subject of his books and his daily routine of writing. Roth, who just turned 80, has received every conceivable literary award, save the Nobel Prize. Since the appearance of "Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories" in the late 1950s, Roth has been a regular fixture of American letters, publishing more than 30 books in the subsequent five decades.
Roth has created a series of alter egos to explore the human condition. Readers easily confuse these funny, prickly and difficult characters with the author himself. While he received literary acclaim for "Columbus," it was the outrageously funny and sexually explicit "Portnoy's Complaint" that made Philip Roth a controversial household name in 1969. Rather than drown in fame or spend his time avoiding it, he created the literary character Nathan Zuckerman, who, over the course of several novels, appeared to be reacting to the infamy of that "dirty" book.
Rare for a writer so prolific, Roth has appeared to improve and mature with age. Beginning in the late 1980s, his books began to address national and international events, historical tragedies and the onset of old age and imminent death.
"Unmasked" is intimate without being self-indulgent, and biographical without descending into celebrity or mere gossip. Roth discusses his mother and father and older brother and his hometown of Newark, N.J., where so many of his novels are set. We hear about ex-wives, but never learn their names -- this, despite the fact that one of them, actress Claire Bloom, wrote an unflattering book about their years together. And don't look for archival footage of Roth discussing "Portnoy's Complaint" on TV talk shows. It's not that kind of film.
It's a portrait of a writer just entering his ninth decade discussing his body of work and his failing body, roughly in that order. While more of a monologue than a two-way conversation, "Unmasked" is a rare treat for thoughtful viewers.
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