By publically announcing his retirement from writing, Philip Roth, who in recent years has been described as America’s greatest living writer, has opened himself and his books up to the scrutiny and acclamation of the media. Last year he was the subject of a PBS documentary. Now, at the age of 81, he has submitted to the ordeal of discussing his career with the BBC’s Alan Yentob, who seeks to uncover the truth about the author, and who seems gratified to have found the perfect excuse to repeatedly use the word “provocateur”.
That’s what Roth is; he’s a writer, we’re told, who deliberately sets out to be controversial.
Of course, he has been called much worse things before—namely a misogynist and an anti-Semite, even though he himself is Jewish. In his own defence, he has explained many times that readers should note the clear distinction between what he thinks, and what his characters think. He complains in his novel Deception: “I write fiction and I’m told it’s autobiography. I write autobiography and I’m told it’s fiction. So since I’m so dim and they’re so smart, let them decide what it is or what it isn’t.”
He confesses at the very start of the programme to having been reticent during an earlier BBC documentary, admitting that only now, at the end of a long career, can he speak candidly about his personal life. He is not a difficult interviewee. He even permits Yebtob to read aloud a particularly graphic excerpt from Portnoy’s Complaint, perhaps Roth’s most famous novel, in which the eponymous character recounts detailed depictions of his masturbation habits to his psychoanalyst.
“My wang,” says Yentob, with humourless conviction, “was all I really had that I could call my own.”
We’re treated thereafter to a further reading by Yentob, who this time rhapsodises about firing his wad down the toilet bowl, or into soiled clothes, or onto his tongue, so that he can “taste the buttermilk and Clorox”. It should be evident at this stage that Portnoy’s Complaint, as shocking as it is in places, is first and foremost a tremendously funny novel—not so much the work of provocateur, but of a superb comic writer.
Nevertheless, there is obviously something about Roth’s books that offends some readers, and this has always been true. Even his earliest stories, such as The Conversion of the Jews and Defender of the Faith, caused great controversy when they were first published. And yet he can hardly be accused of mellowing with age either. Few writers have written quite so consistently well as Roth has over the years, and even fewer can claim to have produced quite so many fine books so late on in their careers.
Here Roth’s later books receive precedence. The first three Zuckerman novels barely receive a mention, and we skip straight to the Prague Orgy, a short book inspired by the author’s own experiences in Communist Prague. Besides Roth, we hear briefly from his biographer, Claudia Roth Pierpont, and Salman Rushdie, a great admirer of Roth’s work. There is footage, too, taken from old interviews with Roth’s friends and family, and these parts are often the most revealing.
Roth rarely agrees with what his friends have to say about him. When a few of them speak affectionately of his sexual prowess back in his college days, he insists that this is not true, and claims to have barely had sex at all during this period. One presumes, if Roth is telling the truth here, that this changed shortly after he experienced success as a writer, and especially after the phenomenon that was Portnoy’s Complaint, when an enormous portion of his fan-mail consisted of raunchy photographs sent to him by lascivious admirers. According to Roth, he was given plenty of chances to ruin his life. Ostensibly, we’re to believe, he didn’t take these chances.
In part two, we hear how Roth’s relationship with sex matured with age—at least in a literary sense. Speaking of Roth’s great novel Sabbath’s Theatre, and of his treatment of Drenka, the female protagonist in that book, the writer Edna O’Brien explains: “Philip has been known to love women, but he may not always like them. And there is a difference.” Claudia Roth Pierpont, meanwhile, notes how strong a character Drenka is, how genuinely loved she is by her sexual consort, Micky Sabbath, and concludes: “I don’t know what more you could want from a woman.”
Roth’s other great masterpiece, American Pastoral, is also discussed here at length. It is the work, Roth insists, of a historian, rather than a sentimentalist, and concerns Seymour “Swede” Levov, a successful Jewish American businessman. Perhaps more broadly, it is a novel about the USA in the late 1960s, though it takes place in 1995. Many critics and readers have called it Roth’s most mature book: his immense cultural study of an age defined by Watergate and the Vietnam War. For Salman Rushdie it is as profound a psychological novel as one could wish to read. “It’s extraordinary,” he goes on to say, “that he was able to be both the author of American Pastoral and Portnoy’s Complaint.”
In addition to having this wonderful range as a writer, Roth possesses an insatiable and rare eagerness to write. This has often been to the detriment of his personal life, and around the time that I Married a Communist was written, admits to having spent almost every waking moment to writing literature. For this reason, it seems so unimaginable that he has now retired from his profession, relieving finally from himself the burden of creativity, of having to create each and every day. Salman Rushdie is dubious that such a thing can even be achieved; he believes that the writing bug is something that is more or less incurable.
Roth is certain, however, that his career is now over. “I can guarantee you,” he says at the end of the programme, “that this is my last appearance ever on television.” And he sounds sincere.
As far as last appearances go, things could have been a lot worse, too. This is by no means an unsatisfactory way for Roth to bow out from the public eye. Here most of his major works are discussed, in some cases in great detail. And despite being presented by Alan Yentob, whose face appears more frequently throughout this programme than Roth’s, and who seems positively aroused by his own eloquence, it is a far more compressive documentary than the one made by PBS last year. For fans of Roth’s work, it is essential viewing.
This review was first published by OnTheBox.com