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Gimmick-free doc reveals reticent writer

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2It's unfortunate, perhaps, for author Philip Roth, but decidedly fortunate for the rest of us that it turns out that the latter has arrived before the former. In the wake of his 80th birthday (March 19), PBS's American Masters will profile the acclaimed novelist in a frank and revealing documentary.

It's as simple and unadorned as biographical filmmaking gets -- extended interviews with the subject, supported by commentary from friends, literary contemporaries and journalistic observers and punctuated with archival photos and film clips.

No gimmicks. No superfluous prose. It's pared down to what feels very much like a satisfying final draft.

In fact, when pressed on the notion of not wanting to be the subject of a biographical profile, Roth admitted that the experience wasn't nearly as bad as he'd imagined it might be.

"I put it off because I had other things to do," Roth explained recently in a New York-to-L.A. satellite-connected interview during PBS's portion the U.S. networks' winter press. "I'd been writing all these years, and I would write a very long day, and I wrote seven days a week, and there it is. But also I put it off because nobody asked me, but the process itself was quite wonderful. I had a good time."

Roth, who rarely does interviews, allowed filmmakers William Karel and Livia Manera to spend 10 days interviewing him at his apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side and his 18th-century Connecticut farmhouse.

The final product is largely a chronological overview of Roth's career, which began in 1959 with the publication of Goodbye, Columbus and rocketed him to literary stardom/notoriety with the 1969 bestseller Portnoy's Complaint. His final published work, Nemesis, was released in 2010; in 2012, Roth told a French magazine that he had retired from writing.

What he considered to be an off-the-cuff remark to a journalist from foreign-language outlet quickly created quite a fuss in U.S. literary circles.

"I was a bit surprised," Roth recalled. "In fact, I was very surprised. About a year ago, or eight months ago, I was interviewed by a French journalist for not the biggest French magazine at all, but it's one a friend of mine works for... near the end of the interview, she said to me, 'What are you working on?' I said, 'Nothing.' And she said, 'Why is that?' I said, 'Well, I think it's over. I think I'm finished.'

"In this obscure little French magazine, there was those lines, and I never heard another thing about it. Then somebody must have gone to a barber shop one day where they get this French magazine and read the article... it wound up, I forget whether it was The Daily Beast or Huffington (Post); they translated the French on Google so that quotation came out completely inaccurate, but that was the beginning of the earthquake."

Despite the encouragement he has received from an endless number of sources to reconsider and keep writing, Roth said he's satisfied with his new, less-demanding routine.

"So far, it's great," he said. "I get up in the morning. I go to the kitchen. I get a large glass of orange juice, and I go back to bed and read for an hour and a half. I never have done that in my entire life. So I'm doing fine without writing. Someone should have told me about this earlier." Twitter: @BradOswald


Philip Roth: Unmasked

Friday at 8:30 p.m.

PBS/American Masters

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 28, 2013 C16

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