“Holding On,” posted on 3.11.13: “I’ve been reading Phillip Roth‘s books all my life. It was his compulsive candor about sex, I think, that hooked me initially and kept me coming back. For some reason I was more impressed by Roth’s stories about horndog behavior than I was by, say, Henry Miller‘s. Roth was the first guy I read who described anal. That got to me on a certain level. I said to myself, ‘Well, if Phillip Roth can not only go there but openly write about it, I guess it’s an okay thing.’
“These days Roth is writing about the approaching finale, about humbling, about everyone dying around him. I guess this is why he’s let himself be profiled by an American Masters doc. He’s figuring it’s now or never. He’ll turn 80 on 3.19.
“I have to be honest — I’ve only seen half of Philip Roth: Unmasked. I was enjoying it but I was tired or something. It’s a 90-minute portrait in which Roth riffs on his life and art ‘as he has never done before,’ the copy says.
“I’ve read Portnoy’s Complaint, Our Gang, The Human Stain, The Ghost Writer (’79), The Dying Animal, a screenplay based on American Pastoral but not the book, Goodbye Columbus, Zuckerman Unbound (’81). Now that I’ve been somewhat re-energized I’d like to read The Anatomy Lesson (’83), The Prague Orgy (’85), all of I Married A Communist (’98, having read about a third of it) and Exit Ghost (’07).
“The crux of this plainly observed and illuminating documentary, centered on filmed interviews with the novelist that are organized into a loose biographical portrait, is a classic story of personal and artistic self-discovery,” New Yorker critic Richard Brodywrites. “[This began] with the thirtyish writer’s recognition, nearly half a century ago, in the company of a new group of like-minded friends in New York, that his round-table comedic voice was entertaining and therefore needed to be channelled into his work.
“The result, of course, was Portnoy’s Complaint, one of the key literary works of the sixties, which also made Roth famous. In much of the discussion that follows, he explains how he dealt with his new public persona — and how he transformed his experiences into fiction. “His achievements are parsed and praised in interviews with such writers as Nicole Krauss, Jonathan Franzen and Claudia Roth Pierpont. Along the way, it’s as if yet another voice, another mask, were under construction: that of the wise retiree, facing the end of his life with a jovially sardonic serenity, if for no other reason than the confidence that his written voice will outlive him.”
Sidenote: Having quite a few Jewish friends in the TriState area over the last 35 years counts for some kind of direct link, I think, to that culture. I generally know Jewish culture by growing up in New Jersey and living in Manhattan for several years. And from being fairly close with Jewish girlfriends. And from absorbing the wit and wisdom of my old-time Jewish showbiz and literary heroes (Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Lenny Bruce, Phillip Roth, etc.) I look at what urban and suburban Jews seem to be about temperamentally and personality-wise and I look at what many Connecticut WASPs are like, and I don’t even have to think about it — except for the food and the wine and all the religious-faith stuff I feel much more at home with them than my own.
“But twice when I was younger I was told in no uncertain terms that the parents of my Jewish friends don’t feel this same closeness. I attended a large wedding reception in Bridgeport for a close Jewish pal in ’80 or thereabouts, and the goyim (myself plus two or three other non-Jewish chums) were all given seating at a table that was right next to the kitchen door, which swung open at least 200 times during the luncheon and the toasts.
I also was close to a Jewish woman in ’79. My memory’s a little foggy but her parents suffered a Holocaust-related trauma during World War II, and she once told me there was no way she could ever introduce me to them.
“Did that give me pause? Of course not. My friends felt one way, their parents another. I am and always will feel, for what it’s worth, like an honorary member of the tribe.”