Getting Roth Wrong, But That’s the Point: The Great Man’s ‘Reader in Chief’ Walks Through the Career of Literature’s Favorite Retiree
There’s a passage early in American Pastoral where Nathan Zuckerman, Philip Roth’s most durable alter ego, turns his inability to predict the shocking course of his childhood idol’s life into a universal lament about the limits of perception: “[Y]ou never fail to get them wrong,” he muses. “You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception.”
Struggling through the stultifying, toothless, inappropriately titled documentary Philip Roth: Unmasked on PBS last year, it was hard not to imagine that Mr. Roth had slyly encouraged his unmaskers to get him wrong. The fawning filmmakers lingered on shots of the Great Man composing his work, checked in with some old neighborhood pals and an odd assortment of talking heads and asked Roth no question that he hadn’t already tackled and twisted into a richly ambiguous quandary in one of his novels. The film reeked of good taste and politesse, suggesting that its good Jewish boy of a subject, the one with the bemused twinkle in his eye, would never dare misbehave. In other words, just give him the Nobel already.