03/27/2013 01:27 pm ET Updated May 27, 2013

American Masters: Philip Roth and the Writer's Life Unmasked

"'at it again': It should be on my tombstone." -- Philip Roth, 2013.

Livia Manera, co-writer and co-director of the new film Philip Roth: Unmasked--which premieres on PBS nationwide Friday, March 29 -- will be the first to tell you that its title could easily be misinterpreted: The documentary is not intended to "unmask" Philip Roth in the sense that you learn every possible thing about him -- all of his secrets, his fears, his regrets, his passions. But one thing you do learn is his passion for writing, for the profession that has required him to give up nearly everything else in life for over 50 years. What the film unmasks is the solitary life of the writer, the life of one who has become, as Manera articulated in a recent interview, "a self-appointed slave to his writing."

The film opens with Mr. Roth's lament about the two great "calamities" before him: "death and biography." Not missing a beat, he says next: "Let's hope the first comes first." But he must know, as Manera and William Karel, the film's co-writer and co-director, know: That this film is a writer's biography. In it, Roth talks about his trajectory from an unknown writer publishing in the New Yorker to his literary education, to his college years, to the influence of psychoanalysis on his writing in the 1960s, to the fictional turning points, the big books, the alter egos, and -- most of all, the process. There is a tendency in those of us who study Roth's novels to assume, in the most reverent sense, that Mr. Roth is nothing less than a genius, a medium through which the American zeitgeist speaks. But what this film unmasks more than anything is that he is also an unrelenting worker, a craftsman, a man committed to the labor at hand. His writing process involves, as he says here, "lots of quiet; lots of hours; lots of regularity." It involves taking "field trips" to study the work of the taxidermist, the jewelry store worker, the gravedigger. It involves multiple drafts and feedback from respected friends. It involves pacing when the ideas stop flowing and stillness and reflection when the ideas reappear.

In a recent interview with NPR's Scott Simon, Mr. Roth emphasizes this point: "I had to work hard," he says, as his life became dedicated to "my great problem to solve: how to write a book." That Manera was able to engage Roth in this intimate conversation on the process is no surprise. I remember reading, in a September 2011 issue of the New York Times of Ms. Manera's project with Mr. Roth and wondering how she was able to engage such a private author. The caption in a photograph of an interview between the two states that Mr. Roth "agreed to the project because of his confidence in Ms. Manera." How does one build such a confidence? As Manera looks back, it becomes clear to her that reading all 31 of his books over the period of a year had certainly helped. "This changed everything," she says: "Having read everything all in a row enhanced the conversation."

While the conversation you see in the American Masters documentary between Manera and Roth is assured and eloquent, so too are the conversations about Roth's career among the other literary talents Manera and Karel interviewed: Nicole Krauss, Nathan Englander, Jonathan Franzen, Claudia Roth Pierpont -- all respected writers in their own right and incredibly articulate readers of Roth's work. Nicole Krauss lauds in Roth's fiction a "moral ambiguity." To that, Claudia Roth Pierpont agrees. In one of the smartest editing cuts of the film, Pierpont celebrates the female protagonist, Drenka Balich from Sabbath's Theater (1995) as "a moral heroine"; and in the very next frame, Mr. Roth responds: "she is an exuberant adulteress." That this is the work, in part, of a European filmmaker -- without the Puritan baggage of U.S. culture -- allows Manera to reinforce Krauss's point: Roth is a writer of moral truths through characters both rich and complex.

This timeless quality in Roth's work emerges in a comment Pierpont makes early in the film about the key to Roth's legacy, which is the fact that he has "reimagined and reinvented himself," perpetually, as a writer. Such an insight about Roth's talent for reinventing himself echoes what Mr. Roth says about the influence of James Joyce on his writing: It is, he says, the one line Bloom thinks to himself when masturbating in the presence of a beautiful young woman: "at it again." ("It should be on my tombstone," Mr. Roth quips in the film.) I might agree that "at it again" would be an exemplary engraving on Mr. Roth's tombstone, but not because of its sexual connotations. Instead, I like to think of Mr. Roth's work as a writer in this very sense, in the sense Claudia Pierpont intended: Mr. Roth is always "at it" -- creating new voices, new characters, new structures, new lives.

This was true during his 80th birthday party in Newark, New Jersey on March 19 as well. When Philip Roth took the stage, it was under the pretense of reading from the great novel -- what many say is among his best -- Sabbath's Theater. But he also presented new work in a preface to that reading as well, work that portrayed still more memories, notes from a lifetime from a writer's consciousness. As David Remnick wrote most aptly for the New Yorker blog the next day, the final was message clear: "The passage ends simply. It ends with the line, 'Here I am.'" As Remnick knows, and all who witnessed Mr. Roth's performance on the evening of his birthday celebration know: Mr. Roth is, above all, a writers' writer. Even though he has retired from novels, he continues to write, to re write, to invent, to reinvent -- himself as well as others. If there is one thing at stake in this documentary, it is that. Mr. Roth may have retired, and he may loathe both death and the biography, but he has, whether knowingly or not, confronted both "calamities" during his interviews with Manera and Karel.

Livia Manera recently explained: "I am a literary journalist. I don't write gossip columns." Her respect for her subject is perpetually on display in this film. Of the fifteen hours of interview coverage from Mr. Roth alone, what Manera and Karel have given us is a glimpse into Roth's creative process, his struggles with writing, his achievements, his sense of a life well lived -- a life lived through language, through character, through conversation.

The film ends with another self-referential insight that "time is running out." The film is nearly over. And here is Roth at his best, reflecting: "The time is running out. We have an ending about the poor fellow who is about to die. Let that be the ending." But, within this ending, I suggest that we remember his vitality, his writerly showmanship, his vigor for language and life, even as he speaks about death. As Manera eloquently put it during our interview together: "Mr. Roth has found great vitality in celebrating his death." But it is not only the confrontation of death, paradoxically, that gives him a renewed sense of vitality. It is reflecting on the story of his life - the life of a writer: the solitary life of a craftsman and his unparalleled relationship with the work.