TELEVISION / Caution, man at work: Giles Smith watches Philip Roth writing

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The Independent Culture
IN search of the American author Philip Roth, Arena (BBC 2) started at the bottom of his garden and worked forward. A camera crew crept through the undergrowth behind Roth's Connecticut home and tiptoed, quiet as an Attenborough, to the windows. And, what luck: there inside, lit by the orange glow of a desk lamp, was Philip Roth, bang in the middle of some writing.

Actually, this sort of amazing scoop happens so frequently in programmes about writers that a dark suspicion is beginning to take shape. Could these shots be, by any chance, a fix? And why is it that, whenever we see writers at work on television, their fingers are rampant on the keyboard, pouring a fluent stream of prose onto the welcoming page, while across their faces plays an expression of amused thoughtfulness? What they're never doing is behaving like writers - bending up a paper-clip, thumping their heads in blocked despair on the edge of their desks, going into the kitchen to make a cup of coffee, abuse the dog, et cetera. On television, art does not imitate art.

For Arena, though, the bigger question was whether the art of Philip Roth imitates life, specifically the life of Roth and his associates. Evidently, some people in Newark have been amazed to find themselves pitching up in Roth's novels, lightly fictionalised, if that. His elder brother, Sandy, came on and assured us the novels were just stories. Only minutes later, though, he was confiding to the camera a small tip Philip had given him: 'If you don't want it in the book, don't tell me.' Sandy announced this with an affectionate smile, as if it was just one of his little brother's cute foibles. Actually, living with Philip Roth must have been a bit like being permanently bugged.

To be fair, Roth seems to put a lot of himself in there too. Giving his first ever interview for television here, he described the fictional character Zuckerman. 'He happens to have been born in the year I was born, he happens to have been born in the same place.' More than that, Zuckerman was a writer too, and (extraordinary coincidence, this) one who had also, in his time, upset portions of the Jewish community. Roth's writing, we had already been told, once prompted a Rabbi to enquire, 'What is being done to silence this man?' You didn't have to be F R Leavis to spot some fairly broad similarities here. It was hard to know how less disguised Roth could have been with Zuckerman, short of calling him Philip Roth and sticking his photograph at the top of every page.

Arena rooted away at this 'actual or fictional?' dilemma to the exclusion of nearly everything else about Roth. This might not have been the most fruitful line to take. It certainly doesn't alter very much about the books to know, for example, that when Roth described an affair in Goodbye, Columbus, he was actually referring to the bloke over the road and a woman two houses up. Obviously, though, if you happen to live in the street, then the novel has an altogether different force for you. Roth stood in the road and gestured to the houses - tactfully kept out of the picture. Community Terrorised By Stray Author was the basic shape of the story here. But these tremors are a little tricky to pick up at a distance of several thousand miles.

Meanwhile, speakers on the merits of the books were largely unheard, with the exception of the publisher Aaron Asher, who admired Roth for his stand on masturbation. You've got to hand it to him for that.