“The Humbling” is Roth at his best

November 2, 2009

"The Humbling" by Philip RothI started reading Philip Roth with The Plot Against America (2004). After that, there was a new novel in 2006 – Everyman, and then 2007 – Exit Ghost, and then 2008 – Indignation, and now, 2009 – The Humbling.  This new novel — small, less than 150 pages — is concerned with themes similar to Everyman and Exit Ghost, of aging, dying, sex and identity. One would think a repeated writing about Jewish male protagonists (also a Roth hallmark) mourning lost youth and virility would get stale. Instead, under the pen of this literary legend, the stories keep getting better. 

The Humbling is the best yet.  It’s tightly written with perfectly timed character exits and entrances, exquisitely scored monologues and discussions, and an emotional palette that’s not too sentimental yet passionately real.  There is no line out of place.

The protagonist Simon Axler is a classic American stage actor in his sixties. His fame derives from his ability to rivet audiences with a powerful presence of characters’ eccentricities and mannerisms. When the story opens, he’s lost his magic, having failed on stage as Prospero and  Macbeth at the Kennedy Center. Axler suffers a breakdown and, fearing he’ll take his life, enters a psychiatric hospital for 26 days. Within months of leaving the hospital, his wife divorces him, unable to cope with her husband’s failure. Alone in his New York farmhouse, Axler gets a visit from his agent. 

Here Roth writes an unforgettable 14 page conversation between the two, a business dialogue that’s a psychological tug of war. The agent spins a web of persuasions to get Axler to return to the stage, and Axler delivers smart, self-aware rebuttals illustrating he knows he’s not simply hit a temporary impediment. This is it. He’s done.

Axler’s relief from despair arrives in the daughter of long-ago friends, a lesbian in her 40s, sad about a recent break-up. She jumps the sexual preference divide into Axler’s bed. Axler takes her to New York for expensive new clothes and haircut, enhancing her transformation with feminine accoutrements. They are an unusual couple in a relationship based on need. A tenuousness hovers over their interactions, except when they’re in bed together. The sex scenes are powerful, erotic and seamless with the rest of the action, neither gratuitous nor improbable.

Roth casts a dim view of greatness in the last chapter called The Final Act. Axler has played the mightiest characters in his career on stage from Shakespeare’s kings to Eugene O’Neil’s dysfunctional men, but his fame and history of past greatness do not sustain him. Axler believes he is finished, and he acts the part brilliantly.

I’ve wondered how much of Philip Roth, now in his 70s, appears in his aging protagonists. In this instance, does he believe his own greatness will not sustain him? In an interview with Tina Brown on The Daily Beast Video, he says he fears for the loss of ideas: “When I finish a book, I think What will I do? Where will I get an idea? … A kind of low-level panic sets in.” He also talks on The Daily Beast about writing the sex scenes in The Humbling and comments on the future of the book.

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