Philip Roth: The Humbling

Roth, Philip (2009), The Humbling, Jonathan Cape
ISBN 9780224087933

The Humbling is Philip Roth’s 30th novel, an impressive number of works for any writer, but for a writer like Roth, who has been putting out masterpieces at a surprising rate, it’s even more impressive. Philip Roth, who, currently, is probably the preeminent American novelist, has written so many books and won so many prizes that for many, he has been the forerunner for the Nobel Prize in Literature (which is awarded this Thursday) for the past ten years, and each winner during that period has been greeted with whines of regret of the literary critics who have been rooting for Roth, a reaction that tended to be especially vitriolic whenever women won it. Roth himself is said to be campaigning heavily for the Nobel, and I would argue that his recent publications are part of these campaigns. It’s not just that, after Sabbath’s Theater, he’s predominantly written ‘important’ novels or career-summarizing ones, like Everyman (which reads at times like a pastiche of Roth) or Exit Ghost. It’s also the fact that he, who’s published four novels during the 1980s and five during the 1990s, has published a whopping seven during the ‘noughts’, the last four of which have been appearing at an annual rate, with a fifth (Nemesis) scheduled for 2010. It’s hard not to read this almost frantic productivity as a transparent attempt to prod the Swedish Academy to recognize him.

This frenzy is also accompanied with a slight decline in quality. Whereas the 6 novels published from 1995 (Sabbath’s Theater) to 2004 (The Plot against America) are arguably among the strongest ever published by Roth and constitute an astonishing run of masterpieces, the same cannot be said of his output since then. I realize that not everyone will agree with me on my low assessment of Everyman but both Exit Ghost as well as Indignation have at best met with a lukewarm critical reception. They are also all rather short, which I assume is due to the schedule Roth has enforced upon himself. At 140 pages, The Humbling is even shorter than the last three novels, but as far as quality is concerned, I would rate it slightly higher than those although it’s still well below that which Roth has shown himself capable of. It is an interesting book and certainly worth reading. Whatever weaknesses his late books may possess, Roth never lost the magic of his writing. As a stylist, Roth is still a master. The Humbling is written with a deft pen; Roth dazzles his readers with the elegance and the consummate control he exhibits over his creations. There isn’t one misplaced word or phrase. It’s impossible to read this book and not be profoundly impressed by Roth’s writing, if not, sadly, moved.

The writing’s main job is to make The Humbling‘s protagonist, Simon Axler, a failed actor, plausible and this it does well, so well indeed that, personally, I was gripped with a fundamental dislike for Axler who is a grandiose egomaniac, with strong misogynistic tendencies and a strong elitist bent. As the novel sets in, Axler recalls the end of his acting career. Throughout his professional life, he was an talented actor, slipping into his roles instinctively; acting was never, if we are to believe him, work, it was never difficult. But suddenly he lost his instinct for acting, his “magic”, he immediately stopped being a brilliant thespian and became mediocre, that’s how dependent he was upon his gifts. For a while he tried to work at being a better actor, to try to achieve through toil what no longer came to him naturally, but nothing worked. This disaster seem especially catastrophic to him because “[h]e’d never failed in the theater, everything he had done had been strong and successful”. He falls apart completely which is where we meet him. His wife then leaves him and, afraid to commit suicide, Axler commits himself to a psychiatric hospital where he stays for all of twenty-six days. He then retires to his home in the country, rejecting all offers at re-starting his career as an actor. It is in this state that Pegeen Stapleford, the daughter of old friends of his comes visiting and ends up being his lover.

She is 40 years old, 25 years younger than Axler and has “lived as a lesbian since she was twenty-three.” She was named after Pegeen Mike Flaherty, the protagonist of John Synge’s 1907 play The Playboy of the Western World. Any thorough analysis of the book would need to dwell on the multiple connections Roth’s novel shares with that play. This isn’t just true for this play, it’s a characteristic of The Humbling: almost obsessively, Roth has his protagonist recall plays and roles, thus creating a rich cultural context for this slim novel. Interestingly, just as Axler is a grandiose egomaniac, who needs everything to be about him, the book, too, doesn’t use these explicit references as a means to broaden its perspective. Instead, it is almost gluttonous in the way that it appropriates these references, using them as hermeneutic tools to deepen the reader’s perception and understanding of Axler and his relationship with Pegeen and himself. In the end, it is these references, or rather the most central one of them, Chekhov’s The Seagull, that brings the book to a close, that serves as a catalyst for Axler’s final breakthrough, his final, almost, epiphany. Structurally, the book’s ending is a return to the beginning. The Humbling has three sections, two of which could be said to be Axler sections and one which one might call the Pegeen sections.

Generally speaking, Axler has a hard time relinquishing narrative control. The whole book is written in a third person personal narrative, telling us Axler’s story, through his own point of view, basically. Other people’s voices and stories are only allowed representation as quotes in his own unending monologue. At times, the only difference between the narrative voice and direct speech of Axler’s appears to consist of a change of pronouns, from ‘he’ to ‘I’. In what I called ‘Axler’s sections’, the protagonist, as so many of Roth’s creations, spends much of his time bouncing questions and propositions back and forth in his skull, getting lost both in self-pity and short-lived hopes. The visit of his agent in the first section, come to offer him a part in a production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, especially highlights the self-pity. In this part of the book we are made aware of the stasis that Axler has slipped into, the lack of options available to him due to his depression and the resulting self-deprecating act he puts on. This is important. Simon Axler isn’t truly self-deprecating, or humble, even. He is driven by self-pity and this means that he needs to act in a self-deprecating enough manner in order to convince himself. All of this is so transparent and pathetic that we have no problem believing him when he said that he lost his magic, his talent for acting.

Axler is one of the least perceptive characters in recent fiction. His constant self-absorption also means that other people only enter as a kind of censored and distorted side-show. These characters, as well as Axler himself, will remind the reader of other characters in Roth’s oeuvre, just less forcefully drawn, created in a considerably less inspired manner. If some of that material wasn’t so disappointingly thin, one could dismiss The Humbling as ‘more of the same’. Instead, it’s sort of ‘less of the same’, if you get my drift. Pegeen is an exception. A dominant, powerful character in her own right, she resists Axler’s greedy narrative grasp now and then, either insisting on telling a story as a third person personal narrator or even withdrawing the sought-after information from his narrative completely, leaving behind only the bare fact of having informed him. In Roth’s exceedingly well written novel, this is of course indicative of her character, of the role she is to play in their relationship and in the narrative and ideational structure of the book. In fact, the discourses on gender and sexuality that the book engages are almost all centered around Pegeen; she is the active force propelling the book forward, snapping it out of the meanderingly self-absorbed narrative of Axler’s, just as she snaps Axler out of his own depressions.

Although Pegeen and Axler do not really argue, there is, in fact, a struggle going on, behind the happy facade. Axler is used to being top dog, and I would argue that Pegeen’s homosexual history threatens him, even as her apparent relinquishment of the homosexual life style may tickle his self-image as a potent man. Axler’s and Pegeen’s relationship is almost exclusively sexual and it is in bed where Axler has to cede control first. An old man, with all the frailties that old age implies, he isn’t actually capable of being on top any more, which necessitates Pegeen’s taking over of that role. This may sound like an unimportant detail but as their relationship progresses, her climbing into the saddle, so to say, proves to be but the first step of many until, at the end, she completely controls the sexual part of the relationship. However, we might need to add a caveat here. Since all this is filtered through Axler, we should consider the whole story as being part of his incessant self-pity. With all his ailments, losing his sexual potency and dominance may be one of the most important fears preying on his mind, but there are actually no indicators of having an unreliable narrator on our hands, no contradictions, just his annoying and pompous voice leading the way through the story.

Axler is a misogynist, with a very low opinion of women and an even lower opinion of their capability of forming an opinion of their own. When Pegeen discusses her relationship with her father, Axler accuses her of being dependent upon his paternal opinion, of trying to get back in his good graces, an accusation that he will continue to level at her throughout their strange and dysfunctional relationship. He is also vaguely homophobic although I would suggest that the evidence for his homophobia may be an offshoot of his misogyny. There is a very revealing phrase in the book when a customer winkingly suggests that Axler, in the process of getting her an expensive haircut, is her ‘sugar daddy’. Axler, indignant, thinks

All he was doing was helping Pegeen to be a woman he would want instead of a woman another woman would want. Together they were absorbed in making this happen.

The focus, correctly, is on what “he would want”, for instance losing that “mannish” haircut of hers. Everything that he has to say about her and her lesbian relationships is dismissive and, as I said, vaguely homophobic. Behind this, however, I’d argue, isn’t homophobia at all. Instead, Axler’s clearly confused by a woman who doesn’t need a man, who takes matters into her own hands; what more important to him is that, sexually, she is still more independent and even straps on a makeshift dick and gets to work. Arguably, this is what awakes a desire in him to sire children with her, as a means to tie her to the old roles he’s used to. As an actor he completely slipped into his character’s roles, living them, and so it is in real life as well, where he is, similarly, trapped in roles and subterfuges. He is so trapped in his roles that he need to will himself to enact a role from a play by Chekhov in order to have a certain freedom of actions. This conflict, between traditional and modern roles, as well as between the attractiveness of soft-spoken women and the danger that is posed by the possibility of them stepping out of the narrow lane that traditional roles accord them, this conflict is a topos that keeps resurfacing in the book, sometimes through the literary references, sometimes through minor characters that appear onstage and disappear again like Sybil van Buren, who is torn between killing herself and killing her husband.

It is interesting that a novel with such an arrogant protagonist would be called The Humbling. You’d expect him to get his comeuppance, wouldn’t you? But with an ego like that this can’t, of course, work. The book is not called ‘Humility’, it is not about someone being humbled and attaining humility. Rather, its title is focusing on the process of humbling. George Bosworth Burch, in his introduction to St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s The Steps of Humility, sums up the latter by focusing on three steps: “humility, love and contemplation. They lead respectively to knowledge of truth in yourself, knowledge of truth in your neighbor, and knowledge of Truth itself.” It’s not hard to see how St. Bernard’s scheme could well be the one Roth based his novel’s structure on, but with a twist. His protagonist is an actor, and he en-acts these steps, but the deeper level of recognition, of knowledge, is closed off to him, and the contrast between what is enacted and what lies below that informs much of the book’s tension.

In moments like these, we see why Roth is such a highly regarded writer, but his tricks and games and erudition don’t save the novel which never quite takes off. In many places it reads like a draft. Well written, but flaccid, out of shape. Roth doesn’t deliver the punch the way he used to. What’s worse, ever since Everyman he seems to draw mainly from his own work. Axler, the old actor, is less an original and vivid creation than an inside look at some of the old and cranky artists that have always populated his work. At times, he reads like the voice of Ghost Writer‘s E. I. Lonoff, but as an artist, Axler’s less exacting, less careful. Still, all said and done, The Humbling is certainly Philip Roth’s best and most readable novel since The Plot Against America. It’s certainly worth buying and reading if you enjoy Roth’s work in general. If you don’t like him, this book won’t sway you.

A short personal note (January 2013). As I am trying to finish two manuscripts and getting back into reviewing books, I have a hospital bill to pay off, which means all kinds of issues for me. If you have a buck or two to spare, I would be more than thankful. There is a paypal button on the right hand side of this page. That’s just in case you feel charitable. As it is, I am happy enough about every single one of my readers. There are more of you than I ever expected, even through the dry months in the past year, and I am thoroughly humbled. Thank you all.


9 thoughts on “Philip Roth: The Humbling

  1. Pingback: Philip Roth: The Humbling - World Literature Forum

  2. Not that I didn’t enjoy The Humbling—I did—it’s just that it’s a reminder of how Roth still has the touch but his fire’s diminished. (But then again, when you’ve won every major American fiction award they can give you, you’re probably licensed to put some artistic ambitions to bed)

    The highlight of this novel for me was the gender identity struggle between Pegeen and Simon, which is where I must say you’ve made some very thoughtful connections.

    • I agree, mostly. If this review sounded positive, it doesn’t really reflect how I read it. It’s a huge letdown, just not as bad as his last three books before that. Have you reread any older Roth since? I have started and thing is I think his weaker new work kinda throws a shadow on his old work and I start seeing flaws and fissures there. Not everywhere, it’s hard to find fault with books like Ghost Writer, but in general, yeah. Weird.

      Thanks for the comment.

  3. I’m more excited to reread Roth than to crack open a new release of his, mainly for the reasons you’ve mentioned. High five for mentioning Ghost Writer, by the way—that’s definitely a favorite of mine.

    Does he seem like an author who continues writing not because he has anything new to say but because it’s his natural human function, like eating and sleeping?

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  5. Pingback: Philip Roth: Nemesis « shigekuni.

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