The Humbling by Philip Roth - review by Sam Leith

Sam Leith

Acting Up

The Humbling


Jonathan Cape 140pp £12.99

Philip Roth’s encores are starting to look like one of those endless RSC curtain calls, aren’t they? While the other big beasts of his literary generation lost it one by one – Updike’s powers falling away; Norman Mailer’s late books going plain nuts; Gore Vidal not yet literally barking but on the way – Roth has enjoyed a flowering of late form barely seen since Yeats. And these little masterpieces are coming out once a year, if not faster.

You’d think it would make him cheerful. Not so, apparently. It’s an irony – albeit a trivial one – that a writer manifestly at the height of his powers is writing so insistently and well about obscurity, failure, thwartedness, and the collapse of talents and erections.

The Humbling is a narrow, bleak, oddly shaped book, which begins with the prospect of suicide and returns to it from another angle. Simon Axler was feted as one of the greats of the American theatre, but now, as he enters old age, his talent has abruptly and entirely vanished. He can’t bear to walk onto a stage. What used to come naturally is now the occasion for agonising self-consciousness: ‘every word he uttered seemed acted instead of spoken’.

He retreats into his house in the country, mired in depression. His wife skips out for California, and things get as bad as they can get. He cannot act, and he cannot act. He goes up to his attic and plays with his shotgun, but can’t shoot himself.

Eventually he checks into a mental hospital and attends a suicide group. Addressing what he notes is ‘his largest audience since he’d given up acting’, he declares: ‘Suicide is the role you write for yourself. You inhabit it and you enact it. All carefully staged – where they will find you and how they will find you. But one performance only.’

He is a bit of a smart-arse, this Axler. When invited to draw a picture by his therapist, he draws a picture of himself drawing a picture, explaining to the therapist that it is ‘a picture of a man who has broken down and who commits himself to a psychiatric hospital and goes to art therapy and is asked there by the therapist to draw a picture’. He calls it ‘What the Hell Am I Doing Here?’

Later, again mulling suicide after leaving the hospital, he is similarly self-reflexive:

Sitting there amid his books, he tried to remember plays in which there is a character who commits suicide. Hedda in Hedda Gabler, Julie in Miss Julie, Phaedra in Hippolytus, Jocasta in Oedipus the King, almost everyone in Antigone, Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Joe Keller in All My Sons, Don Parritt in The Iceman Cometh, Simon Stimson in Our Town, Ophelia in Hamlet, Othello in Othello, Cassius and Brutus in Julius Caesar, Goneril in King Lear, Antony, Cleopatra, Enobarbus and Charmian in Antony and Cleopatra, the grandfather in Awake and Sing!, Ivanov in Ivanov, Konstantin in The Seagull. And this astonishing list was only of plays in which he had at one time performed. 

That list – its perfect flatness, its very listiness – does a lot of work. The first wintry twitch of the mouth surely comes with ‘almost everyone in Antigone’. It challenges the reader to find it comical. It is comical. And that’s part of it. Put side by side, these individual tragedies become a lugubriously absurd catalogue of self-murder.

These are the thoughts of a character who has made his living pretending to be other people – actually, as Roth tells us, not so much pretending to be other people as being them on stage; and whose sudden inability to do that leaves him bereft. ‘People would laugh at him because it was him.’

As Roth writes early on, ‘he saw through his breakdown the same way he could see through his acting. The suffering was excruciating, and yet he doubted that it was genuine, which made it even worse.’ Here is a man who can scarcely see his own life except through dramatic art. In his depression, it is Prospero’s repetition of ‘into air, into thin air’ that chases itself round his head. His suicidal ideation centres round Konstantin in The Seagull, and even the woman with whom he has his last love affair is named after a character in The Playboy of the Western World.

This is Pegeen Mike, the forty-year-old, hitherto lesbian daughter of two old friends with whom Axler appeared in that very play. Pegeen turns up to visit, tries out heterosexuality, and decides she likes it. Her attractive, broken ex-girlfriend stalks her. Axler buys her expensive clothes and lets her take over two rooms of his house. She and Axler make merry with a big green strap-on dildo. They even pick up a drunken woman for a threesome.

For a while Axler is brought back to life. He fantasises that there’s time – a second chance; a return to the stage; even children. But then this, too, collapses. Pegeen can move on. Axler is out of road: he has nowhere to move on to.

It comes down to just that: three phases. Breakdown, recovery, abandonment – and it ends in a sort of triumph. Roth’s prose wastes nothing, and gives little up. It is stagy, sometimes, and a little schematic. Pegeen the converted lesbian, at first, seems too much a deus ex machina, not so much a breathing human as the projection of a baroque sexual imagination, the fulfilment of a wish. But with her box of toys and her ponytailed paramours, she’s also a pointer to the reproachful touch of the absurd that suffuses the whole novel. 

The Humbling is just as its title suggests. Not the tragedy its protagonist might have hoped for – rather, a work of plaintive comedy. 

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