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on 15 October 2013
Reclusive, introverted author Philip Roth is reclusive, extroverted sexagenarian actor Simon Axler in The Humbling, the latest book from the elder statesman of American literature. Axler had been the finest stage actor of his generation but, after giving disastrous performances as Macbeth and Prospero at the Kennedy Center, realised that his acting mojo had forsaken him and, without really knowing it, he had become a pitiable ham. Vowing never to tread the boards again, Axler spiralled into depression and rarely left the house. Unfortunately for him, his wife Victoria was still quite capable of leaving and promptly packed her bags and moved to California. Completely alone and certain that he will never act again, Axler decided turn his shotgun on himself, but found that he that was not even capable of playing the role of a suicide.
Of course this is Philip Roth [and one of his various literary personas] that we are talking about and so The Humbling quickly ventures into far more peculiar territory. Sometime after his failed suicide attempt, Axler is visited by Pegeen Stapleford, the forty-year-old lesbian daughter of actors that Axler has worked with in the past. Pegeen had recently taken up a teaching post at the local university and is newly single after ending her relationship of six years when her partner decided to transition to become a man. Now, Axler may have lost his acting ability but his seduction skills must be second to none since, before you can even say bi-curious, he and Pegeen are shacking up together. The Humbling then takes shape as an confused odyssey of love, loss, talent, despair and three-ways.
The Humbling is not classic Philip Roth. At only 140 [very generously spaced] pages it is really more novella than novel and, no doubt related to its brevity, the story is weak and lacking the depth and invention that Roth normally offers. However, The Humbling is certainly not irredeemable and I wouldn't go so far as to dismiss it, as William Skidelsky did in The Guardian as "an old man's sexual fantasy dressed up in the garb of literature." Roth's writing often displays a preoccupation with sex but The Humbling actually features less barmy sex scenes than you might imagine from reading the majority of the reviews of the book. It must be admittedly though, that those sex scenes which are featured are generally quite spectacularly cringe-worthy. It is fortunate for Roth that Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones was available and more than suitable to take the Literary Review's 2009 prize for bad sex in fiction.
While at its core, the story could perhaps be described as absurd but there are flashes of brilliance throughout. Roth's prose is by turns elegant and coarse and with The Humbling he offers an interesting meditation on the aging process. The relationship between Axler and Pegeen never really rings true, but the character of Axler himself is an excellent portrayal of the decline of a once great man and of how hope can spring unbidden from even the deepest decline. The Humbling may not be a particularly taxing read and nowhere near as good as Roth's plotting can be, but Axler's certainly does linger in the mind long after the reading is done.