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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.
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on 11 November 2009
For those of us who have read most, if not all, Philip Roth, the Humbling is not much more than a novella or three part short story about the humbling of 20th century men - first by self doubt and collapse of vitality, then by love, and finally by the tragic realisation that life and love are transitory. Roth chooses another reflection of himself - Simon Axler - an extrovert actor, not an introvert writer (who both live the lives of hermits!) - to be his protagonist. Women often skewer Roth as a sexist male, but he writes intimately from his own, male perspective as well as anyone.This book is guaranteed to offend the feminists, as Axler's nemesis is a younger lesbian who manipulates and uses him (and others) that he has known since birth.Much has been made of the sex scenes in the book, and they are particularly well written. Roth is obsessed by sex and death, and so is the story.

Though fluent and spare, the prose is involving. It's really a 70 page book and can be read in one sitting with ease. Roth has evolved a new style, part Hemingway and part old Roth, and there are few writers in English who can match him. Let the Nobel honour the unread Armenian and little known Cambodian poets - I'll take Roth, slim or fat, bare boned or brawny.
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on 28 October 2009
Now, don't get me wrong. I am a MASSIVE Roth fan, but I've now read this novella through twice and still feel the same way: It's a bit, well, disappointing.

Yes, the plot is typically Rothian - old man, young woman, sex, disappointment, death. Yes, there are some spectacular shots at erotica and yes, the pace of the narrative holds no prisoners, but it just feels like a first draft, kind of empty and rushed and therefore a little shallow. From a hundred other authors I daresay it would be an accomplishment, but not from Roth. To be totally fair, the speed of the narrative can easily trick you into thinking it's exciting, placing it in the "sizzling page-turner" genre, but Roth is much more than that.

Sorry Philip. When's the next one out?
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VINE VOICEon 18 January 2011
This short novel has everything you'd expect from Philip Roth, sharp and concise prose, self-examination, intelligent observation, but somehow it just doesn't hit the heights I would want it to.

Simon Axler, (and I have to assume that at least to a degree he is supposed to be Roth) is an ageing stage actor who suddenly finds that he can't act anymore. His heart isn't in it. He has lost all faith in himself.

He attempts to commit suicide and checks himself into a psychiatric hospital to recover. Upon his release he enters into a relationship with, Peegan, the daughter of two old friends, despite her having just come out of a long lesbian relationship. For a time this looks as if it may go some way to redeem him, but his sexual desires and paranoia push her away.

For a book that deals with emotion the tone is cold and distant, with a lot of reported speech and very little real feeling on show. For much of the narrative it feels as if he sleep-walked his way through it. 'The Humbling' gives the impression of a writer of great skill who is only in third gear.

The uncomfortable impression I had during the reading, and one that I could never really shake, was of listening in on an old man's sexual fantasies, mixed with his concerns about whether his creative skills are diminishing. The irony being this book came at a time when Roth was being particularly productive, and that 'The Humbling' may well represent one book too far.

It deals with familiar topics of death, old age, sex and how we measure success; but he never seems to be doing more than turning over old ground here. There is nothing new or surprising in this novel, all is much as you would expect and with an author of Roth's stature and skill this counts as a disappointment.
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'He'd lost his magic. The impulse was spent. He'd never failed in the theatre, everything he had done had been strong and successful, and then the terrible thing happened and he couldn't act.'

The Humbling starts with the humbling of Simon Axler, a great actor, who has lost his confidence, his talent and therefore his reason for living. He can no longer perform, breaks down and enters a psychiatric hospital. The rest of the novel explores how he can live his life after losing the meaning that his work gave it. Pegeen Mike Stapleford, the daughter of friends enters, and fills his life; 'Everyone's possibilities had changed dramatically.' There are few characters in this short novel and Pegeen looms large, though she remains an enigma. When she starts the affair with Simon she drops the woman who gave her a job and that woman warns Simon that she will wreck his life. Like Simon, we spend the rest of the novel wondering if Pegeen has saved or wrecked him.

Much has been written of Roth's late, great novels and I am a fan. This novel isn't up there with the best, for all that it explores the same themes: the power that we give to those we love; the solace of work and creativity; aging lotharios and younger women. It's as if Roth is intentionally teasing our conventions in the scenes where he buys lesbian Pegeen expensive, feminine clothes, and cruises for a woman to join their trysts. Simon is an aging satyr and misogynist both, who is humbled by failure and work and in his relationships. It's a bleak novel without the substance of his recent masterpieces. It's Philip Roth, so the writing is gripping and the dialogue intelligent. I was entertained but not inclined to reread.
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on 21 June 2010
Every Philip Roth release is a cause for celebration. For a while (until Indignation) I thought he was getting better and better with each novel.

Neither Indignation nor The Humbling are bad. Like sex, even a bad Roth novel is still pretty good. But they are not 'perfect' like 'The Human Stain', 'Everyman' or 'The Plot against America'. They're still wonderful examples of storytelling that effortlessly propel you along. They're still those rare sorts of books for which you try to ration your reading, and for which you have to fight the temptation to read in a single sitting. But they both feel a bit slight, a bit throwaway. For instance while Indignation has fabulous episodes, the central conceit seems a little stupid frankly.

The Humbling begins with a fabulous investigation of loss of competence, self-respect and of suicide. I thought this was going to be a corker. Then we slide into a long awkward sex romp. As far as sex romps go, it's okay. Even as someone approaching his dotage, it's still pretty titillating, and I can imagine it being passed round the schoolyard as 'Portnoy's Complaint' once was. I know people will have different opinions, but I don't think sex of this sort belongs in 'serious' novels.
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on 24 March 2010
Who says that a book must have more than 200 pages to qualify as a "good novel" when Philip Roth is able to tell a great story in less than 150 pages. "The Humbling" is one of the most honest works I have ever read on love, ageing and failure. I could not put it down, although it is rather clear from page one, where this story is leading, Roth's language is so intriguing and fascinating, that I was drawn into this book. Suffice to say, that every year when Philip Roth is NOT rewarded with the Nobel-prize, I go ballistic!
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on 8 March 2015
An ageing actor with his fair share of issues, inflated ego, depression and also being a hermit. This has classic Roth themes (sex and death) and was a dark and enjoyable ride. This isn't too long and if you are a fan of good writing and quality lit fiction then pick this up. I also enjoyed and would recommend the other three novellas in this collection of the four so called short novels.
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on 14 December 2009
Has Roth 'lost his magic' like Simon Axler, his central character in this study of stage-fright and suicide? This book may no go down in history as a classic or measure up so well against some of Roth's better works but it is far from the embarrassing disaster that some critics have made it out to be. The first section of this short novel (140 generously spaced and margined pages) is fantastic. Many people have the wrong idea about stage fright, they think it refers to a state where actors freeze on stage, unable to recall their lines, or perhaps are scared of going on stage for fear of failure. One renowned actor I worked with described his own experience as like being able to hear the thoughts of the audience as he spoke and they all thought he was a terrible fake. Try getting through a play with that running through your mind. What Roth pinpoints brilliantly is that many of the great actors have no idea what makes them so great, they can't identify what it is they do which makes them different they just know there's something. Imagine then the horror when for no discernible reason that something disappears.

"Of course, if you've had it, you always have something unlike anyone else's. I'll always be unlike anyone else, Axler told himself, because I am who I am. I carry that with me - that people will always remember. But the aura he'd had, all his mannerisms and eccentricities and personal peculiarities, ...none of it worked for any role now. All that had worked to make himself now worked to make him look like a lunatic. He was conscious of every moment on stage in the worst possible way. In the past when he was acting he wasn't thinking about anything. What he did well he did out of instinct. Now he was thinking about everything, and everything spontaneous and vital was killed - he tried to control it with thinking and instead he destroyed it."

Roth is also aware of that other quality that distinguishes the great actors from the good: 'intensity of listening'. or Axler the ability to listen is something he learns once again through his meeting with a fellow patient at the institution in which he commits himself when the fallout from his career crisis leads to marriage breakdown and suicidal thoughts. He and Sybil Van Buren strike up a bond of support, she needing someone to confirm that she isn't insane for feeling as she does about her child-abusing husband. We'll come back to that section and relationship later.

So the first act is complete, containing all the references to suicide you could want and even, in classic dramatic style, placing a loaded gun amongst the many props. This is why the leap made in the second act is so baffling and, at times, absurd. Axler is sought out by Pegeen, the 40 year old daughter of long term friends who has been living as a lesbian since her early twenties but who wants now to sample a man, to sample our man (despite his advanced years and bad back which make just the one sexual position possible). Is this the stuff of an old man's fantasy? Well, no, it doesn't read like that. Pegeen isn't depicted as your obvious lesbian fantasy, she is damaged in many ways and there is something that makes sense about her picking Axler as the safest option for her experiment in sexual orientation. The reader of course can see that this relationship, as it soon becomes, is doomed to failure even before Axler makes the fatal mistake of introducing a third (female) party into their bedroom.

The major problem with this part of the book is its absurdity. A nomination for the Bad Sex Award tells you all you need to know. But Roth has always had a sense of humour. He is surely well aware of what he is writing, he wants us to laugh, wants Axler to seem ridiculous in his pursuit of one last fling and even sadder in his desire to develop the relationship into something even further. Roth also gets in before the critics can say it makes no sense.

"Though what did make sense? His being unable to go out and act on a stage? His having been a psychiatric inpatient. His conducting a love affair with a lesbian whom he'd first met seen nursing at her mother's breast?"

The fatal misjudgement that risks jeopardising the book's place amongst this late artistic examination of mortality is that by making Axler ridiculous rather than sad he maybe isn't the best choice of suicidal hero. If this is a book about suicide then the sub-plot of Van Buren, which Roth returns to before the end, is the one that might have made a better focus. In just a snatch of conversation and a letter he manages to make her a far more compelling character than should be possible with so little. There is something empty about the dramatic gestures of Axler, an actor who knows his own weakness for applying the skills of his trade to his own, supposedly real emotional life. Roth knows that in the more heightened moments his hero is painfully aware of his own inadequacies.

"Oh, play it however like, Axler told himself. Probably you're playing it for laughs anyway without your even knowing it."
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on 3 April 2011
If you're a newcomer to Roth's work, avoid this book altogether. It does a disservice to an impressive and productive two decades of work from the man I consider to be America's greatest living author.

Roth enthusiasts may want to read it, if only to remind themselves this septugenarian is human after all, and does have off days, but brace yourselves. I found a few moments in this book embarrassing to read, and I'm 33, and far from prudish. Roth has tackled sex in a frank, and often explicit way before, but never this desperately. For the first time when reading one of his novels, I found myself thinking, "Enough, already!" It's an unfortunate misstep, coming between the excellent 'Indignation' and 'Nemesis'.

Like Ian McEwan's 'Amsterdam', I've filed this away under "Great Writers Struggling To Meet Deadlines With No Enthusiasm", because that's the only excuse I can think of that makes sense.
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