The humbling of Philip Roth
With its angst-ridden, haughty prose and embarrassing sex scenes between a has-been actor and a lesbian, Philip Roth’s latest novel is a crime against his own oeuvre.
Having enjoyed a writing career spanning six decades, receiving some of the most coveted literary awards, and having penned some of his most triumphant masterpieces after suffering a nervous breakdown and turning 60, what is left for Philip Roth?
It seems that, with The Humbling, Roth’s thirtieth book, the great chronicler of personal and social upheavals is intent on tarnishing his own canon. The third in a series of four short novels, The Humbling is a hackish return to some familiar Rothian themes: relationships, sex, art, old age, mental and physical breakdown, death.
Where the facts end and the fiction begins has been the most predictable, and the least interesting, question asked of Roth’s novels, many of them set in the author’s own childhood neighbourhood in Newark, some of them narrated by a character named Philip Roth. But it is hard to resist extracting shards of Roth from the fate of stage actor Simon Axler, who, the opening chapter of The Humbling explains, has ‘lost his magic’.
Axler is a Great American Actor, one of the best – and last – of his generation, but he has lost his talent and his confidence and, as the cover illustration of The Humbling shows, has exited the stage and the spotlight. After sinking into depression, Axler checks into a psychiatric hospital and soon after checking out, his marriage ends. He has survived not only his contemporaries and family members but also his own ability to act. The audience, he feels, can see through him.
The Humbling has a three-act structure. The first chapter, ‘Into Thin Air’, is a scene-setter, chronicling Axler’s disintegration, his crumbling career, and self-imposed isolation after his stint in the psychiatric hospital where his fellow patients discuss their botched suicide attempts as if they were outlining philosophical theses. At the end of this first act, Axler raises a central question which is only to be resolved at the end of the book. Prompted by a letter from a Sybil Van Buren, a desperate woman he got to know in the hospital, the actor contemplates how hard it is to kill oneself, something which, in the world of drama, everyone from Jocasta in Oedipus the King to Goneril in King Lear has resorted to.
The middle chapter, ‘The Transformation’, marks a turning point for Axler. Enter Pegeen, the 40-year-old, lesbian daughter of Axler’s old actor friends. The two start an affair and Axler, whose growing spinal pain had left him unable to walk, stand or sit for very long, is able to push aside his thoughts of suicide. To his delight, Pegeen settles into his isolated countryside home. He showers her with gifts: jewellery and expensive clothes that look nothing like her existing wardrobe of cheap, boyish attire. But as the preoccupations of the outside world, and other peoples’ inevitable demands and expectations, start to burst the two’s bubble of euphoria, their romance and bedroom romps start to turn sour and sinister.
The clue to the resolution of the novel is in the title of the last chapter, ‘The Final Act’, in which Axel remembers Sybil Van Buren’s sad fate and hurries on the inevitable. This final chapter starts with one of many scenes which earned Roth a place on the shortlist of this year’s Bad Sex Awards. Pegeen had ‘blushed furiously’ the first time she undressed in front of Axler: ‘As he watched her, she undid her jeans and was with a man for the first time since college. He was with a lesbian for the first time in his life.’ As their romance advances she not only asks Axler to slap her around (‘Because it hurts. Because it makes me feel like a little girl and it makes me feel like a whore. Go ahead. Harder’), but she also tries to cajole him into playing reverse gender roles, while wearing a strap-on leather harness. It all reads like a pretentious erotic novella.
In a recent interview, Roth claimed only to use the internet for book and grocery shopping. However, it seems that his detailed descriptions of Pegeen’s sex toys might have led him to further forays into online research. Of course, outrageous sex scenes are not new to Roth; think, for instance, of the inventive use of a raw liver in his comic novel Portnoy’s Complaint. But there is nothing funny, sensitive or sarcastic about Axler’s and Pegeen’s frolicking. It’s purely cringe-worthy.
Perhaps the most satisfactorily unsatisfactory answer to the critics’ incessant speculations over the factual elements of Roth’s novels came in the form of Roth’s 1988 autobiography, The Facts. It opens with a letter from Roth to his alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, whom Roth asks to judge candidly the following chapters, which at once lay bare and obscure the details of Roth’s life.
‘On the pendulum of self-exposure that oscillates between aggressively exhibitionistic Mailerism and sequestered Salingerism’, writes Roth in the letter to Zuckerman, ‘I’d say that I occupy a midway position, trying in the public arena to resist gratuitous prying or preening without making too holy a fetish of secrecy and seclusion’. It would be a shame if Roth gave in to the ‘prying and preening’ at this stage, but one can’t help but wonder what drives him to publish such angst-ridden, haughty prose as The Humbling.
With its lofty, forced dialogues, its numerous references to mythology and over-attentiveness to form at the expense of engaging content or multi-faceted characters, The Humbling bares little resemblance to the majority of Roth’s oeuvre. Though it is a contemplation of what’s left to achieve at the end of a magnificent career that has shaped an art form, it seems that Roth, who, at 76, is churning out novels on an annual basis, has only managed to pull a Woody Allen.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.
The Humbling, by Philip Roth, is published by Jonathan Cape. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)