I owe Trevor a debt of gratitude for re-introducing me to Philip Roth, whom he recently characterized as “one of my favorite writers — he might even be my favorite.” I’ll go out on a limb and say he is the favorite — Trevor has produced reviews on 12 Roth books (including this one, you can find them all here) in 18 months, which would seem to indicate a high level of dedication to the author. I’ve read a fair bit of Roth but in a very undisciplined fashion and some recent bad experiences had soured me on the writer who seems to be on virtually every shortlist of “best living American author”. Trevor’s enthusiastic support convinced me to give Roth another chance and I read two recent titles — Everyman and Indignation — both of which I found more than worthwhile. So I was looking forward to this fall’s release of The Humbling. I was not disappointed; indeed it is an outstanding piece of work.
Roth tends to write novels in bunches (the nine Zuckerman novels, the three Kepesh books, for example) and The Humbling joins Everyman and Indignation in a loosely-connected four book project (Nemesis is due out next fall). The unifying element here is not a character but rather — so far at least — the idea of looking at mortality from different points of view. The books are short, almost novellas (this one is 140 pages of well-spaced, largish type), but for this reader at least that becomes a major strength — Roth doesn’t waste a single word and the need to keep his action focused serves him well.
The Humbling features 65-year-old stage actor Simon Axler, who is coming off disastrous performances as Macbeth and Prospero at the Kennedy Center — performances so bad that even those who didn’t see them are mocking him. “He’d lost his magic”, the book begins:
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, what had worked for Falstaff and Peer Gynt and Vanya — what had gained Simon Axler his reputation as the last of the best of the classical American stage actors — none of it worked for any role now. All that had worked to make him himself now worked to make him look like a lunatic. He was conscious of every moment he was 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.
I’ve hung around the theatre world a bit and that paragraph pretty much summarizes how a stage acting career comes to an end (a very good friend, Eugene Stickland, actually wrote a play (“Queen Lear”) about it that I described in a post here). Roth has never written a play, but he obviously knows the stage world well — this novel, in fact, is structured in three “acts” that make it a virtual play.
Dealing with Axler’s realization that his acting end has arrived is Act One. His career has extended for more than four decades, despite no formal training. He was truly born to be an actor and he knows it:
It had started with people speaking to him. He couldn’t have been more than three or four when he was already mesmerized by speaking and being spoken to. He had felt he was in a play from the outset. He could use intensity of listening, concentration, as lesser actors used fireworks. He had that power offstage, too, particularly, when younger, with women who did not realize they had a story until he revealed to them that they had a story, a voice, and a style belonging to no other. They became actresses with Axler, they became the heroines of their own lives.
If you get the chance to see an outstanding stage actor (not screen), watch for that “intensity of listening”. It is what distinguishes the great from the merely adequate. Alas, there is a flip-side to this natural power: if playing a role is an extension of life behavior, living a life risks becoming the playing of a role. As he contemplates his dilemma, Axler ponders suicide (Roth lists 17 plays that Axler has appeared in that involve suicides and that is only a start). He is still quick-witted enough to check himself into a psychiatric institution and in his 26-day stay there rediscovers his ability to listen. But that too has potential tragic consequences, because he takes to sitting with the group of failed suicides who discuss their “experience” each evening and eventually joins the discussion:
One evening Axler spoke up — to perform, he realized, before his largest audience since he had given up acting. “Suicide is the role you write for yourself,” he told them. “You inhabit it and you enact it. All carefully staged — where they will find you and how they will find you.” Then he added, “But for one performance only.”
In true dramatic tradition, Act Two (“The Transformation”) starts by heading off in what seems to be a completely different direction. Axler returns from his institutional stay to his farm in upstate New York and is visited by Peegan Mike, the 40-year-old daughter of old acting friends. Axler and her parents were in a production of “Playboy of the Western World” when her mother was pregnant — if you don’t know the play, her odd name comes from the female lead in Synge’s play.
Peegan has been a lesbian for 17 years, but the two connect with suspicious immediacy and she makes love with a man for the first time since college on her visit. The two quickly grow closer, she abandons her lesbian lover and they enter a serious relationship despite the risk that the 25 year gap in ages entails. Axler’s re-found ability to listen and only then react is central to making the relationship grow.
It has its challenges. Peegan’s ex-lover is also her boss, the dean at a nearby college, who wants no part of their relationship ending. The dean loses it and eventually phones Peegan’s parents (now working at a theatre in the mid-West) who don’t like the idea of the new relationship at all. While they have at least come to terms with idea of a lesbian daughter, the prospect of one starting up a relationship with a 65-year-old male, recently institutionalized (“crazy”), is beyond them. Axler, for his part, can’t understand the notion of a 40-year-old who is still in thrall to her parents, but he applies his listening skills to Peegan’s concerns. Even worse, it begins to dawn on him that not only is he playing a role, it is merely a supporting one.
I’ve already revealed that The Humbling is a tragedy, so this review will skip details of Part Three. Let’s just say that Roth has sewn a wealth of seeds in the first two “acts” of his book and they all come to maturity in the final act. A quote from Axler’s role as Prospero (which appears on Page 7) is detail enough:
“Our revels now are ended. These our actors, / As I foretold you, were all spirits and / Are melted into air, into thin air.”
The Humbling is an exceptional book — like a good play, it only takes two hours from start to finish, but engages the reader in every minute of those two hours. And, as playgoers know, when you leave a good production of a good play the experience has only started — when you close the cover on this book, the power of Roth’s own accomplishment has only begun.