Blog Tribute #3, The Mookse and the Gripes: The Humbling, by Philip Roth


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It will come as no surprise to regular visitors here that The Mookse and the Gripes was one of the blogs that inspired me — Trevor Berrett joined this year’s Shadow Giller Jury as our international judge (and has signed up for next as well) and excerpts from his reviews of the Giller shortlist have been featured here in recent weeks. Trevor lives in New Jersey and works in New York and has served as my primary blog source on American literature for the last while. He is also very interested in works in translation — if that fits your style, be sure to check out his blog as he has lined up a number of publishers and regularly features posts on new works which rarely get reviewed in conventional sources.

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.

37 Responses to “Blog Tribute #3, The Mookse and the Gripes: The Humbling, by Philip Roth”

  1. Isabel Says:

    I haven’t read any Roth. Would this novel be a good one to start with? I like the theatre world and would be curious to see what Roth has to say.

    I also enjoy Trevor’s blog.

    BTW, I finished and reviewed – Boyden’s Through Black Spruce


  2. Trevor Says:

    Hey Kevin, thanks for the tribute! I have been so busy this last week at work that I haven’t been as active as I would have liked. But this cheers me up and I’m thrilled you like this. It has gotten better with time, for me, despite being a finalist for the Bad Sex award!

    This whole blogging thing has surprised me immensely with it’s unexpected pleasures. The great community of readers of such good will is definitely one of the highlights! I look forward to having some more time on my hands to engage in more of the great discussions!


  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Isabel: Well, it is tragedy and it is Roth (which means there is some pretty crude sex). On the other hand, if you like theatre (particularly the darker dramas), it would be an interesting entry point. Personally, I think one of the three most recent books would be a good entry point, if only because they are all short which, for me at least, keeps Roth on track.

    I did see your Boyden review and should have commented. Glad you liked it and hope you are looking forward to volume three of the trilogy as much as I am.


  4. Trevor Says:

    Oh! I just saw Isabella’s comment and have to offer my two bits.

    I wouldn’t recommend starting here. I recommend The Ghostwriter, though that’s not where I began (close to where I began, though). These later books seem very idiosyncratic, and I think it pays to know Roth a bit first in order to see where he’s expanding something and where he’s really zooming in to an exagerated close up, as I think is particularly the case here.

    That said, I’d actually be interested in hearing how someone who didn’t know Roth’s work responded to this book.


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Two different points of view, Isabel. Good luck — my guess is The Ghostwriter has the advantage that most libraries probably have a copy, not to mention second-hand bookstores. The Humbling has a $30 price tag in Canada (which probably means about $25 in the U.S.) which is a bit much for a short book and Roth’s publishers don’t usually put out a paperback version for at least a year.


      • Trevor Says:

        I admit I paid the full $25 for it (as I will next year too when Nemesis comes out), but felt like I was paying for Roth’s name and Milton Glasser’s cover. It’s a bit much for a small novella, but then again it is Roth and Glasser. Plus, I like the small size hardbacks they’re using for these. Need to get a first edition of Everyman with it’s small tombstone-esque cover, in fact.


        • KevinfromCanada Says:

          Trevor: If you go to and search “philip roth everyman” you will find the hardcover being remaindered for $7.99 Cdn. Even with the rather high shipping costs to the States it would get to you for under $20.


  5. Trevor Says:

    Ha! And there’s Kevin thinking it might be a good starting place. Isabella, the choice is yours ;).


  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: I actually thought the sex was better than it usually is with Roth (it is one of my least favorite of his characteristics). I was so enrolled in his development of Simon as a character that I was able to overlook some of the less delicate parts.

    I too have found being part of the blogging world a most fulfilling pleasure. I feel I have friends spread all over the world who share interests and concerns — as you say, it is a great community of readers.

    Mrs. KfC was delighted to meet face-to-face with you and Sherry last week and says it was the highlight of her trip to New York — given it is prime shopping season, topping Fifth and Madison Avenues is a genuine achievement. Thanks for looking after her. So far, the Berretts and Max and Emma from Perchorin’s Journal are the only blogging friends we have either met face to face, but that doesn’t mean there is not a list for the future.


    • Mrs. Berrett Says:

      Trevor: I actually thought the sex was better than it usually is with Roth (it is one of my least favorite of his characteristics). . . . I too have found being part of the blogging world a most fulfilling pleasure.

      I’m laughing so hard, I’m crying!


      • Trevor Says:

        Kevin, perhaps we should be more clear in our comments! When Sherry read my first comment above, she asked whether it was my blog or yours that was nominated for the Bad Sex Award. It was this book, folks!

        Also, please forgive my typos. iPhone.


  7. Trevor Says:

    It was the highlight of my holiday, too, Kevin, and not just because the competition was light (I spent a lot of it working). I too look forward to future encounters.

    Oh, and I agree with you about the sex here, too. I’m not a fan of gratuitous or overly ribald sex, but that didn’t seem to be the case here. I saw it as another darkly comic moment in his late stuff. It also worked for me in American Pastoral and The Prague Orgy, but not in Everyman. There it kind of shattered what was otherwise a very delicate book, in my view.

    By the way, you can tell my deal slowed down when I’m online comparing portrayals of sex in Roth.


  8. Biblibio Says:

    I recently read “Goodbye, Columbus” as an introduction to Roth. It was interesting but not mind-blowing. Having heard over-the-top praise (like this post) and dismissive grumbling (from a couple of good friends and relatives), I’m really not sure where I stand on the matter. I have a few more Roth books on my shelf (I received a bunch of books from thirty years ago when someone cleared out their bookshelves…) so I’ll certainly take advantage of it to read more of Roth’s writing, but I’m uncertain as to why people remain so divided on that front…


  9. Mary Says:

    I wouldn’t say I was a convert to Roth because I find his books a bit like being trapped at a party by a fascinating and persistant raconteur – you enjoy the anecdotes but you wish he’d shut up and let you breath. I also have a problem with his relentlessly macho sexuality ( had to stop reading Sabbath’s Theater).However, I loved American Pastoral and enjoyed I Married A Communist and The Human Stain. Are his books rereadable though? I’m someone who loves detailed descriptions, the setting of scene and atmosphere which I don’t think Roth really does because of his flowing conversational style. I compare him unfavourably to Richard Ford who also gives a real sense of a man thinking and living but sets Frank Bascombe in a New Jersey,which although I’ve never been there, comes to life though the brilliance of his prose.


  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Bibliblio, Mary: I’m going to answer Mary first, because it sets up the other answer. The “trapped at a party” metaphor is perfect — and in fact before Trevor’s opinion sent me back to Roth, I’d say I’d had enough of this raconteur and was quite content to avoid him. Our tastes also seem to be similar — I abandoned Sabbath’s Theater as well, but did like The Human Stain in particular. I always have felt that the relentless sexuality and sometimes overbearing narrative got in the way of the book — one reason why the last three novella-like ones rank much higher with me, since the author can’t get too excessive.

    It has been a number of decades since I read Goodbye, Columbus and I don’t feel any need to return to it, Biblibio. I am contemplating reading the nine Zuckermman novels in order (I’ve read most but not all), but not sure whether I’ll proceed. After I read The Humbling a first time, I read Everyman and Indignation again before reading this a second time (and they are short enough that the whole process took only two days) — I may just leave Roth until Nemesis comes out. Mary, I do find these books rewarded rereading — there is a depth in narrative just as there is in setting and atmosphere. And I am in that minority that doesn’t like Richard Ford at all, but I won’t go there now.


  11. Rick P Says:

    Roth is a writer that I’ve never read but am very interested in.

    I just got Goodbye Columbus in a second hand bookstore the other day so I’ll probably stop there.

    I’ll certainly heed the recommendation to go to The Ghost Writer after that.

    Is there benefit in reading the Zuckerman novels in order or do they work out of order?


  12. Rick P Says:

    Where I said “stop there”, I meant “start there”.


  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rick: I’ll wait for Trevor to weigh in, but in my opinion you should try the Zuckerman novels in order — they do break down into subsets, but I think it is worth trying to start from the start. I did not, which is why I am looking for advice elsewhere. Sorry about that.


  14. Trevor Says:

    Hi Rick, I read them in order and highly recommend that approach. As Kevin said, the Zuckerman books break into subsets that build upon each other. The first four deal with Nathan’s youth and his entrance into literary fame. The fifth, The Counterlife subverts it all and paves the way for the American Trilogy in which we see Nathan not as the subject but as the narrator. Then Exit Ghost is an excellent capstone and perfect bookend companion to The Ghost Writer.

    Throughout it all Nathan ages, and it’s nice to see how his mind changes from literature for art’s sake, to fame and sex, to ruminations on life, to ruminations on death. Of course, all of the books have these elements in them, but I think the progression is very natural (probably because it roughly follows Roth’s own aging) and fulfilling to read in order.

    Obviously, I can’t weigh in on the benefits of reading them out of order since I didn’t do that. I know that each book, particularly those in the American Trilogy, stand alone, and I know a lot of people who consider American Pastoral or The Human Stain their favorite book, even though they hadn’t read anything else by Roth. However, I feel I would have missed out on a lot of the joys, in particular in American Pastoral (which then introduces and provides a perspective on the subsequent American books) had I not already come to know its narrator, Nathan Zuckerman.

    Reading these books in order was one of the best literary projects I’ve ever taken on, definitely the highlight of the past couple of years for me. I envy those about to start out on the journey!


    • Rick P Says:

      I just started The Ghost Writer. I’m just at the very beginning. I’ll get back with my thoughts on it.

      Via my local second hand bookstore, I got 8 of the 9 Zuckerman novels. I’m short by The Human Stain. I’m very much looking forward to the Roth experience.


  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks, Trevor. I knew I could count on you as my Roth expert. And I think your advice about the Zuckerman novels is dead on — and I read them out of order.


  16. Trevor Says:

    I can’t claim to be a Roth expert — not yet, Kevin. But I hope to make it through his works one of these days. I’ve slowed down since I finished Exit Ghost (and had slowed down some before that), reading only one of his books in the last six months of this year. I have Patrimony on the shelf, and I am anxious to read Operation Shylock. Beyond those two, I think it will be a while between books as the pre-Zuckerman books don’t particularly call out to me right now. And ever since reading I Married a Communist, I haven’t been anxious to read The Plot Against America, though some people I know rate it as one of the best books of this decade. And I have my fears about Sabbath’s Theater, though I know I’ll get to it someday. So many blank spots! Oh well.


  17. Trevor Says:

    Oh, I just looked at my Roth posts, Kevin, and found that I read The Counterlife after I’d read American Pastoral. Out goes my credibility! I read them pretty close together, so maybe that’s why I forgot that I’d made this little slip in the chronology. That said, The Counterlife is the loosest fitting book in the Zuckerman series — no excuse for my making claims I am unfit to make!

    So Rick, for the most part I read the books in order — and recommend something like the same to others :).


  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: I’ve now tried Sabbath’s Theater twice and abandoned it both times. I’ll be interested if you can finish it. And your credibility is just fine.


  19. Rick P Says:

    Thanks for the advice. I will try the Zuckerman series at some point. I read Updike’s Rabbit series last year in order and it was very rewarding.

    Zuckerman is about twice as long as Rabbit so I’m a little daunted by the pure volume of the adventure.

    I suppose it’s nothign compared to Kevin’s Booker/Giller Long List reading this year.

    Thanks again


  20. KevinfromCanada Says:

    You don’t have to read them all at once, Rick. I reread Rabbit two years ago and also found it very rewarding. That said, I’d look at Zuckerman as a project that extends over a couple of years. Roth can be wearing, even in his good books, and scheduling some breathing space into the project is probably a good idea.


  21. Trevor Says:

    The other nice thing about several of these Roth books, Rick, is that they are pretty short. Each of the first three are very short and easy to get through in a few sittings. The fourth is even shorter, barely a novella. The rest of them are longer, and I agree with Kevin that they can be read over quite a bit of time without much of a disadvantage — it’s probably an advantage, actually.


  22. Colette Jones Says:

    What a fantastic book The Humbling is. Like you, Kevin, I suspect my interest in the theatre helps here, but I also just loved his inability to understand why the 40 year old girl’s parents did not like it that she was with him.


  23. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette: I agree that one of the intriguing things about The Humbling is the way that Roth, in effect, dares the reader with “trust me on this improbability and I’ll deliver” and then does. I can understand why some people don’t like this book — I too thought it was excellent and it has got even better in memory since I read it, which is always a good sign.


  24. Rick P Says:

    I’ve begun on the Zuckerman books. Even though Ghost Writer and Zuckerman Unbound were short, they took me quite a while to finish. I enjoyed them but I found them very dense. I’m really finding them rewarding but it’s heavy thematic stuff.

    I believe I will follow your advice and take a break after The Prague Orgy.

    I’m definitely glad I’m finally reading Roth.



  25. Trevor Says:

    Did you read the review I linked to at The Millions? I tried to link to it here for you, but whenever I do that your page discards my comment. Anyway, I like how the reviewer puts Roth in context and shows that this is a well controlled, structurally ambitious novella. Whether you like it or not is one thing, but to say it’s lazy is — well — lazy. This whole sequence of novellas is getting better with time for me. I think I’ll reread Everyman sometime soon (not too soon, though, too much else to read).


  26. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Here’s the review at The Millions that Trevor mentions in his comment.


  27. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I’m not sure I agree with The Millions’ conclusion that Axler was a mad man in this book. In “The Myth of Sisyphus”, Albert Camus posits that drama is one way of escaping the absurd that dominates real life — the play becomes a new, non-absurd reality. Axler’s life has been spent in that artificial reality (and he was very, very good at it) and now that he has lost that skill he is stuck with the “absurd” — and makes one final escape by becoming a Chekhov character. I thought about that Camus metaphor often while reading the book and it definitely provided a structure. I also think viewing this book in the context of Everyman and Indignation there is reason to look for some sort of metaphor. For me, most of the negative reviews have neglected to do that (“lazy” is a fair description).


  28. Trevor Says:

    I remember you talking about “The Myth of Sisyphus” before, Kevin. I still haven’t read it, unfortunately, and I need to fix that, but I’ve heard enough about it to know that it also deals with the question of suicide when one comes to the knowledge that life is absurd. What an interesting perspective on this book! I wonder if Roth had Camus’s essay in mind a bit while writing The Humbling; it wouldn’t surprise me.


  29. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I may be over-interpreting but I have wondered in this current novella series how much Roth may have been influenced by Camus — or at least might be reflecting similar concerns. The context of the absurd is one element (“The absurd is the essential concept and the first truth” was Camus’ summary). Equally important is an idea of dualism (dark/light, happiness/sadness, life/death) that Camus’ thinking evolved into. Where I do think that helps is in allowing Roth some of his excesses (the implausibility of the Peegan relationship here, the panty raid in Indignation) which some critics have found unacceptable. You know the Zuckerman novels better than I do but it seems to me they explored a version of “reality” — in some ways, this group seems to be distilling that into more fundamental ideas.


  30. Trevor Says:

    I’m intrigued to think of the Zuckerman books as exploring a version of “reality,” Kevin, since several of them deal with the process of conciously fictionalizing reality, particularly The Ghostwriter, Counterlife, and American Pastoral. Even Exit Ghost, with its biographical angle, runs around with the idea of fictionalizing a reality — of course, in that book Zuckerman is also creating an imaginary relationship with his female tenant.

    That said, I think there’s validity in the idea that they are exploring a version of “reality” and contrasting what they do with what these later books are doing. And if we throw Plot Against America in there . . . I’ll have to think on this more.


  31. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Good point, Trevor — I think if I had used the phrase “interpretations of reality” it would have more accurately reflected what I was trying to say. My impression is that the Zuckerman books tend to be more outward-looking at the enviornment he is in, while these novellas emphasize the more introspective side of the central characters.

    Part of the reason that I think this, of course, may be that the Zuckerman novels that I remember and prefer are the ones where he is more of an observer than the others — which means I may be making a circular argument.


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