The Humbling

categories: Reading Under the Influence


Philip Roth in The Humbling (Houghton Mifflin 2009) manages to dazzle and depress me at once.  His central character is familiar from earlier novels, but different, too, so solipsistic and narcissistic that the other characters are barely even there to notice.  Axler is an actor in his middle sixties who’s lost his stuff, can’t act, has blown two big Shakespeare roles at the Kennedy Center, and not only in his own mind but in the mind of critics, too, and audiences, and no doubt bloggers and twitterers, though these contemporary types don’t exist in Axler’s world.

So improbably that she seems a symbol comes a lesbian lover, the daughter of old friends, a girl he’s seen shortly after birth in the maternity ward, now forty years old and unhappy after a breakup.  What would make her go visit this aging friend of her parents?   What would make her accept his kisses?  Fantasy, is what.  I began to read her as art itself, or Art, I guess, theater art, anyway, this brusque and masculine not-quite beauty who doesn’t mind riding his broken frame, loves to talk dirty and doesn’t mind roughing him up.  He dominates her anyway, makes her in his own image, barely noticing the ways he’s being dominated in turn, and remade.  And remade again till he’s not sustainably himself or anything.

He’s not the only one.  A dean at the college she teaches at has fallen as hard as Axler, and stalks her, eventually to Axler’s yard in his isolated country home, her car visible off through the late-fall trees.  Axler’s response to this powerful, stately, undone dean is one of the warmest moments of this chilly book.  After the shotgun, I mean, the one we know from Chekhov is going to go off before the end of the play.  But he admires her, feels for her, actually sees her.   She’s sure he wants to fuck her and says so, but no, they’ve both been bested by the better player of this particular game.

We’re taking a risk, Pegeen says, the girl says, the not-former lesbian.  Pegeen Mike, as he takes to calling her, from Singe.  But he’s taken all the risk, isolated man, as alone and broken as the possum he observes hiding sticks under his barn.  Roth has done his homework on this as on all things—opossum males are solitary, active in winter, pictures of isolation.  She leaves him weekly to do her work, finds other lovers, returns to him.  Together they rather improbably pick up a young woman at the local bar and bring her home and dominate her, dump her off next morning.  I’m not sure I get this part—someone explain this part to me—they pick up this young woman and fuck her with both plastic and real penises and somehow this brings on the downfall of the relationship?  Is she like the audience that he and Art have been fucking with all those years, now the wiser?  I don’t know.  Shortly, she’s gone from the book.

Axler, anyway, returning to life and power, decides the two of them must have a child.  He consults with a physician who educates us on the viability of old sperm, he plans a cozy reception for his idea, but his resurrection gets cut off by Pegeen.  She was risky all right.  She dumps him summarily and that’s it for Axler, who manages a final act, up in his attic with his varmint shotgun.  Which does go off.   Later in the week the cleaning lady finds him, as we leave his point of view for the only time in the novel.  And Chekhov gets the last word, a quote from the Seagull, the play we know Axler to have gotten his start with, double quoted here as both a line from the Checkov play and as Axler’s suicide note: “The fact is, Konstantin Gavrilovich has shot himself.”

To my taste, the novel dies with him.  But it dies whole and complete, a much bigger world than the 140 pages here (similar in length to manuscript pages).  Mr. Roth has said that The Humbling along with his recent books Everyman and Indignation and with a book forthcoming will make a package of sorts.  So far there’s death and sex in common.  An end-of-life quartet, and no uplifting Tuesdays with Morrie, either, but bleak and unremitting, strap-on dildos and decrepit possums for symbols, elegant woman-figments to dull down the edge and keep me reading.

  1. Bill Roorbach writes:

    Okay, I looked at the Humbling again, and the opening is dazzling… So I’ll need more to go on if I’m going to believe there was anything appalling there, or anything to strangle fiction in America!

  2. Steven Stafford writes:

    I read the first page and was appalled at the writing. The reason I read Philip Roth is for the narrative voice, which always sounds like a stage actor. But look at that hideous first page; it looks like Stephenie Meyer got to it. It’s repetitive, repetitious, redundant, and it repeats itself.

    I am discovering after 8 Roth novels that he really has nothing to say, but he whatever he says, he says it better than anyone alive. Maybe I’ll read the Humbling someday, but it seems like he’s in the denoument of his career. I even think the America Trilogy is grossly overrated. Everyman, I think, was his last hurrah.

  3. LazarusPiot writes:

    p. roth has done more to strangle american fiction with self-referential narcissism than any other author. why does writing matter less now than ever? movies, tv, sure. but “literary” fiction is now supposed to be extended navel-gazing, or perhaps meta-navel-gazing, in which writers try to show that no matter how boring and self-absorbed they are it’s OK because they GET that they’re that way and are smarter than their readers.

    • Bill writes:

      I’ve heard this kind of thing about Philip Roth quite often, but I don’t quite see it when I read his books–especially the newer ones. There’s a kind of vividness that blows me away, and I like the women he portrays. The men too, often creeps, something he’s unafraid to put forward. And the narcissism of the some of the characters is certainly not the sum of his books. He’s one of the best and most exhaustive writers about work there is–glove making, for example, in American Pastoral (is that the right book?). But aim us at some writers we need to read to understand what good writing looks like. And tell us who it is who’s saying that literary writing is supposed to be omphaloskepsis. Or is that a straw man? I would just oppose the term literary writing to the term formula writing, basically. And there are formulas across the literary landscape, all genres and poses. Anyway, I’ll bet you and I agree on a lot of authors–try a list on us: ten essential books.