I wasn’t planning on taking a break from my reading the Giller Prize shortlist, but then Roth’s latest, The Humbling (2009), came out. And it’s so incredibly short — only 140 pages of large typeset — that I knew this minor diversion wouldn’t disturb me too much. Plus, Philip Roth is one of my favorite writers — he might even be my favorite. So in the middle, I stopped reading the Giller Shortlist and put this one under my belt quickly, though in the interest of getting the reviews of the shortlist out, I put off posting this review until now. That has worked two ways: first, it helped me really consider the book, especially in conjunction with Roth’s other late works (is it appropriate to use this term with a living, working author — I hope Roth’s late works go well into this century); second, some of it is no longer perfectly fresh in my memory. Please forgive me. And please enjoy one of the talented Milton Glaser’s exceptional covers.
Roth’s The Humbling is the only of his books — that I know of — to deal with the performing arts. And of his late short works, it is the most supremely strange. Everyman had a noble melancholy in its approach to old age and death (and is the best of the planned quartet, in my opinion). Indignation had, well, indignation and rage for a young life cut short by the governing authority. Returning to a character experiencing his elder years (sixty-five), The Humbling is almost a farce in its treatment of old age and death — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also serious and devastating.
Here we meet Simon Axler, a famous stage actor getting on in years. He has been a successful performer all of his life, a virtuoso. But now, that’s all gone. One day he got up and tried to do Macbeth, and it just didn’t work. Here are Roth’s first lines in this book, lines that in most any other Roth book would have been introducing a different form of lost power:
He’d lost his magic. The impulse was spent. He’d never failed in theater, everything he had done had been strong and successful, and then the terrible thing happened: he couldn’t act.
This causes Axler to lose other things. In his despair, his exhausted wife moves out. His will to live flees, and Roth doesn’t hesitate to introduce us to that famous theatrical shotgun. But like Hamlet, Axler can’t quite build up the courage — or perhaps its the right stage direction — to do the job. He instead ends up in a clinic.
In great Rothian style, the book is conspicuously organized like a three-act play. The first act, the one dealing with all Axler has lost, is “Into Thin Air.”
Sitting there amid his books, he tried to remember plays in which there is a character who commits suicide. Hedda in Hedda Gabler, Julie in Miss Julie, Phaedra in Hippolytus, Jocasta in Oedipus the King, almost everyone in Antigone, Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Joe Keller in All My Sons, Don Parritt in The Iceman Cometh, Simon Stimson in Our Town, Ophelia in Hamlet, Othello in Othello, Cassius and Brutus in Julius Caesar, Goneril in King Lear, Antony, Cleopatra, Enobarbus, and Charmian in Atony and Cleopatra, the grandfather in Awake and Sing!, Ivanov in Ivanov, Konstantin in The Seagull. And this astonishing list was only of the plays in which he had at one time performed. There were more, many more. What was remarkable was the frequency with which suicide enters into drama, as though it were a formula fundamental to the drama, not necessarily supported by the action as dictated by the workings of the genre itself. Deirdre in Deirdre of the Sorrows, Hedvig in The Wild Duck, Rebecca West in Rosmersholm, Christine and Orin in Mourning Becomes Electra, both Romeo and Juliet, Sophocles’ Ajax. Suicide is a subject dramatists have been contemplating with awe since the fifth century B.C., beguiled by the human beings who are capable of generating emotions that can inspire this most extraordinary act. He should set himself the task of reading these plays. Yes, everything gruesome must be squarely faced. Nobody should be able to say that he did not think it through.
Act II, “The Transformation,” takes us a very different direction. Here Axler meets the daughter of some of his old friends from a performance forty years ago of Playboy of the Western World. The forty-year-old Pegeen was named after the heroine of that play. Though twenty-five years his junior — and a lesbian — Axler establishes a lusty relationship with Pegeen, much to the dismay of her parents. “The Transformation,” from one perspective, refers to Axler’s attempts to domesticate Pegeen, help her “to be a woman he would want instead of a woman another woman would want. Together they were absorbed in making this happen.” However, “The Transformation” also represents Axler’s own transformation from suicidal despair to hope. Over sixty, he feels his life is just beginning. At least, his life is re-beginning. He’s got a new role to perform, and his costar is playing the part.
Roth being Roth, and this book being the third of a quartet of brief novels (Nemesis is due out next year), it follows thematic elements raised in Everyman (2006) and Indignation (2008), so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the last act is called “The Last Act.”
With things unravelling, Roth plays with Axler’s perspectives on life and living, particularly the fact that Axler has always seen his life as a series of performances, making this look at the futile fight against aging and dying very unique:
If he were given this role to act in a play, how would he do it? How would he do the phone call? In a voice that was trembling or a voice that was firm? With wit or with savagery, renunciation or rage?
If Everyman was a look at the inevitable decline to death and Indignation was a look at how events tramples over us, regardless of our will, The Humbling is a great look at the futility of trying to fight to keep other things aging takes from us. It is even better for begin skewed by Axler’s warped play-acting perspective. One can look at one’s life as a big performance and can react to the successes and flops accordingly, but our characters are shaped by more than our will. Axler come to this realization:
Shouldn’t he have played that line for a laugh instead of delivering it in a fit of anger? Shouldn’t he have been quietly sardonic, as though it were a deliberately needling overstatement rather than his sounding out of his mind? Oh, play it however you like, Axler told himself. Probably you’re playing it for laughs anyway without your even knowing it.