In Roth's Newest, Exit The Actor, Sans Everything

'The Humbling'
Fiction
The Humbling
By Philip Roth
Hardcover, 145 pages
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
List Price: $22

Read An Excerpt

Philip Roth i i

Philip Roth received a Pulitzer Prize for his 1997 novel, American Pastoral. Nancy Crampton hide caption

itoggle caption Nancy Crampton
Philip Roth

Philip Roth received a Pulitzer Prize for his 1997 novel, American Pastoral.

Nancy Crampton

If you define yourself through your work, what happens when you can no longer do it anymore? Philip Roth considers this question in his new novel, The Humbling, which blooms brightly in the extraordinarily fecund garden of his late work. Following his remarkable series of short novels — Everyman, Exit Ghost and Indignation — Roth offers another meditation on mortality and the frightening prospect of the diminutions and humiliations of old age.

The Humbling is a swift but piercing, uncluttered but nuanced morality tale about a once powerful stage actor named Simon Axler who, in his mid-60s, loses his magical gift — his talent for acting — and therefore his very sense of himself and his sense of control over his life. Clearly, nothing of the sort has happened to Roth, but he describes the phenomenon in excruciating, almost loving detail, exploring it the way a tongue obsessively explores a newly chipped tooth.

And it's a terrible, unnerving prospect. Axler falls apart in a "colossal" breakdown, made worse by his feeling that, despite his pain, he's still playing a role. He explains miserably to his agent, "I can't act onstage and I can't find a plot for myself to live offstage."

Axler's deeper problem — which Roth doesn't address directly — seems not so much a loss of self-defining talent but, like many of Roth's quasi-misanthropic recluses totally absorbed in their work, a lack of supportive, loving relationships. After his wife, a washed-up ballet dancer, decamps in horror from their isolated New York farmhouse, he checks himself into a psychiatric hospital, where the topic du jour every day is suicide.

The Humbling takes a classic Rothian turn when Pegeen, the 40-year-old lesbian daughter of old actor friends, walks into Axler's life with "the invulnerable air of a happy person." Like David Kepesh in The Dying Animal, Axler is rejuvenated, for a time, by increasingly experimental sexual exploits with his much younger lover, which are vividly described. Roth can't seem to resist May-December relationships (more like July-December, in this case), and the associated themes of eros, death and jealousy. But thankfully, he is after something different here: questions of identity and role playing, sexual and otherwise.

Pygmalion-like, Axler quickly sets out to transform his lesbian lover, "helping Pegeen to be a woman he would want instead of a woman another woman would want." He feminizes her with expensive finery, even as he recognizes the creepy implications and risks of his actions. Part of him knows he's stepped into a trap, taking "the bait like the stupidest captive on earth."

Roth sets forth Axler's dilemma as an either/or proposition between two poles: a new lease on life with Pegeen versus no life at all. His tragic hero's theatrical background gives him access to an impressive rundown of plays in which characters commit suicide — from Ibsen's Hedda Gabler to Chekhov's Ivanov — which helps inspire Axler's astonishing final performance. As for Roth's performance, The Humbling is another unflinching, sobering look at the pull between seizing and ceding control.

Excerpt: 'The Humbling'

Fiction
The Humbling
By Philip Roth
Hardcover, 145 pages
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
List Price: $22

Over the months she had let her hair grow nearly to her shoulders, thick brown hair with a natural sheen that she began to think about having cut in a style unlike the cropped mannish one she'd favored throughout her adult life. One weekend she arrived with a couple of magazines full of photos of different hairstyles, magazines of a kind he'd never seen before. "Where'd you get these?" he asked her. "One of my students," she said. They sat side by side on the sofa in the living room while she turned pages and bent back corners where there was a style pictured that might suit her. Finally they narrowed their preferences down to two, and she tore out those pages and he phoned an actress friend in Manhattan to ask her where Pegeen should go to get her hair cut, the same friend who'd told him where to take Pegeen shopping for clothes and where to go to buy her jewelry. "Wish I had a sugar daddy," the friend said. But he hadn't understood it that way. All he was doing was helping Pegeen to be a woman he would want instead of a woman another woman would want. Together they were absorbed in making this happen.

He went with her to an expensive hairdresser's in the East Sixties. A young Japanese woman cut Pegeen's hair after looking at the two photos they'd brought. He had never seen Pegeen look as disarmed as she did sitting in the chair in front of the mirror after her hair had been washed. He'd never before seen her look so weakened or so at a loss as to how to behave. The sight of her, silent, sheepish, sitting there at the edge of humiliation like a wet cat, unable even to look at her reflection, gave the haircut an entirely transformed meaning, igniting all his self-mistrust and causing him to wonder, as he had more than once, if he wasn't being blinded by a stupendous and desperate illusion. What is the draw of a woman like this to a man who is losing so much? Wasn't he making her pretend to be someone other than who she was? Wasn't he dressing her up in costume as though a costly skirt could dispose of nearly two decades of lived experience? Wasn't he distorting her while telling himself a lie — and a lie that in the end might be anything but harmless? What if he proved to be no more than a brief male intrusion into a lesbian life?

But then Pegeen's thick brown shiny hair was cut — cut to below the base of her neck in a choppy way so none of the layers were even, a look that gave her precisely the right cared-for devil-may-care air of slight dishevelment — and she seemed so transformed that all these unanswered questions ceased to trouble him; they did not even require serious thought. It took her a little longer than it took him to be convinced that the two of them had chosen the right style, but in only a few days the haircut and all it signified about her allowing him to shape her, to determine what she should look like and advance an idea of what her true life was, appeared to have become acceptable. Perhaps because she looked so great in his eyes she did not bridle at continuing to subjugate her will to his and submit to his ministrations, alien though that might have been to her lifelong sense of herself. If indeed hers was the will that was being subjugated — if indeed it wasn't she who had taken him over completely, taken him up and taken him over.

From The Humbling by Philip Roth. Copyright 2009. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co. All rights reserved.

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