The Humbling book review

Book review of “The Humbling” by Philip Roth. (Published by Random House, A$29.95)  This review appeared in the Australian Jewish News on March 11, 2010.

In the same way that Woody Allen staked out so much of the territory of intellectual American Jewish men in film, Philip Roth has operated this way in literature, particularly in relation to sex:  what erogenous story can a Jewish-American male author write that Roth has not already claimed for his own?

In recent years, Roth’s books have fallen into one of two categories:  semi-autobiographical tales of working class New Jersey in the 1940s and 1950s, and present-day stories of ageing and raging men, all afflicted with various ailments of male old age (prostate cancer, depression, you name it).  In the former category sits “The Plot Against America” (2004) and “Indignation” (2008), and in the latter “Everyman” (2006) and “Exit Ghost” (2007).

Sitting firmly in the second is Roth’s latest, “The Humbling”, released late last year.  It is the story of Simon Axler, formerly a leading stage actor who in his sixties has lost all of his abilities.  The book opens thus:

He’d lost his magic.  The impulse was spent.  He’d never failed in the theater, everything he had done had been strong and successful, and then the terrible thing happened:  he couldn’t act.  Going onstage became agony….  He couldn’t get over to the audience.  His talent was dead.

His wife has left him.  He has no children, no family, no close friends, no local acquaintances, no life other than the theatre – which has now failed at.  But into Axler’s life unexpectedly wanders Pegeen, the forty year old lesbian daughter of old friends, and with whom Simon has a passionate late life love affair – despite his concerns about the inappropriate pairing.  The character of Pegeen is not well-drawn, but this is not her book – it is all about Axler.

At only 140 pages, “The Humbling” is a book to read in just a few hours (“an overstuffed short story”, writes Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times).  This short length – a novella, really – also makes it ideal for transformation to the screen – and Jewish director Barry Levinson is now slated to direct Al Pacino (recently seen in Australian cinemas as Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice”), with a script adaptation by 79 year old Buck Henry (“The Graduate”).

It is highly likely that the film version will be much better than the book, which has had a poor reception:  one of the worst in Roth’s long career.  Writing in the Observer, William Skidelsky called the book “an embarrassing failure” and “dismayingly poor”, likening it to Roth’s worst misfire “The Breast” (1972), which was a re-working of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”.

Although there have been a few positive reviews, notably Jesse Kornbluth in the Huffington Post (“best book in years”), Katie Roiphe in the The New York Times wonders “How is it possible that Philip Roth’s sex scenes are still enraging us?”

Yes, the sex is still there.  And enraging sex scenes are at least interesting scenes.  But “The Humbling” – at least for me – is a depressing book about a depressive man, with an unhappy ending to boot.  There is a great deal of similarity to two of Roth’s accomplished and popular novels – “Sabbath’s Theater” (1995) and “The Human Stain” (2000), but little of the character development, surprise, creative spark and vitality of those two books.  But Roth being Roth, there is still more to look forward to:  his novel “Nemesis”, set in 1944 Newark, is the story of the impact of a polio epidemic on Jewish neighbourhoods, and is due for release later in 2010.

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