>The Humbling by Philip Roth

The Humbling
Philip Roth
HMH 2009

What to make of this very dark little book? I confess that I haven’t been keeping up with my reading of Roth’s works, including some like The Human Stain that have been very well received. But when shopping on Christmas Eve, I picked this one up — a little light reading for the holiday! (It’s a good thing I’m not prone to depression . . .)

The book is the story of Simon Axler, an actor in his mid-sixties who has a crisis. In performances of Macbeth and the Tempest, he suddenly can no longer act. Which, one supposes, suggests that Simon Axler can no longer pretend to be something he is not, which would be fine if only he knew who he was. Along comes Pegeen, the daughter of old friends and something of an opportunist, who uses Axler to experiment with heterosexuality after the devastating end of her longtime lesbian relationship. Axler allows himself to think that this is happiness, and he begins to make plans, except that in doing so he once again pretends to be someone he is not. As a result, the gods smack him down again.

Because of the allusions to great drama–Shakespeare, Chekhov, Miller, and others–a full understanding of this brief tragedy probably requires a reading of those works as well. The ending, especially, seems to depend on Chekhov, not only in what happens but also in the point of view shift.

Although Axler is sometimes engaging, he isn’t terribly likable. No one in the book is very likable except possibly for the unstable woman Axler meets during his short hospitalization. And she’s got problems, too. Another character, Pegeen’s spurned lover Louise, is also unstable in a likable kind of way. It didn’t bother me much that I didn’t like Axler, though. What did bother me is the dialogue, in which these characters tend to make speeches to each other rather than converse. Maybe that’s the point–there’s probably a point–but it seemed less realistic than most contemporary fiction.

While the book probably won’t be anyone’s favorite, it’s thought provoking and disturbing, which makes it worth the read.

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  1. >Synge is important too–and I think he's as much in the background at the close as Chekov, when Axler performs his great act of self-affirmation and self-negation.

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