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The Humbling

By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin, 2009

Few authors reach Philip Roth’s fame and assured place in history, and even fewer achieve it while they are still living and writing. Many commentators see Roth’s career as a story that climaxed with his mature resurgence and was nicely capped by his critically-acclaimed allegory of life and death, Everyman. When Roth continued with two short, melancholy novels, Exit Ghost and Indignation, reviewers were less than pleased. His latest novella, The Humbling, like the previous three but with added elements of homosexuality, gender reassignment, and unusual sex, has been received by many as sheer insolence. Like Shakespeare, who kept producing plays after his perfect “final” statement, The Tempest, Roth may be guilty of needlessly diluting his legacy. Such a view replicates the mistake made by original readers of The Tempest, who dismissed it as a rushed, fragmentary oddity. Only with time did it emerge as an elegantly compressed masterpiece and a wry statement on the Bard’s career and craft.  

Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint are about the acquisition of sexual, personal, and ethnic identity; The Breast, My Life as a Man, and Operation Shylock deal with the difficulties in sustaining that which one possesses; Roth’s novels after Sabbath’s Theater (from 1995) dramatize loss and its aftermath. Postmodern in its explicit inclusion of the author as a presence in the text, his oeuvre bears a markedly organic relationship to his life. Once clumsy and spontaneous, like Portnoy’s self-pleasuring exploits, the books now begin with a folkloric, irretrievable past. In American Pastoral, the Swede’s early days as baseball hero of an Arcadian Newark precede but do not presage his tragic clash with the social disruption of the 1960s. In late Roth unaccountable change—whether social, psychological, or physical in origin—takes away what we once had.

In The Humbling, Simon Axler’s great theatrical career, arrested by inexplicable bouts of self-consciousness, bears immediate comparison to Roth’s own literary theatrics. That a Roth novel will be seen in terms of “Roth” is a certainty. The Guardian’s William Skidelsky sniffily called the book “scandalous” for its kinky sex scenes, scolded the aging novelist for not “slowing down” and embracing “the concept of retirement,” and discarded the book in toto as “an old man’s sexual fantasy.” But the self-consciousness that torments Axler is Roth’s most valuable possession—his inability to maintain the fictional façade. Skidelsky forgets that Roth’s characters—even Nathan Zuckerman, the Rothlike central figure of nine novels—have always been ungainly Frankenstein’s monsters, not exact copies. The Humbling is not an old man’s indiscretion; it is a wittily self-mocking turn.

Nor need its main character be examined for Zuckerman-like similarities with the author, since there are few coinciding features. A great actor specializing in Shakespeare, Axler always felt that he walked a treacherous line between clownish artificiality and transcendent inventiveness. When his talent disappears, other elements of his life rapidly fall away, leaving him in a Lear-like state of reliance on what little he has left. Like Lear, he has one remaining true friend who tries to bring him to his senses, his agent Jerry Oppenheim:

“Look, you took a tumble in Washington. That happens to practically everyone sooner or later. There’s no ironclad security in any art. People run into an obstacle for reasons no one knows. But the obstacle is a temporary impediment. The obstacle disappears and you go on. There isn’t a first-rate actor who hasn’t felt discouraged and that his career was over and that he was unable to come out of the bad period he was in. There isn’t an actor who hadn’t gone up in the middle of a speech and not known where he was. But every time you go out on the stage there’s a new chance. Actors can recover their talent. You don’t lose the skills if you’ve been out there for forty years. You still know how to enter and sit down in a chair. John Gielgud used to say that there were times he wished he were like a painter or a writer. Then he could retrieve the bad performance he gave that evening and take it out at midnight and redo it. But he couldn’t.”

It is the most Rothian moment in the book, marked by insistent and wordy argument, the multiplication of examples, the repetitive and sermonlike sentence structures—the dramatic uselessness of reason in the face of “the facts” (as Roth jauntily named one of his two memoirs). It is also a moment in which we identify Axler with Roth, not only due to the comparison of actor and writer, but because Roth’s career has been marked by the same perversity that defines his characters, the same refusal to do what is in one’s interest. Like his combative, peevish, adulterous protagonists, Roth will not play nice; he chooses his subject matter more to antagonize than to please his audience. The Humbling, lopsided and indelicate in the extreme, sets itself up as a particularly offensive example of this tendency. Axler is as quixotic as Mickey Sabbath, who diligently refuses to put his life in order after the death of his mistress; as stubborn as Coleman Silk in The Human Stain, who refuses to defend himself against spurious charges of racism. The loss of acting ability is not so much a circumstance as a self-destructive and self-fulfilling belief in The Humbling; no character in the book other than Axler believes it to be a permanent condition. In regards to Roth, it is not so much a defense of his allegedly declining powers after the poorly-received Indignation as a thumbed nose at prudish critics.

Philip Roth

With unintended humor, Jerry Oppenheim tries to typecast Axler in the role of James Tyrone, the bitter, stingy, pretentious, and washed-up actor-father of Long Day’s Journey into Night. Although Axler refuses to act or even to mourn the loss of his talent, it is clear that (unlike Lear) he has lost few of his endowments. He becomes an actor in the world, taking the stage in a therapeutic circle for potential suicides. Roth exploits the metaphor of the theater with comic exaggeration, using his player to expose the artificiality of contemporary repertoire such as the culture of recovery:

One evening Axler spoke up – to perform, he realized, before his largest audience since he’d given up acting. “Suicide is the role you write for yourself,” he told them. “You inhabit it and you enact it. All carefully staged – where they will found you and how they will find you.” Then he added, “But one performance only.”

Axler’s argument is absurd, since suicide is less a role than the refusal of all roles. He suggests the idea, perhaps learned as a Shakespearean actor, that there is little distinction to be made between the roles of life and those of drama, suicide being the only occasion when the two converge. From Roth’s perspective, this suggestion may be a pastiche of the longstanding criticism that novels such as The Ghost Writer were thinly-veiled autobiography. From the reader’s point of view, it sets up a world in which the most fundamental aspects of identity – such as gender and sexuality – are fluid and malleable.

There is nothing in The Humbling that hasn’t occurred previously in Roth’s world, albeit arranged somewhat differently. It involves general transformations not nearly as radical as the conceit of The Breast, in which a man finds himself transformed into a breast. It ends in a scene of debasement no more abject than the tortures to which Portnoy or Sabbath are subjected.

Axler’s story really begins with his affair with Pegeen Stapleford. It’s typical of Roth’s recent novels that characters find short-lived solace in an unlikely sexual connection. Coleman Silk’s affair with the battered and bereaved Faunia Farley or Nathan Zuckerman’s imagined sexual connection with Jamie Logan in Exit Ghost are poignant for their emphasis on the consolations of present-moment experience, free of the idealistic hopes of conventional romance. Pegeen’s background is nearly as complicated as that of Faunia Farley. Pegeen is a lesbian whose longstanding relationship came to an end when her lover underwent a sex change operation. After a brief affair with a possessive female university administrator, Pegeen takes up with Axler, who, having abandoned the role of the actor, embraces that of the costumer. Undergoing a radical change of hairstyle, Pegeen, helped by Axler’s generosity, exults in her newfound femininity. While she is recast as his ideal woman, a gamine in the style of Audrey Tautou, Axler develops an embattled relationship with her parents, who, in a reversal of the conventional pattern, raise objections to her newfound heterosexuality.

It is only here that Axler, the ex-actor accompanied by a woman who has allowed her role and identity to be manipulated more radically than he ever had, seems to shed his apathy and discover his vulnerability. Pegeen, showing insight and compassion, explains his situation to her meddling parents:

“This is a more precarious situation for him than it is for me…. Well, as you say, I’m trying this for the first time. Although it’s a novelty for him as well, it’s not nearly as much of one as it is for me. I’ve been very surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed it. But I couldn’t yet declare that it’s definitely the permutation I will always want.”

The novel’s fundamental questions of authentic and invented roles are here brought into full dramatic play. Pegeen, as a lifelong homosexual, has taken on the role of a heterosexual woman. Axler, lacking a well-established identity outside his profession, relies heavily on his new role as lover and svengali. In this role he is inexperienced and doomed to failure; however, Roth himself, the ultimate Prospero of the book, remains controlled and relentlessly self-conscious. Having withstood decades of criticism not only for his alleged anti-Semitism but also, and more persistently, for his misogyny and excessive concern with the tribulations of masculinity, Roth throws his readers a devastating curve. Just as The Human Stain, with its convolutions of race identity, mocked glib assumptions about victimization, The Humbling culminates in a scene of sexual humiliation that can only be read as a grotesque dramatization of Roth’s own treatment at the hands of his angry detractors. The scene involves a green dildo.

Like his younger cousin and fellow Bellovian, Martin Amis, Roth has frequently been disliked for his combination of perceived narcissism and conspicuous talent. Bluntly self-referential books like The Anatomy Lesson long ago sealed his reputation as sterile and navel-gazing. His celebrated American Trilogy, an impassioned commentary on our times, restored his reputation almost by the sheer force and velocity of his discourse. In a literary scene glutted with self-disclosure, genuine or fabricated, Roth has never been a confessional author. Rather, he is a fiction writer who declines to conceal the fact that, like other novelists, he plunders his own life for source material. He maintains an almost Warhol-like presence in his books – tongue-in-cheek but always mindful of his responsibilities as a storyteller.

In The Humbling his self-referential style makes a comeback, but lacks the playfulness of his mid-period works. Tightly-woven in spite of its brevity, it is an explicit review of his career and an address to his audience in the manner of The Tempest. It will stand alongside Everyman as one of his best late works.

___
Robin Mookerjee is an Assistant Professor in Writing and Literature at Eugene Lang College, The New School for Liberal Arts. In 2008 Cambria Press published his book Identity and Society in American Poetry: The Romantic Tradition.

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