The Humbling of Philip Roth

Philip Roth, The Humbling (Jonathan Cape 2009)

I love Philip Roth’s prose, the way it seems to just flow directly from somewhere inside him, like lava or blood, yet always with extraordinary control of nuance. I haven’t read enough of his novels to know if The Humbling is representative of what he’s writing these days, but I do hope it’s not. I also hope the book isn’t a fictionalised representation of his current state of mind. Simon Axler, the hero, is a great stage actor who has suddenly lost his ability to act, and the agony of his loss is conveyed with such poignancy that it’s hard not to think Roth has been there, or has at least fantasised such a loss for himself.

What does a great artist do in such a situation? Well, first he doesn’t kill himself, then he commits himself into a psych hospital, then he’s discharged and after a while either kills himself or doesn’t (he does make a clear choice, I’m trying not to be too spoilerish). And that’s the whole story. Except for the second act where he falls in love with a much younger woman and has lots of increasingly exotic sex with her.

I believed in the despair. I accepted the falling in love. The specifics of the sex felt like an older man working hard to imagine how the young folk these days do stuff, what with all that queer theory and non-binary approach to gender they’re always going on about. Or maybe I was just embarrassed.

The Nobel Prize for Literature is to be announced in a couple of days and Philip Roth’s name is being mentioned again. If he gets up it won’t be on account of this book, but maybe it will cheer him up.

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