The Humbling

The Humbling

3.4 22
by Philip Roth

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Everything is over for Simon Axler, the protagonist of Philip Roth’s startling new book. One of the leading American stage actors of his generation, now in his sixties, he has lost his magic, his talent, and his assurance. His Falstaff and Peer Gynt and Vanya, all his great roles, "are melted into air, into thin air." When he goes onstage he feels like a

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Everything is over for Simon Axler, the protagonist of Philip Roth’s startling new book. One of the leading American stage actors of his generation, now in his sixties, he has lost his magic, his talent, and his assurance. His Falstaff and Peer Gynt and Vanya, all his great roles, "are melted into air, into thin air." When he goes onstage he feels like a lunatic and looks like an idiot. His confidence in his powers has drained away; he imagines people laughing at him; he can no longer pretend to be someone else. "Something fundamental has vanished." His wife has gone, his audience has left him, his agent can’t persuade him to make a comeback.

Into this shattering account of inexplicable and terrifying self-evacuation bursts a counterplot of unusual erotic desire, a consolation for a bereft life so risky and aberrant that it points not toward comfort and gratification but to a yet darker and more shocking end. In this long day’s journey into night, told with Roth’s inimitable urgency, bravura, and gravity, all the ways that we convince ourselves of our solidity, all our life’s performances—talent, love, sex, hope, energy, reputation—are stripped off.

The Humbling is Roth’s thirtieth book.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A deteriorating and increasingly irrelevant actor finds the possibility of renewal in a younger woman in Roth's tight Chekhovian tragedy...Roth observes much (about age, success nad the sexual credit lovers hold one with another) in little space, and the svelte narrative amounts to an unsparing confrontation of self."—- Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Bare-bones brilliant, Philip Roth’s novella The Humbling (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) brings us face-to-face—and groin to groin—with the long acclaimed, lately retired theater actor Simon Axler and all the sexy, sickly, slippery goings-on that make up his shockingly funny (when not funereal) offstage suburban-Connecticut highs, lows, and in-betweens.”
—Lisa Shea, Elle magazine

"I hope you will read The Humbling, I found it to be Roth’s best work in years; sentence for sentence, paragraph for paragraph, he’s still the most readable serious writer we’ve got."
—Jesse Kornbluth, The Huffington Post

"One of Roth’s most eloquent, painful and memorable books."
Kirkus Reviews, starred review

"Philip the great, Philip the audacious, the voracious...When you hear about a new Philip Roth novel, you have to read it."
O, The Oprah Magazine

"The Humbling is the story of arrogance deflated. Yet from its opening sentence, 'He’d lost his magic,' until its stunning, resonant final line, the result is oddly exhilarating. Unlike Axler, Roth has lost none of his power to conjure up teacups from which a willing reader gladly sips."
The Forward

"[Philip Roth has] been on an audacious hot streak for a dozen years...[The Humbling is] an entertaining inquiry into the relationship between sex and creativity, sex and age, and sex and the ego."
Entertainment Weekly

"elegant and brutal…direct and urgent, a taut and controlled fever-dream that demands to be experienced at a single sitting."
Los Angeles Times

At the end of Shakespeare's Tempest, Prospero renounces his magic and invites the audience to set him with their applause. For Simon Axler, the actor protagonist of Philip Roth's novel, there is no such renunciation and no such applause. His once considerable talents have seeped away and, now in his 60s, he is left without talent or, worse yet, confidence. Once acclaimed, he sinks first into indolence and dejection, then into an erotic adventure that leaves him even further afield. A starling tour de force by a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist.
Elaine Showalter
The bleak conclusion of this parable is inevitable and almost schematic…Yet the book's restrained eloquence makes this gloomy, over-determined ending convincing and powerful. The Humbling is Roth's 30th book, and his seventh in this decade alone. At 76, he is still a literary colossus, whose ability to inspire, astonish and enrage his readers is undiminished.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Roth's latest reflection on sex, aging, and death switches from Roth stand-in Nathan Zuckerman to fading actor Simon Axler. Convinced his talents are ebbing away, Simon embarks on an ill-fated romance with a young lesbian by way of what? Consolation? Distraction? Masochism? The usually reliable Dick Hill falters, however, flattening Roth's characters and smothering some of the novel's metaphysical notes. He is particularly artless with Roth's female characters, reducing them to two-dimensional harpies or simps. Hill might have been better off skipping the falsetto tones and concentrating on mastering the subtleties of the story. A Houghton Mifflin Harcourt hardcover (Reviews, Aug. 10). (Nov.)
Library Journal
Simon Axler wowed theater critics with his outsize talent and persona for 40 years, taming major roles from Shakespeare to Chekov to Miller, but one evening at the Kennedy Center, he suffers a meltdown so terrifying and complete that he consigns himself to an institution for a month of group, art, and physical therapies. The blockage cannot be explained away through normal psychiatric channels, so Axler retreats to his country estate, where he fantasizes about the shotgun in the attic, unable to summon the courage to play the role of a man committing suicide. An unexpected visit from Pegeen Stapleford, the daughter of old friends and 25 years his junior, sets the stage for a recurring Roth theme (The Dying Animal, Exit Ghost), the pathos of the aging artist seeking revitalization through an all-encompassing sexual liaison. VERDICT Roth, the incomparable recipient of every major literary award, has written a sorrowful novella. Those of us who believe that he is one of the greatest living American writers will continue to do so, but if 60 is the new 40, readers may tire of his bleak insistence that artistic productivity ends so early. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 7/09.]—Sally Bissell, Lee Cty. Lib. Syst., Ft. Myers, FL
Kirkus Reviews
Another concise, bruising examination of sexual obsession in early old age from Roth (Indignation, 2008, etc.). A series of disastrous stage performances have persuaded much admired 65-year-old actor Simon Axler that-not unlike, not at all unlike Shakespeare's Prospero-he has "lost his magic." The complex denouement that follows this crisis of recognition shows us multiple facets of Simon's "humbling." His bitter insistence that his talent has fled him is challenged in a superbly animated conversation with his longtime agent, a stubborn spirit urging Simon to fight to reclaim what's his. During an illuminating stay at a psychiatric hospital, Simon measures his own pain and loss against the sufferings of a frail fellow patient betrayed by her monstrously selfish husband. In the novel's centerpiece section, Simon has a serpentine though rejuvenating affair with 40-year-old Pegeen Mike, a "reformed" lesbian attracted by the stability and the financial resources of this seductive, obviously smitten older man. Their dramatic folie a deux plays out the only way it can, fulfilling the subtle promises of its early scenes. Roth connects the dots precisely and ruthlessly, allowing Simon to realize that "he could no more figure out how to play the elderly lover abandoned by the mistress twenty-five years his junior than he'd been able to figure out how to play Macbeth."Allusive, elusive and peppered with mordant wit to a downright Strindbergian degree-one of Roth's most eloquent, painful and memorable books.

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Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
4.90(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Into Thin Air

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 had become agony. Instead of the certainty that he was going to be wonderful, he knew he was going to fail. It happened three times in a row, and by the last time nobody was interested, nobody came. He couldn't get over to the audience. His talent was dead.

Of course, if you've had it, you always have something unlike anyone else's. I'll always be unlike anyone else, Axler told himself, because I am who I am. I carry that with me—that people will always remember. But the aura he'd had, all his mannerisms and eccentricities and personal peculiarities, what had worked for Falstaff and Peer Gynt and Vanya—what had gained Simon Axler his reputation as the last of the best of the classical American stage actors—none of it worked for any role now. All that had worked to make him himself now worked to make him look like a lunatic. He was conscious of every moment he was on the stage in the worst possible way. In the past when he was acting he wasn't thinking about anything. What he did well he did out of instinct. Now he was thinking about everything, and everything spontaneous and vital was killed—he tried to control it with thinking and instead he destroyed it. All right, Axler told himself, he had hit a bad period. Though he was already in his sixties, maybe it would pass while he was still recognizably himself. He wouldn't be the first experienced actor to go through it. A lot of people did. I've done this before, he thought, so I'll find some way. I don't know how I'm going to get it this time, but I'll find it—this will pass.

It didn't pass. He couldn't act. The ways he could once rivet attention on the stage! And now he dreaded every performance, and dreaded it all day long. He spent the entire day thinking thoughts he'd never thought before a performance in his life: I won't make it, I won't be able to do it, I'm playing the wrong roles, I'm overreaching, I'm faking, I have no idea even of how to do the first line. And meanwhile he tried to occupy the hours doing a hundred seemingly necessary things to prepare; I have to look at this speech again, and by the time he got to the theater he was exhausted. And dreading going out there. He would hear the cue coming closer and closer and know that he couldn't do it. He waited for the freedom to begin and the moment to become real, he waited to forget who he was and to become the person doing it, but instead he was standing there, completely empty, doing the kind of acting you do when you don't know what you are doing. He could not give and he could not withhold; he had no fluidity and he had no reserve. Acting became a night-after-night exercise in trying to get away with something.

It had started with people speaking to him. He couldn't have been more than three or four when he was already mesmerized by speaking and being spoken to. He had felt he was in a play from the outset. He could use intensity of listening, concentration, as lesser actors used fireworks. He had that power offstage, too, particularly, when younger, with women who did not realize that they had a story until he revealed to them that they had a story, a voice, and a style belonging to no other. The became actresses with Axler, they became the heroines of their own lives. Few stage actors could speak and be spoke to the way he could, yet he could do neither anymore. The sound that used to go into his ear felt as though it were going out, and every word he uttered seemed acted instead of spoken. The initial source in his acting was in what he heard, his response to what he heard was at the core of it, and if he couldn't listen, couldn't hear, he had nothing to go on.

He was asked to play Prospero and Macbeth at the Kennedy Center—it was hard to think of a more ambitious double bill—and he failed appallingly in both, but especially as Macbeth. He couldn't do low-intensity Shakespeare and he couldn't do high-intensity Shakespeare—and he'd been doing Shakespeare all his life. His Macbeth was ludicrous and everyone who saw it said as much, and so did many who hadn't seen it. "No, the don't even have to have been there," he said, "to insult you." A lot of actors would have turned to drink to help themselves out an old joke had it that there was an actor who would always drink before he went onstage, and when he was warned "You musn't drink," he replied, "What, and go out there alone?" But Axler didn't drink, and so he collapsed instead. His breakdown was colossal.

The worst of it was that he saw through his breakdown the same way he could see through his acting. The suffering was excruciating and yet he doubted that it was genuine, which made it even worse. He did not know how he was going to get from one minute to the next, his mind felt as though it were melting, he was terrified to be alone, he could not sleep more than two or three hours a night, he scarcely ate, he thought every day of killing himself with the gun in the attic—a Remington 870 pump-action shotgun that he kept in the isolate farmhouse for self-defense—and still the whole thing seemed to be an act, a bad act. When you're playing the role of somebody coming apart, it has organization and order; when you're observing yourself coming apart, playing the role of your own demise, that's something else, something awash with terror and fear.

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