The Humbling

The Humbling

by Philip Roth

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Overview

Simon Axler, one of the leading American stage actors of his generation, is now in his sixties and has lost his magic, talent, and assurance. His Falstaff and Peer Gynt and Vanya, all his great roles, “are melted into air, into thin air.” When his wife leaves him, and after a stint at a mental hospital, he retires to his upstate New York country house and hopes for deliverance, which arrives in the form of the lithe, vibrant, and ever-subversive Pegeen Stapleford, the daughter of old friends and 25 years his junior.
 
In this tight, surprising narrative told with Roth’s inimitable urgency, bravura, and gravity, we confront the terrifying fragility of all our life’s performances.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307472588
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/05/2010
Series: Vintage International Series
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 1,163,817
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

In 1997 Philip Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral. In 1998 he received the National Medal of Arts at the White House and in 2002 the highest award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Gold Medal in Fiction. He twice won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He won the PEN/Faulkner Award three times. In 2005 The Plot Against America received the Society of American Historians’ Prize for “the outstanding historical novel on an American theme for 2003–2004.” Roth received PEN’s two most prestigious awards: in 2006 the PEN/Nabokov Award and in 2007 the PEN/Bellow Award for achievement in American fiction. In 2011 he received the National Humanities Medal at the White House, and was later named the fourth recipient of the Man Booker International Prize. He died in 2018.

Hometown:

Connecticut

Date of Birth:

March 19, 1933

Place of Birth:

Newark, New Jersey

Education:

B.A. in English, Bucknell University, 1954; M.A. in English, University of Chicago, 1955

Read an Excerpt

1.
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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The Humbling 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 40 reviews.
KenCady More than 1 year ago
Once a star, the actor has lost his mojo, and ends up hospitalized in a mental health facility. Phillip Roth's novella, which could easily be read in under 2 hours, takes us on a misogynistic adventure where the women continually fail. Axler's wife has left him, so he takes up with a lesbian named Pejeen, over 20 years his junior. She, in turn, has left her lover because the latter wanted to be a man. En route, Pejeen obtains a job by sleeping with the dean whom she will shortly jilt for Axler. The tale goes from there and the reader is witness to some very intimate moments. One gets to see the pain that Axler feels, and maybe wishes he could get himself together to resume his career. But the individual reader may ultimately wonder why he or she should care at all for any of the characters, and that decision probably decides how much the story is enjoyed. For me, it was a quick read, so I saw it through, but I didn't feel enriched for the experience.
realbigcat on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I found this to be an interesting book so much that I couldn't put it down. This may have been in part due to the length as more of a novella. Roth continues on with one his themes about the onset of aging and the resulting consequences. In Roth's form much of this is in the sexual nature. You can read the other reviews to get the details of the story but basically it's about an aging actor that has lost his ability to act. It's easy to see how a reader could relate this to almost any profession. The result of his lost ability to act is a depression and thoughts of suicide. Add into the mix an affair with a much younger woman. While not of the scale of Roth's award winning novels I still liked the story and the characters.
mojomomma on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A quick read, classically depressing Roth. Simon Axler, a famous Broadway actor loses his confidence and acting ability as he ages. The three longish chapters detail his decline and hospitalization for depression, then his re-acquaintance and affair with Pegeen (the daughter of some acting friends from early in his career), and then his break-up with Pegeen, who decides she is a lesbian after all.
Gary10 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Philip Roth is always interesting, but this was one of his least interesting. Deals with a recent common Roth theme--old guy facing aging by taking up with younger woman. Not one of his best, but still readable.
rmckeown on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
No one dissects, probes, and analyses a character¿s angst, fears, hopes, and dreams like Philip Roth. This ¿three-act play¿ involves three stages in the life of Simon Axler, a well-known, well-respected actor of stage and screen.This novella might compare well to an epic tale in the mold of Joseph Campbell¿s theory of a hero¿s journey. In Act One, Axler separates from his talent; in Act Two, a helper tries to smooth the path to the climax of the tale; and Act Three is the ¿return,¿ the denouement of his life. Roth has skillfully taken the reader on a close examination of the later stages of Simon¿s life when all seems lost.This work of fiction contains graphic scenes of sexually activity ¿ in one case, the scene disturbed me a great deal. In another, only the most tender words and images found their way onto the page. Another scene perplexed me, but, at the same time, titillated me just a bit. These scenes are definitely rated NC-17. Roth always has some sexual activity in his novels, but these are more intense than most others he has written. I won¿t offer a sample, but take my word for it ¿ Philip Roth is a master of description, and his skills are nearly at the top in this tight, brief story. Four stars--Jim, 11/09/09
letteredlibrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Roth starts with an intriguing premise: a celebrated actor suddenly loses his ability to act and must face his own mortality as he grasps desperately for some measure of meaning in his life. But the novel ultimately feels unfinished, the characters too underdeveloped to elicit much sympathy. As Simon Axler's life begins it's downward trajectory, the plot becomes more fantastical and forced, and the dramatic ending comes mostly as a relief. In the end, I felt no desire to spend any more time with the sad and misguided Simon Axler.
nivramkoorb on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was a short book and for the reason I liked it. It got right into the plot. It did a good job getting into the character's mind and motivation. Being a fan of Philip Roth makes this much easier for me to like. I can see where people that do not know his style may not like this book. The was potential to put more into the book such his relationship with his wife, but I am not sure if that would have contributed to the overall plot.
LoisCK on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This one isn't really up to Roth's usual stunning prose. I couldn't empathise with any of the characters nor find a reason to even be interested in them. Yes, growing old is very difficult and loosing our place in the world hurts and can lead people to desperate acts. However, a lot of where we end up depends on where we have been and how we have handled our intimate relationships which Roth constantly explores. Most of his works have been more successful than this one, I feel.
blackhornet on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Several of Roth's novels rank among my all-time top reads, The Human Stain and Sabbath's Theater leading the charge. Then there are the averagely good novels, like Indignation and Exit Ghost. And then there are the novels that seem written by a lesser being, Everyman, the Kepesh books, novels almost entirely devoid of plot and lacking the sensual flow of his best prose. The Humbling begins as if it belongs to this final category. Simon Axler, great of the American stage, has lost his muse; so great is his loss that he contemplates suicide and places himself inside a mental health institution. Tedious, humourless stuff. Only Roth, I suspect, intends it to be so. For in the second of the book's two parts, entitled The Transformation, the language springs to life, as do the characterisations, enough plot to maintain interest, everything. There is the usual galling sexual relationship between a man and a much younger woman, and I would be the first to agree that this alone might put many a reader off this and other works, but it is told with great knowing as well as great humour and pathos. No doubt Roth is playing with the reader. People give me grief for this kind of stuff: well what do you think of this then? He is also playing with perceptions of his own powers and how they might wane as he continues further into old age. On this performance (ah, and I'm sure that's why his protagonist is an actor; Roth is a performer) there is plenty of great work to come.
bohemiangirl35 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Ok, maybe I missed something, but what the heck? If I was reading this instead of listening to the cd while I worked on my art, I probably would not have finished it. Some old guy forgets how to act, hooks up with his friends' lesbian daughter and then can't deal when she's over him? So? I've read the other reviews, so I may give Roth a try with another novel. But if they're all like this, maybe you just have to be certain age to identify.
bennbell on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Just finished reading Philip Roth's, "The Humbling." While some say it is his best book in years, I would disagree. He is still writing in top form and all his books in recent years have been great. He is our greatest living writer of American fiction. I have long labored under the shadows of Bellow and Updike, but now unequivocally I can say Roth is the best of the best. His writing is getting smaller, more compact, and richer all the same. His books are miniature works of art gleaming in the light like little jewels.
rocketjk on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I suppose I should point out that there are possible spoilers included here. First of all, I must state the Philip Roth has been one of my true literary heroes for decades, and reading his books has brought me a great deal of pleasure. And though I no longer expect his releases to have the brilliance of the main body of his work, I was especially disappointed in this book. As have been his last few books, The Humbling is essentially a novella. That's fine. But this one, I hate to say, didn't add up to much for me. The story begins as Simon Axler, a famous stage (mostly) and screen actor who suddenly takes the stage to find himself utterly unable to act. So I was hoping we are about to get an exploration of what happens to a famous artist who suddenly and quite publicly finds that his muse has left him and he's no longer able to pursue his art, the work and passion of a long, fulfilling lifetime, and I was greatly looking forward to seeing how Roth was going to handle this issue.Unfortunately for us, or at least for me, Axler is soon {emphasis on "soon," so this is not much of a spoiler} joined in his countryside retreat by a woman 25 years his junior, someone he has known since she was, literally, an infant, who shows up at his door wanting nothing less than to become his lover. Easy, squeasy. So now the book takes a hard left turn to offer us a view of the perils an aging man faces in trying to maintain a relationship with a much younger woman. The trouble was for me that a) none of this second part is believable and b) Roth dealt with this issue much more strongly and effectively, although not, I'll admit, identically, in The Dying Animal.Maybe the relationship with a younger woman is supposed to be a metaphor for the character's relationship with acting, with the powers of his younger artistic self. If so, it seems way too heavy-handed for me. I would much have preferred, for a lot of reasons, a more direct delving into the aging artist/vanishing muse question. All in all, this novel didn't add up to much for me, and I found the ending unsatisfying, as well. I hate having to say all this. I love Roth's work. And although I guess I did enjoy this book well enough in the reading of it, I felt it a let down all told.
pamdierickx on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
pathetic - if you want to read about an aging actor that cannot look beyond his own ego - then read this book. People with no hope will commit suicide, this man would not even accept help. I am glad it was a small book with only 140 pages. The characters were not even memorable. If this is who people are becoming we are all in deep trouble.
EpicTale on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Enjoyable and thought-provoking read, but I thought it lacked the stylistic verve that I've so enjoyed in some of Roth's other books.
crazy4novels on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Advanced age, doomed sex, and impending death: just the kind of topics you enjoy exploring on a cozy winter night, right? Roth's frequent laments about the dark underbelly of the golden years may alienate some readers, but his literary skill keeps me coming back for more. The Dying Animal, Exit Ghost, Everyman -- I just can't stop, as evidenced by my recent one-night immersion his thirtieth book, The Humbling.Roth's aging characters share one outstanding characteristic: they can't bear the thought of giving up on sex. Their stubborn refusal to go quietly into that celibate night is linked to deeper psychological moorings than mere carnal desire. In their minds, sex is the polar opposite of decay and death; as long as it can be maintained, the grim reaper is forced to pause at the door. The protagonist of The Humbling, Simon Axler, is no exception to the rule.Unlike some of Roth's previous characters, Axler's late-life crisis doesn't commence with a physical ailment. Axler, a famous A-level theater actor -- wakes up one day and finds himself utterly unable to act. Each stage performance becomes a tortuous farce in which he floats out of his body and views himself puppeting the lines like an automaton. His shock at this new ineptitude is surpassed only by his shock at the impersonal, random way in which such a key element of his personality has been erased overnight. Nothing can be relied upon forever, apparently.Axler begins a downward spiral. His agent is infuriated that he won't suck it up and attempt a comeback, his wife leaves him (she was never that wild about him in the first place), and he spends a brief stint in a mental hospital after thoughts of suicide threaten to overwhelm him. He eventually finds himself living a hermit's existence in one of those isolated East-coast "farmhouses" inhabited by artists and literati (like Roth). This is where the story gets interesting: from here on out, Roth's story line is so unbelievable as to border on the ludicrous, but Roth's piercing exposition of an aging man's psychosexual innards springs from the page with such raw authenticity it saves the day.Axler opens the rustic door of his rural hideaway one snowy day and greets Pegeen Stapleford, daughter of two of Axler's best friends from the past, Carol and Asa Stapleford. Pegeen's visit is a total surprise; he hasn't seen her for over twenty years. Indeed, his most vivid memory of Pegeen is a mental picture of her nursing Carol's breast shortly after her birth. Pegeen, a self-professed lesbian since the age of twenty three, is still smarting from a long term love affair gone sour in Montana. She has moved to the East coast for a fresh start (she's procured a teaching job at the local college by seducing the female dean), and she's popped in on Axler, out of the blue, to say hello (?).One thing leads to another, and before the end of the afternoon, Pegeen has hopped into the sack with Axler, despite the fact that 1) Pegeen knows virtually nothing about Axler beyond his reputation as a former star of the theater; 2) Axler, aged 65, is Pegeen's senior by 25 years, 3) Pegeen has been steadfast in her sexual preference for women during the past seventeen years, 4) Axler's relationship with Pegeen in the past was purely avuncular, and 5) Pegeen's parents would be (and, as it turns out, are) outraged at the relationship. Don't get me wrong -- I don't thing any one of the circumstances I've listed above would not be prohibitive if standing alone, but in the aggregate?? Give me a break.A whirlwind romance follows in which Pegeen dumps her college dean (hell hath no fury . . . ) and settles into a cozy domestic arrangement with Axler, Their isolated country life is invigorated by enthusiastic sex and occasional trips into NYC, where Axler showers Pegeen with feminine clothes and provides her with a transformational haircut (Who knew sexual re-orientation could be so easy? Someone alert Evergreen!). Axler is living a classic male dream come
4cebwu on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Not Roth's best work. I couldn't help wondering how much Roth saw of himself in the main character an aging actor who could no longer summon the courage to act. An actor would couldn't even go through the motions of acting or living. If you are looking for a quick unimaginative quick read then this is the book for you.
prima1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
this is a short and morbidly fun story to read. it took me 2 hours or so. great pool reading. an old man looking at nice girls at the pool, something like that. if you are short of time you may not want to read it.
dsc73277 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A quick glance through the other reviews here reveals one of the most diverse set of reactions to a book I have seen for quite some time. I don't see a problem with that, as I don't even there is such a thing as an objectively "good" work of art. We may arrive at an objective idea of whether a book succeeds technically, but that is only part of any judgement. So what was my personal take on this one? It was the first Roth novel I have read. I reacted so strongly against it that I would be reluctant to try another, were it not for the comments here suggesting that it is not his best work.To be blunt, what I reacted against was the sex. At one stage the narrator says something like 'this is not soft porn', which is odd, because that is exactly what it seemed to be turning into. On the other hand, there did at least appear to be some point to the book: it had a beginning, a middle and an end, and it appeared to have something to say about modern life, even if wasn't something this particular reader wanted to hear. So it was more successful for me than the only Paul Auster novel I have so far attempted to read. I shall try one of Roth's earlier books before concluding that his work is not for me.
P1g5purt on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Philip Roth¿s latest short novel ¿The Humbling¿ continues his late fascination with death and decay - ¿the speeding up of slowing down¿ Like much of his more recent output it¿s another departure from the usual Newark Jewish intellectual milieu, although there are still some resonances with earlier work.Simon Axler occupies centre stage. A formerly feted and lionised performer he has precipitously failed - He can no longer act. His life in disarray and after failed attempts to revive his powers he retreats to his country mansion.There, deserted by his talent, his wife but not, apparently, by his powers of seduction he begins a short lived affair with Pegeen, 40 year old voluptuous daughter of his closest friends and still reeling from her lover¿s decision for gender reassignment. As buxom, beautiful lesbians go Pegeen may well be a geriatric male¿s masturbatory fantasy but Axler is ultimately cast off when Pegeen abandons her heterosexual experiment.Sex is a major element and some of the sex scenes are wincingly bad ( Roth is nominated in the ¿Bad Sex Awards¿ ) but there¿s a hint of provocation that suggests it¿s deliberately so. It sits so awkwardly with the beautifully controlled prose that the alternative seems improbable.Roth¿s celebrated ear for dialogue also appears to desert him but a more generous reading would allow the possibility that Axler is effectively snared within a performance. He doesn¿t speak. He has dialogue. He emotes. The nature of his end would support this - Simon must have felt himself ¿a poor player¿, ¿a walking shadow¿ his final act possible only if scripted.Roth¿s point could be that we are all similarly trapped in a performance. Unfortunately, for many, it¿s one rarely written by Chekhov.
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