It is impossible (as I prove in this sentence) to review Philip Roth without mentioning the surge of creativity that began when the author was around 60 and which now sees him publishing a novel every year (his next one, Nemesis, is already finished). However, I would argue that it is only recently that we have seen Roth’s genuine late style. In three of his last four books — Everyman (2006), Indignation (2008) and this one, The Humbling — there has been a shift towards winter in his writing. Those are short works, lacking the manic humour that energised Roth’s earlier fiction. Gone is the narrative scope of books such as Sabbath’s Theater (1995), and instead we have just one lonely character and his quiet tragedy; the mood is plangent and wanly nostalgic: these books speak of what is lost and what, inevitably, awaits us.
Simon Axler, the protagonist in The Humbling, is the last great American stage-actor, a man huge in both body and voice. Now in his mid-sixties, however, he has lost his spontaneity, and the thought of acting terrifies him. He has a breakdown and institutionalises himself for a month, and after that splits up with his wife and retreats to his farm, leaving Prospero, Othello and Macbeth behind for ever. But then, emasculated and alone, he finds love with a woman 25 years younger, the daughter of old acquaintances, who has been a lesbian all her adult life until, rather surprisingly (about which, more below), she goes to Axler’s place and becomes his girlfriend. Life is suddenly worth living again and Axler no longer feels unmanned by failure; but given the usual tone of late Roth, the reader’s sense that all will not remain well is naturally pertinent.
One conclusion from reading The Humbling could be that when you can write with simple beauty, say painfully wise things about mortality and create a plausible enough main character, you cannot fail completely. However, the problem with this book — and one that is more or less unprecedented with Roth — is that almost everything else is wrong. The novella’s shortness seems to be the main issue. Perhaps Roth, in the many passages where big events are either described in a phrase or ignored altogether, is nodding to the Shakespearian career of his main character. Just as Shakespeare compresses weeks or even years into moments, Roth squeezes the Axlers’ break up into a statement. That works passably, partly because of the ex-wife’s irrelevance to events (she might better have been left out entirely), but it is hard to accept the other elisions. Pegeen, the new love, turns up in Axler’s life and repairs to his bed with no real explanation for why she has stopped being a lesbian and started coveting a man she last saw 20 years earlier. As presented, without build-up, it seems improbable. Later, when the couple decide to add sparkle to their sex-life, it seems absurd that Axler, a hulking pensioner, can, with just a few bland comments, convince a pretty stranger in her twenties that it is a good idea to get into his car and then have a sado-masochistic threesome.
It seems like wishful thinking; it also seems to point to an inchoate work waiting to be fleshed-out (and, in places, rethought). In The Humbling Roth pays little heed to the nuances of human interaction, so that, in contrast to last year’s brilliant Indignation, with its affecting detail and epic sadness, this one feels lumpen, inert. By leaving out too much, Roth leaves us outside too.