Excerpt: Philip Roth's The Humbling

Up till 2004, Philip Roth used to publish new novels at a pace of one every two to three years. 

Ever since The Plot Against America, though, he's been publishing a-novel-a-year, in a frenzy characterizing a writer confronting his mortality (Roth is almost 78 after all; he'll celebrate his birthday 78'th birthday next March, 4 days after mine); or competing in a race to gain the Nobel prize for literature he's been contending for for a long time now..

Amongst the novels Roth published since The Plot are Everyman (2006), Exit Ghost (2007), Indignation (2008), The Humbling (2009).

Of Roth's last 6 novels, I'd read only two, Everyman and Exit Ghost (the first, Roth's 'debut' in a series short, Nemeses, novels; the latter the last installment, to date, in his Zuckerman novels). Everyman, a semi-autobiographical novel, had read to me as a 'confession' of sorts, one man's coming-to-terms with his life and with his own mortality. All in all, this was a very good read, even if dealing with somewhat 'heavy' subjects and themes. As for Exit Ghost, well, much like Everyman, heck, like most of Roth's novels, this novel too, deals with the subject of human moratlity, and is in a way a brief soul-searching journey (more in the metaphysical than in the physical way) Zuckerman, in his twilight days.

This October, he is intended to publish his twenty eighth novel, Nemesis, relating the tale of Bucky Cantor, a young playground director in 1944 Newark, who contends with a polio outbreak which ravages the kids at the playground. Seven years later, he is still (like any classic, need we say Jewish?, Roth'ian (anti) hero), filled with guilt and remorse and is haunted by bad  luck, lackluster protagonist that he is.. (again, it is uncleaar whether the archenemy eluded to in the novel's title is the protagonist himself or someone from the outside, lurking.. 

Hence, upon a chance encounter with a cheap, paperback edition of his last novel, The Humbling, I decided this was the perfect opportunity to catch up on my Roth-Reading, before Roth goes ahead and leaves me behind..

The decision was not short-lived. Many-a-book I've bought on the whim of a momentary self-persuasion; an attractive book cover; or over-hyped media.. but this will not be the case with Humbling, for, as I was soon to find out, Roth's last novel is every bit as interesting as it is a short, page-turning novella of heartbreaking, staggering genius and beauty, if I am to borrow another author's coinage.

Humbling is laid out as a greek or Shakespearian tragedy, with a a three-act structure and a . The tragedy's (anti) hero, Simon Axler, almost 70 years old, is an actor who finds himself confronted one day with an actor's block. Despaired, he slowly withdraws from an active life of acting in theaters into a nightmarish world of self-estrangement and insignificance. 

The story related in the first chapter, 'Into Thin Air', is that of Axler's demise. We find him at his lowest possible point. Without any apparent reason, he stops acting and becomes pray to morbid thoughts of suicide. 

This is a story of a man's fall. The novel's title, at least at this point in the narrative, is a bit misleading: If humbling be "meekness or modesty in behavior, attitude, or spirit; not arrogant or prideful", then Axler's behavior is more that of self-effacement, and possibly rage at his predicament, a classic tragic hero's reaction to the fate that's befallen on him. 

But the gods of Humbling are not very responsive ones. In fact, they are practically inexistent. In their stead, there's friends, and there's modern psychiatry (Axler admits himself into a psychiatric hospital after his wife, Victoria, leaves him). 

Even there Axler is denied any particularity and case is diagnosed with an acute case of 'universal nightmare', as his psychiatrist, Dr. Farr explains: 

"Going out on the stage and being unable to perform was among the sock set of dreams that most every patient reported at one time or another. That and walking naked down a busy city street or being unprepared for a crucial exam or falling off a cliff or finding on the highway that your brakes don't work."

Generally speaking, the first part of Humbling could easily be read as a speech in defense of suicide (Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus comes to mind a few times).

This could have been quite depressing, if it were not for Roth's exceptional, beautifully insightful writing. Here's a typical Roth'ian paragraph, relating the inception of Axler and Virginia's love:

"[He] used to go to the City Center to see her dance, not because he loved ballet but because of his youthful susceptibility to the capacity she she had to stir him to lust through the pathway of the tenderest emotions: she remained in his memory for years afterward as the very incarnation of erotic pathos."

What a wonderful passage. It could well serve as a short story or poem in itself. Ample work for linguistics and literary scholars alike.

On the other hand, Roth tends to overdo it at times, and get his narrative entangled around semi-tautological sentences like this one:

"You can get very good at getting by on what you get by on when you don't have anything else" 

But than again, this is Roth for you, publishing a novel a year, mostly genius, partly blurred..

VERDICT: BUY IT (because it merits a read, Nobel prize or no Nobel prize..)


  1. Thanks for the extensive readout on The Humbling. By chance, I just got the CD version from the library. Your endorsement moves it to the top of my playlist.

  2. Welcome, RasoirJ.
    I was pleasingly supprised by the quality of this novel myself, having deemed Roth's EXIT GHOST a rather mediocre read, even if somewhat better than the average contemporary American novel..
    This IS by far one of Roth's best novels in the past years.
    Definetly one of the Excerpt's recommended reads..