Simon Axler, the actor-protagonist of Philip Roth’s new book, The Humbling, recounts a dream to his therapist in which he is unable to perform his part while on stage in a drama. The therapist responds that this type of dream is one that every patient reports at one time or another.
When I read this, I wondered if Philip Roth was beginning to feel this way about his ability to write one fine novel after another. The Humbling is his twenty-sixth novel and his publisher reports two others are on the way. I was also reminded that the dream is one I occasionally have about being unable to deliver a lecture or guide a discussion in a class I am teaching.
Axler’s therapist also reports that another common dream is one in which you find yourself driving down a steep roadway and discovering your brakes don’t work. This too is a dream I sometimes have. Again, I wondered if that’s the way Roth was feeling about growing old—he is now seventy-six. I am close behind.
In The Humbling Simon Axler is coming to the end of the line of his distinguished acting career and at the age of sixty-three is not getting any younger either. He could no longer perform on the stage at least perform convincingly. Axler says, I always had a sneaking suspicion that I have no talent whatsoever. On the opening page Roth writes,
He'd lost it. 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 became 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.
The novel consists of three chapters. In the first, Into Thin Air, Axler’s acting wizardry disappears “into thin air” whereupon he commits himself a psychiatric hospital where he spends a month brooding without the slightest resolution of his predicament.
In the second chapter, The Transformation, a forty-year old lesbian bursts into his life, whereupon they have an exotic and extravagant sexual romp for a little over a year. The woman, Pegeen, is the daughter of long-time friends of Axler’s who strongly disapprove of the “wacky and ill advised” affair and bring a good deal of pressure on Pegeen to bring it to an end.
In the Third Chapter, The Last Act, she does just that by abruptly leaving Axler and telling him that for her it was an experiment in heterosexuality, a terrible mistake too. (Earlier in the novel Axler had predicted this very outcome. He believed he was seeing clearly into their future, yet he could do nothing to alter the prospect.) Pegeen says, “I wanted so much to see if I could do it.” But she can’t as she succumbs to the charms of a woman she and Alxer had picked up one night at a bar to engage in a “three-way debauchery.”
The novel ends with Axler holding a shotgun to his head. It had finally occurred to him to perform one last act as if he was in the theater, only this time it would not be make believe. Roth writes,
What could be more fitting? It would constitute his return to acting, and, preposterous, disgraced, feeble little being that he was, a lesbian’s thirteen-month mistake, it would take everything in him to get the job done. To succeed one last time to make the imagined real, he would have to pretend that the attic was a theater and that he was Konstantin Gavrilovich Treplev in the concluding act of The Seagull.
His body is discovered a week later by his cleaning woman. A note of eight words is found alongside him. It is the final line spoken in Chekhov’s play. “The fact is Konstantin Gavrilovich has shot himself.”
The Humbling is beautifully written. The dialogue between Pegeen and Axler is classic Roth--fast, smart, witty. And his depiction of Pegeen is wildly different than any of the women Roth usually writes about. Yes, she is young and Axler is old. Still their affair has none of the embarrassments and helplessness that Nathan Zuckerman experiences in his relationship with the young and exciting Jamie in Exit Ghost. Roth continues his astonishing string of masterful meditations on the “massacre” of aging and prospect of mortality.