Saturday 21 October 2017

Humble effort by a literary giant

Third in sequence of four novels is a trough in Roth's career of peaks, writes Ronan Farren

Ronan Farren

The Humbling

Philip Roth

Jonathan Cape, €14.99

PHILIP Roth started his career with a novella, Goodbye, Columbus, almost exactly half a century ago. That book, published with five short stories, won the US National Book Award, a rare achievement for a first-time writer, and signalled the debut of a major figure in American literature.

Roth, now 76 and said to be in poor health, went on to win the Pulitzer (for American Pastoral) and every other important prize in the US. The Nobel has eluded him, the Academy seemingly favouring more overtly political writers in recent years (the unexciting Doris Lessing, 2007, being an example).

The last American to win the Nobel was Toni Morrison (1993) and the last male American was Saul Bellow as long ago as 1976. (Russian-born poet Joseph Brodsky, a US citizen, won in 1987.) Is Roth too irreverent for the worthy Swedes, or simply too entertaining? Are his witty/angry jousts with the less likeable aspects of American society, along with his extravagant sexual circuses, a bit distasteful? Given the intensity of Roth's intimations of mortality in his last four books, Stockholm's academy would be well advised to hurry up.

With The Humbling, Roth has come full circle, back to the novella form, here running to 35,000 words. His hero, a forlorn figure like all Roth's recent fictional males, is a successful actor, Simon Axler, who is suddenly afflicted with the theatrical equivalent of writer's block: the magic has gone and he has given up trying to face the terrors of the stage. Some actors would turn to drink, but Axler doesn't drink; instead he collapses with a colossal breakdown, allied to suicidal urges.

After his wife Victoria leaves him, Axler checks into a psychiatric hospital where he listens to other patients sitting in groups talking about their suicide attempts, "recalling the ardour with which they had planned to die and bemoaning how they had failed". One evening Axler joins in, gruffly telling his largest audience since he gave up acting that suicide "is the role you write for yourself" but it's "one performance only".

Then Sybil, a patient he's been dining with, asks him to kill her husband, who, she claims, has been sexually abusing her daughter. She will turn up again in Axler's post-hospital life. After his comfortable incarceration, Axler and Victoria are divorced, "completing yet one more of the many millions of stories of unhappily entwined men and women". This weak sentence is not untypical of Roth at this stage of his career. The wild humour of the earlier books has vanished; human existence is bleak, relationships invariably doomed.

We sense quite early in Axler's next relationship that this too will end in tears. Pegeen -- yes, she is named after Synge's gutsy character -- is a lesbian who decides to switch horses in mid-canter and move in with 60-ish Axler.

In one of the novella's best set-pieces, Pegeen's former girlfriend, the dean of a nearby college, turns up outside Axler's rural home where he confronts her with a shotgun. After she apologises for trespassing, Axler invites her inside. The apparently deranged Louise snaps, "Why, do you want to, seduce me too? Is that your specialty, retooling lesbians?" Later in this bizarre conversation, Louise tells him that Pegeen is not intelligent, not that grown-up: "She leaves a trail of disaster... She's a cunning naif... It's we who endow her with the power to wreck. Pegeen's nobody, you know."

Later Pegeen tells Axler she has had sex with two pony-tailed blondes. And she indicates a weakness for mild sado-masochism. Then, together they pick up a young woman in a bar and bring her back to the house and Pegeen's bag of plastic sex toys.

What's going on here? Is Roth, in desperation, harking back to the elaborately detailed sex scenes of his early novels to show he can still do it? Much of this is unconvincing. Worse, it becomes hard to feel much sympathy for Axler as he plunges and squirms ineffectually through his late-life crisis. It dawns on the reader that Axler is not a particularly interesting character and that's why we fail to be gripped by his plight. He is more the stuff of self-pity than tragedy.

Roth told an American interviewer recently that he sees The Humbling as the third in a sequence of four novels that started with Everyman in 2006 and con-tinued with Indignation last year, though it is not easy to see how that impressive novel relates to its predecessor or successor -- unless it's the prevailing sense of death in all three.

Reviewing Everyman three years ago I expressed disappointment. But Roth came back with some of his old inventiveness and fire in Indignation.

Even after this lacklustre novella I wouldn't write him off. His next novel, we learn, will be called Nemesis.

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