The Humbling

It may be expected of such a prolific author – The Humbling is Philip Roth’s thirtieth book – that much of the earlier urgency of the literary quest has been lost over time. Roth’s latest novel comprehensively bucks this trend however, and instead advertises that such creative fecundity need not necessarily lead down the heavily-trodden path of dry, tired cliché and soulless prose.

If anything it may be argued that Roth’s wrath, as depicted in the increased violence of the central protagonist’s search for purpose as his time quickly begins to fail, has catalysed over time.

In either respect though, in the highly-charged, penetrative and sexualised landscape of The Humbling, Roth’s figure certainly seems to loom large throughout the text. Indeed, if we need reminding of his presence, a cursory glance at the back cover shows Roth, ever the omniscient aggressor, arms folded, staring out intently. The Humbling, for all its novelistic merit, will hopefully not weigh down too many stockings this Christmas.

Another overburdened influence throughout the text, if he may be so separated from Roth himself, is the figure of Simon Axler, the main character. As a once successful actor, he finds himself growingly bereft of the skill he once took as second nature: ‘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’.

As both author and protagonist haunt the text, so too does the somewhat less subtle, but nonetheless inescapable motif of Simon’s pump-action shotgun. In its inescapable and unavoidable foreboding, The Humbling echoes Sartre’s Nausea in depicting a decay ferocious in its pace but devoid completely of sense. In many respects this is the ultimate fear – the literal pulling out of the carpet from under one’s feet. The intensity of the rot is further exacerbated by the self-awareness of the players involved; this ‘humbling’ can take root at anytime, tells the narrative voice, and even the ‘invulnerable air of a happy person’ can offer no real defence. The Humbling shows hubris at its most clinical, but also at its most unjustified.

Despite its heavy burden, Roth’s narrative avoids the pitfalls of pretence and the will to moralise. Axler, although suffering intensely, is rarely the subject of our sympathy, whilst his insatiable lust and casting in the role of the abductor as he courts sexual partners, displays for all that he is no God or even tragic hero, but unmistakeably human. The Humbling is all the more devastating for this rootedness.

In Roth’s novel, appearances are all important, but equally and ambiguously they are cast as useless figments. Axler’s greatest concern is that his loss of artistic talent has been sussed, and yet he still clings desperately to the building up of image. In analysing how to react to Carol, his partner’s mother who has attempted to break up their relationship, he sees that it is ‘better to appear to laugh it off’. In the tragic sense of the novel though, and indeed more generally, our own subjectivity becomes almost comically defunct. Human fate, to borrow the poet Philip Larkin’s phrase, ‘is no different whined at than withstood’.

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