Phillip Roth’s The Humbling, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2009, is the author's thirtieth book.
Simon Axler is a great stage actor in his mid-sixties. Going onstage has become agony for him and he is lost. He has received some bad reviews. After a performance of Shakespeare at the Kennedy Center, he has a breakdown and can no longer remember his lines or perform. He feels he has lost his gift for acting overnight and feels impotent. For some soul-searching, he retreats to his country house. He writes a long list of plays that include a suicide. His wife leaves him and he is alone and feeling suicidal. He decides to go to a psychiatric hospital.
He returns to his home and waits for some transformation. Pegeen, the daughter of one of his friends, visits him. She is twenty-five years younger than Axler and recently came out as a lesbian. She and Axler begin to have an affair. Their experiments extend to identifying other young women to bring into their trysts. Simon buys her expensive clothes and gets her hair styled.
Axler’s thoughts begin to move in an entirely new direction. He visits his doctor to find out if he is able to have children, but when he returns home Pegeen is gone. They had spent thirteen months together and it all feels like a lie.
To close the novel, Axler returns to thoughts of suicide. He considers his options and as an old actor he turns to a Chevkhov play, The Seagull. Axler shoots himself and leaves behind a note with the last line from the play: “The fact is, Konstantin Gavrilovich has shot himself.” This is Axler’s final performance.
Critics admire Roth’s The Humbling as irony at work. Roth’s focus on the misery of age and death is prevalent in his work. In this novel, Roth is surprising and memorable in a short narrative that is becoming his most favored format.