Philip Roth’s late fiction has treated subjects including heart attacks, chronic back pain, prostate cancer, brain tumors, memory loss, dementia, impotence, incontinence, depression, suicide, the devastation caused by the loss of loved ones, and the constant awareness of one’s own mortality. Such topics are likely to make readers every bit as uncomfortable as did the writer’s infamous earlier forays into the secret places of male desire. Beginning with The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography (1988), and most notably in Patrimony: A True Story (1991), Sabbath’s Theater (1995), The Dying Animal (2001), Everyman (2006), and Exit Ghost (2007), Roth has sought to look at illness, aging, and death with the same refusal to blink or be polite that he has brought to his treatment of sexuality since Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). In his seventies, he has also been writing at a tremendous pace, publishing a book a year and favoring the form of the novella. In these later works, comedy has been replaced by sobriety and desperation, and the change both in subject and in tone has been startling to his longtime readers.
Roth’s latest novella, The Humbling, tells the story of Simon Axler. For forty years, Axler has been one of the most distinguished classical actors of the American stage, playing the major roles of playwrights such as William Shakespeare, Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, John Millington Synge, and others to wide acclaim. Then, one day, he suddenly loses “the magic.” Performing as Prospero and Macbeth in a double bill of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (pr. 1611, pb. 1623) and Macbeth (pr. 1606, pb. 1623) at the Kennedy Center, Axler forgets everything he has ever known, is widely panned, and becomes convinced that his talent is dead. He can no longer act.
Axler does not know how or why this has happened, and he suffers a “colossal” breakdown as a result. He retreats to his country home in upstate New York, and while he is falling apart his wife leaves him. Since they have no children and his only close friend in the area has recently died of cancer, he finds himself totally alone. Axler also suffers from chronic spinal pain that has grown worse as he has aged. The condition makes one of his legs go dead intermittently, causing him to miss steps or curbs and fall.
Soon, all the aging actor can think about is Prospero’s lines, “Our revels now are ended. These our actors,/ As I foretold you, were all spirits and/ Are melted into air, into thin air.” He constantly fantasizes about going up to the attic, loading the Remington 870 pump-action shotgun he keeps there, putting it in his mouth, and pulling the trigger. After spending an entire day in the attic with the shotgun in his hand, he checks himself into Hammerton Hospital. He spends twenty-six days there in individual, group, and art therapy. He listens to other patients who have attempted suicide talk excitedly about their attempts, and he becomes the confidant of Sybil Van Buren, a woman who tried to kill herself after realizing that her second husband had been abusing her little girl.
Finally, Axler decides “Nothing has a good reason for happeningYou lose, you gainit’s all caprice. The omnipotence of caprice.” He leaves the hospital and returns to his empty house. While his suicidal thoughts may have receded, however, his depression has not.
Axler’s agent Jerry Oppenheim drives up from Manhattan to see him. He offers him the opportunity to play the part of James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night (pr., pb. 1956) at the Guthrie Theater and tries to convince him that he can recover his art. Oppenheim recommends an acting coach who has helped other actors who have become blocked. “Play the moment,” this coach tells his students; “play whatever plays for you in that moment, and then go on to the next moment.” Axler refuses and, alone once again, decides that he should reread all the great plays in which characters commit suicide so “Nobody should be able to say that he did not think it through.”
Instead, he ends up trying to “play the moment” in his life, rather than his art, with Pegeen Mike Stapleford, the daughter of fellow actors with whom he worked in a production of Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World (pr., pb. 1907) when they were all just starting out in Greenwich Village. Carol...
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