“Life can’t be impugned for any failure to trivialise people,” says Murray Ringold to Nathan Zuckerman as he begins telling the story of his brother’s downfall that comprises 1998’s I Married a Communist. “You have to take your hat off to life for the techniques at its disposal to strip a man of his significance and empty him totally of his pride.” Human betrayal is at the heart of the maelstrom that drags down Ira Ringold in that book; alongside it, the poisonous lie of ideology on both ends of the political spectrum, and a Shakespearean flaw in the central character. The same forces are at work, in different configurations, in American Pastoral (1997) and The Human Stain (2000), the other parts of Roth’s great “American Trilogy”, together with the choking effect of American conceptions of propriety, and the loneliness that pervades human relationships. Here is Swede Levov, the protagonist of American Pastoral, apostrophising his terrorist daughter: “There is no protest to be lodged against loneliness — not all the bombing campaigns in history have made a dent in it. The most lethal of manmade explosives can’t touch it. Stand in awe not of Communism, my idiot child, but of ordinary, everyday loneliness.”
Elsewhere in Roth, it’s old age, especially the physical facts of it, that brings his characters to their knees. In Everyman (2006), the protagonist dies during his seventh annual major operation: “Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.” In his 1991 memoir, Patrimony, Roth describes attending to his father as the latter dies, slowly, from a brain tumour:
My father looked for a long time at the tray on which they’d served him another dinner of cold consommé and yoghurt and a chocolate drink and Jell-O and a Popsicle. It was impossible to guess from his lost, unfocused gaze what, if anything, he was thinking about. I was thinking of the fingernail that had been aggrandising the hollows of his skull for a decade, the material as obdurate and gristly as he was, that had cracked open the bone behind his nose and, with a stubborn, unrelenting force just like his, had pushed tusklike through into the cavities of his face.
And what of Nathan Zuckerman himself, minus a prostate, impotent since American Pastoral at least, incontinent and in nappies by the time of The Human Stain? With all these techniques for humbling a man at life’s disposal, the reader, approaching Roth’s new novella, entitled The Humbling, might simply wonder, “Well, what’s it going to be this time?”
Simon Axler is a successful stage actor in his sixties who has discovered that he can no longer act. “He’d lost his magic,” the book begins. “He was asked to play Prospero and Macbeth at the Kennedy Center — it was hard to think of a more ambitious double bill — and he failed appallingly in both, but especially as Macbeth.” At first, he thought the feeling would pass: “It didn’t pass. He couldn’t act.”
Then, like Murray Ringold in I Married a Communist, who, “asphyxiated inside Shakespeare”, contemplates his brother Ira’s fate with a line from Twelfth Night stuck in his head, Axler is tortured by Prospero’s words:
They repeated themselves so regularly in his head that they soon became a hubbub of sounds torturously empty of meaning and pointing at no reality yet carrying the force of a spell full of personal significance. “Our revels now are ended. These our actors, / As I foretold you, were all spirits and /Are melted into air, into thin air.” He could do nothing to blot out “thin air”, the two syllables that were chaotically repeated while he lay powerless in bed…
Axler has “been disarmed of the weight and substance of his professional existence one night while he slept”. Like Shakespeare’s words to him, like the thin air, he becomes “empty of meaning”. Some readers will make the jump from character to author and feel as if Roth has himself lost some of his magic, the ability to inject characters with life. But the point of Axler is that he is a shell. All that was inside has disappeared.
Feeling suicidal, he checks himself into a psychiatric hospital, where he’s told that he — his life — is not just a dream, but a very common dream, “a universal nightmare”, in fact. Being on stage unable to perform is like “walking down a busy city street naked or being unprepared for a crucial exam…” He starts to feel better — no thanks to the various “empty exercises” he is put through — but the idea that “nothing that was happening to him seemed to have to do with anything else” continues to frighten him. There is a quite brilliant absurd comedy to the scenes in the psychiatric ward, as this ghost of a man trudges around, trying, and failing, to say meaningful things, and the story continues in this vein when Axler, back at home, is paid a visit by his agent. In the course of an obscenely long and hopeless conversation, he tries to soothe Axler’s insecurity (“So you couldn’t do Macbeth to your satisfaction. Well, you’re not the first…He’s a murderer, he’s a killer. Everything is magnified in that play.”) and tempt him back to the stage. Roth has not lost his famous ear for speech:
You should come down to New York and begin to work in his studio with Vincent Daniels. You won’t be the first whose confidence he’s restored. Look, you’ve done all that tough stuff, Shakespeare, the classics — there’s no way this can happen to you with your biography.
The redundant “begin to”, the reference to “his studio” ridiculously preceding the name of the studio’s owner who hasn’t yet been mentioned, the second sentence turned on its head to accommodate the “you won’t be the first” formulation, that use of “biography” — this perfect old New York agent-speak wonderfully complements the atmosphere of the scene. After 12 pages, Axler says: “Jerry, I can’t go on with this conversation. We could talk all day, and to no avail”, before continuing down a blind alley for another couple of pages.
The major plot-turn shows up in the form of Pegeen Mike Stapleford, a lesbian 25 years Axler’s junior and the daughter of old friends. Like Coleman Silk, the unjustly disgraced classics don in The Human Stain who emerges from despair by starting an affair with an illiterate young janitor, Axler finds a new beginning in an unlikely and ill-advised romance. It is difficult to make sense of their relationship. In his review of the book in the Observer, William Skidelsky suggests that “the novel’s sexual politics could be construed as highly offensive. The fantasy underpinning Axler and Pegeen’s relationship seems to be that a lesbian can be ‘turned’ by a real, potent man.” This is a variation of the critical approach sometimes found in Roth’s own characters (“if he didn’t find political and social implications in the book, the whole thing was no good”): the kind of literalism that never fails to miss the point of literature.
Axler isn’t a “potent man” — the book is mainly about his forlorn attempts to reclaim his lost status as even a “real” one. Suggestions of him being able to “turn” a lesbian, and there aren’t many, are irony at Axler’s expense. Pegeen is the potent one, the agent. Axler is on the wrong end of an asymmetric relationship, the cruel asymmetry of need, and the fantasy underpinning it is the one that, without ever being woken from his dream-like, ghost-like state, he allows himself to nurture: that, at this late stage, things might turn out all right. In the end, it’s something like the inscrutability of people, the all-too-predictable unpredictability of people that, manifested in Pegeen, completes Axler’s humbling. As Zuckerman writes in American Pastoral, “You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again.”
The Humbling isn’t Philip Roth at his best. It lacks the usual depth and, though funny, is perhaps too tonally sparse to be really satisfying. But the “universal nightmare”, the desertion of Axler by first his talent and then the girl on whom he pins false hope, is moving. So brief that it barely exceeds the short-story bracket, the novel has the feeling of an experimental sketch, but one that is worthwhile, both for the reader, and for the writer still approaching old themes from new angles.