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Curtain call

The novel is a spare, unsparing meditation on the irreversible and devastating nature of ageing. Soumya Bhattacharya elaborates.

books Updated: Jan 08, 2010 22:00 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya

The Humbling
Philip Roth
Jonathan Cape # Rs 550 # pp 140

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Philip Roth has said that he sees his new novel, The Humbling, as the third in a four-part suite of novels that include Everyman, Indignation and the forthcoming Nemesis. In the manner of Roth’s recent fiction — and very much in the manner of the novels he sees the new one having the most kinship with — The Humbling is a spare, unsparing meditation on death and dwindling, on infirmity and fallibility, and on the irreversible and devastating nature of ageing.

The protagonist of the new novel is 65-year-old Simon Axler, “the last of the best of the classical American stage actors,” who one day finds his talent has deserted him. “He’d lost his magic. The impulse was spent.” With this terrific — and terrifying — opening, Roth (the last of the best of the American novelists of his generation, and the finest living novelist writing in English today) plunges us into the vortex of a life that bends out of shape with the ebbing of a power that had once defined and exalted it.

Axler goes to a sanatorium, turns down the offer of a comeback from his agent and decays, bit by bit, in the remote fastness of his farmhouse. Salvation seems to appear (and this is from where the contrivances in the plot begin to make themselves evident) in the form of a 40-year-old woman, Pegeen — daughter of friends of Axler’s and a lesbian from the age of 23. Rebuffed by her partner (who decides to change her sex) after a long and fulfilling affair, Pegeen comes to Axler with an agenda of her own. “If Priscilla could become a heterosexual male, Pegeen could become a heterosexual female.” Axler falls for her (trying to play Pygmalion and reinvent Pegeen as a stylish, striking effeminate heterosexual lady), and as he does, lives in agony and terror that the affair will not last.

The shadow of the end of the affair darkens the affair throughout its duration. They pick up a woman at a bar. The scene in which they have a threesome is one of the corniest and most humourless in the novel. Roth hastily slips in a disclaimer — “This was not soft porn” — but it comes across as too earnest; it seems like an entreaty to suspend our belief that it is.

Whether it is Portnoy and the liver in Portnoy’s Complaint (the novel that acquired Roth notoriety and celebrity in equal measure) or Mickey Sabbath at the graveyard in Sabbath’s Theatre (the 1995 masterpiece that began Roth’s magnificent late efflorescence), Roth is a master of the comic grotesque, of the deliberate, implausible exaggeration that is as much laugh-aloud funny as it fizzes and sizzles with sexual
energy.

The Humbling is a lesser novel because Roth creates in it the situation that is alive with such possibilities, and then — uncharacteristically — treats it without his comic timing and aplomb. Axler’s affair with Pegeen inevitably ends. Roth is actually in a hurry so that it can, and so that he can go on to the real business of the novel: Axler’s suffering, his descent and disintegration, and a contemplation (as in 2007’s Exit Ghost) of the nature of artistic talent — how it comes, how it is nurtured, and how it withers away. As they build up to a moving, frightening denouement, the final sections of this short novel are among its best.

The Humbling is not Roth at his best. But even below his best, the master is far better than most novelists at work today. This is his 30th book, and his fifth in the current century. Onwards to Nemesis, the next one scheduled for publication this year.

Soumya Bhattacharya’s novel If I Could Tell You is in bookstores now