Despite this prodigious output, Roth has limited himself to a few themes: sex, Jews, sex, politics, sex, Philip Roth, sex, identity, sex and patriotism. Some of his more recent work, including “The Humbling,” deals with illness and death, reflecting the fact that Roth is now 76 years old. Even though this is a new emphasis, Roth, as always, provides explicit details about his favorite theme of sex. He is an erotic writer who occasionally converts pornography to literary art.
The protagonist of “The Humbling” is Simon Axler, a 65-year-old actor, who “lost his magic.” Unable to act anymore, he becomes despondent and his wife leaves him. Afraid he will kill himself, Axler arranges for his admission to a psychiatric hospital. What happens next probably draws on Roth’s own experience of a nervous breakdown in the late 1980s, which he described in his 1993 novel, “Operation Shylock.” This is in keeping with Roth’s penchant for using autobiographical elements in his novels.
In the hospital, Axler befriends another patient who tried to commit suicide after catching her second husband molesting her 8-year-old daughter. The patient offers to pay Axler if he would kill her husband. He urges her to regain her mental equilibrium so that she can go home and reclaim her two children. This episode ends inconclusively but is devastatingly completed later in the story.
Although Axler remains somewhat shaky and is still persuaded that he can no longer act, he recovers sufficiently so that he is able to return home from the hospital. His agent visits him and vainly tries to convince him to return to the stage. These events lead to the second part of the novella in which Axler has an affair with Pegeen, 40 years younger than he and the daughter of Axler’s friends. Indeed, Axler first saw Pegeen when she was an infant. In this section of the story, Roth expresses his unbridled determination to write unreservedly about sex, providing unnecessarily specific details.
The final section of the book provides further information about the turmoil and intricacy of the relationship between Pegeen and Axler, complicated by the involvement of her parents and of another woman with whom Pegeen is involved. An almost inevitable and partly foreseeable ending concludes the work.
“The Humbling” will find favor with Roth’s many fans, some of whom have organized the Philip Roth Society in order to promote interest in his work. Books and articles have been written, analyzing and commenting on the creativity and technical mastery demonstrated in Roth’s extensive and well-received output. For a time, Roth, Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud were considered to be America’s leading Jewish writers. Roth clearly remains in this category but must be ranked beyond it as one of America’s leading novelists. This new book embellishes his reputation.
(Morton I. Teicher is the founding dean, Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University and dean emeritus, School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)