Philip Roth's The Humbling. 

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 16 2009 6:54 AM

Stage Fright

How to read Philip Roth's quartet on aging.

Not long ago, Philip Roth gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal,one of several in various publications that occasioned some surprise, since Roth is a notoriously reclusive writer. In this interview, he revealed that his latest novel, The Humbling, is the third of four short novels. The first two, Everyman and Indignation, came out in 2006 and 2008, respectively. The fourth, called Nemesis, will be published next year. "Together," he said, "the four make a quartet."

Knowing that nearly all of Roth's recent works have mercilessly deployed and enlarged the vocabulary of old age and that he himself is 76, it's impossible not to hear certain echoes in the word "quartet." For whatever reason, many great late works have come in quartets. Think of Shakespeare's final four plays, Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest, considered a series because they are all rather chilly and self-consciously theatrical; Beethoven's late string quartets (there were five of them, but never mind); Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs; T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. The question of late style clearly preoccupies Roth. Take Exit Ghost(2007), another self-consciously late work. Roth has declared it to be his last Nathan Zuckerman novel—Zuckerman having been Roth's chief alter ego throughout his career—and Zuckerman narrates it as if he were already halfway between this world and the next, measuring in every agonized rumination the chasm between himself and a new generation of aggressive writers and unattainable women. He also meditates on Strauss' Four Last Songs, as if that—to use Roth's words—"dramatically elegiac, ravishingly emotional music written by a very old man at the close of his life" were a good way of explaining what he's up to.

Strauss' lieder do have tantalizing formal and thematic resemblances to Roth's three short novels. Each song consists of a single voice expressing a single mood, just as each novel features a single voice fleshing out a single point: the breakdown of the body in Everyman, the pointlessness of death in Indignation, the disappearance of talent in The Humbling. In tone, as Roth says, the lieder are elegiac; so are his last handful of books, with their incantatory invocations of the lost world of his childhood, 1930s Newark, N.J. Musically, the Four Last Songs brood on the past; the songs are lushly late-Romantic despite having been written after World War II, as if clinging to the afterglow of a tradition that Strauss had once exemplified but that had since been incinerated in horror. Roth has implied in this recent spate of interviews that he feels he's outlived the era of the book, and you do have the sense, in these three spare, vaguely allegorical novels, that he's struggling to find life in a form he has done so much to define.

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But we should probably let Roth tell us why he makes use of Strauss' songs: "For the profundity that is achieved not by complexity but by clarity and simplicity. For the purity of the sentiment about death and parting and loss," he writes in Exit Ghost. "For the ways one is drawn into the tremendous arc of heartbreak. The composer drops all masks and, at the age of eighty-two, stands before you naked."

"Naked" is certainly the word for The Humbling, a bleak fable of the artist's unmasking. It is the story in three acts, or rather long chapters, of a theater actor named Simon Axley, "the last of the best classical actors," a man in his mid-60s, who has lost the ability to act. "He'd lost his magic" is the first line of the book and, according another interview, the first line that came to Roth as he was casting about for his next novel. When Simon goes out on stage, he is no longer able to abandon himself to the instinct that was once the source of his power: "The ways he could once rivet attention when he was on stage!" Now he remains trapped in self-consciousness, painfully aware of every passing minute and every gesture made. As he tells his agent, "Jerry, it's over. I can no longer make the imagined real."

Bad reviews appear. He quits acting. His wife leaves him, and he retreats to his farmhouse, where thoughts of suicide become so insistent that he checks himself into a psychiatric hospital. The clinical word for his mental state is depression, but he experiences it as disenchantment, a loss of faith in himself so complete he cannot even believe in himself as a madman: "He was an artificial madman too. The only role available to him was the role of someone playing a role. … He screamed aloud when he awakened in the night and found himself still locked inside the role of the man deprived of himself, his talent, and his place in the world, a loathsome man who was nothing more than the inventory of his defects."

Into this collapsed, denuded existence comes Pegeen Mike Stapleford, the 40-year-old daughter of two actor friends of his, named after the barmaid in John Synge's Playboy of the Western World. Pegeen is a lesbian waif with a bad haircut and a 16-year-old boy's taste in clothes, albeit also a professor of environmental science, and, improbably, she becomes Simon's lover. Simon buys her expensive outfits and gets her hair expensively styled, making her over as a viable heterosexual. He regains some of his lost vitality. He even dreams of having children with her. Very quickly, however, the affair turns ugly. Pegeen sleeps with two young softball players with bobbing blond ponytails. A green dildo comes out of a bag. A threesome is arranged. Simon is too weak to stop the downward lurch, and Pegeen, who appeared so innocent, begins to seem demonic.

At this point, though, the reader may feel the faint chill of disbelief. Though Simon views the possible end of the relationship as catastrophic, we do not, because it hasn't felt real from the beginning. I have never read a Roth novel so strangely devoid of the sensation of desire. No one can make lust as palpable as Roth can when he wants to, focusing our attention on exact erotic details—the tic-toc of a girl's bare swinging leg, the high curve of a young model's haunches. There are no comparable details in this novel. The key seduction scene is cool and abrupt, performed with unseductive dispatch. In the middle of a conversation about something else, Simon gets up and kisses Pegeen:

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