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.

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:

He felt the strength in her well-muscled arms. He fumbled with her heavy breasts, he cupped her shapely behind in his hands, and drew her toward him so that they kissed again. Then he led her to the sofa in the living room, where, blushing furiously as he watched her, she undid her jeans and was with a man for the first time since college. He was with a lesbian for the first time in his life.

Neither the lack of affect nor the generic language ("shapely behind," "was with a man") is out of character. Depression dulls the libido, and Simon may well be a man more in need of consolation than of sex. Nonetheless, the flatness of the prose poses a technical problem. We need some inkling of awakened desire to believe in Simon's transformation and to feel the sexual humiliation that follows.

It's hard to tell whether Roth's rather perfunctory style—most notable whenever Pegeen is the subject, but intermittently evident throughout—is the result of artful artlessness or of writerly enervation. Roth, to give him credit, is trying to pull off a supremely difficult feat here. He wants to make art out of a man bereft of art, to create the illusion of life in and through an actor who has lost the power to beget illusion. But this punishingly self-reflexive form of mimesis flirts dangerously with failure. We are forced to ask: Does the super-self-conscious tone match the super-self-conscious subject, or has Roth fallen into the same trap as Simon?

It has not escaped Roth that readers might not know how to answer that question, so he answers it for us. The first third of the book undertakes a kind of covert disquisition on the quality of "thinness." "Into Thin Air" is the title of the chapter. Simon's "whole intricate personality," writes Roth, "was entirely at the mercy of 'thin air.' " The source of that expression is Prospero in The Tempest, whom Simon has played—badly, in his most recent production—and whose lines repeat themselves in his head:"These our actors/ As I foretold you, were all spirits and/ Are melted into air, into thin air."

One thought that occurred to this worried reader is that Roth's discourse on "thinness" is his response to the many critics who dismissed the first two novels in the quartet as "thin." A more charitable—and critically respectable—thought is that Roth is hereby advising us to understand the novel as a daring experiment in late style. In a 2006 New Yorker essay, the late John Updike quoted various scholars on that style—it's "the senile sublime" says one; it's pure artistry "shed of obscuring puppy fat," says another—but concluded that what late works usually have in common is "a translucent thinness."

At the end of his life, the artist looks back, reworking old themes in a new mode. Once-thick material is subjected to further processes of distillation, rendered somehow more vaporous in the alembic of the retrospective consciousness. The taste is not always pleasant. Theodor Adorno, describing Beethoven's string quartets, wrote, "The maturity of the late works does not resemble the kind one finds in fruit. They are … not round, but furrowed, even ravaged. Devoid of sweetness, bitter and spiny, they do not surrender themselves to mere delectation."

But we're still not sure how to take the novel, our doubts prompted, in large part, by Simon's own incessant self-questioning. Does The Humbling represent the writer's self-awareness or his self-travesty? And if it's self-travesty, as Simon asks himself, "how had it happened? Was it purely the passage of time bringing on decay and collapse? Was it a surprising manifestation of aging?" We never really find out why Simon lost his magic. I consider it proof of Roth's courage—of his will to experiment, no matter when or with what—that by the end of the The Humbling we can't tell whether he has lost his.

Judith Shulevitz is a former culture editor of Slate and the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.