On the Brink

James Lever

  • The Humbling by Philip Roth
    Cape, 140 pp, £12.99, November 2009, ISBN 978 0 224 08793 3

Here’s a novella of slightly over 30,000 very plain words – Philip Roth’s shortest book since The Prague Orgy – structurally straightforward, winnowed of syntactical excitement, sterilised of jokes, rhythmically muted, baldly plotted, low on confrontation, low on tension, low on brilliancies and generally low all round. Here, the writing temperature has sunk below even that of Everyman: it’s prose as utilitarian as you can get without making the flatness of the style into an ostentation. It opens with a verdict, rapped out with judicial impatience: ‘He’d lost his magic. The impulse was spent … His talent was dead.’ The text that follows is so shorn of obvious sorcery that you’re tempted to read the first four words half as a challenge, daring you to think the verdict is autobiographical – a prophecy or a lament. Or a boast: the magic hasn’t been lost so much as abjured, like Prospero’s.

Prospero is one of The Humbling’s household gods. Attempting a Tempest/Macbeth double bill at the Kennedy Center, the 65-year-old protagonist, Simon Axler, ‘the last of the best of the classical American stage actors’, is suddenly abandoned by his talent. No reason is given – there is no reason – and Axler suffers a breakdown, aggravated by his inability to believe even in the sincerity of his own collapse. Overwhelmed, his wife leaves him. Alone with a shotgun in his New England farmhouse and terrified of suicide, Axler checks himself into a psychiatric hospital, where his suicidal feelings recede as arbitrarily as they arrived. He forges a brief bond with a damaged young woman, Sybil Van Buren, who asks him to kill her child-abusing husband for her. Axler demurs, checks out after a month, and after an expositionary conversation with his agent, who vainly attempts to persuade him back to the stage, finds himself a year later ‘thinking again about killing himself as often as he had been before being hospitalised … Once again, the focus was down to suicide.’ Inspecting a dying possum’s snow-hole, Axler sees that the creature (‘nature’s little caricature of him’) has made ‘a collection of sticks. He counted them. Six sticks. So that’s how it’s done, Axler thought. I’ve got too much. All you need are six.’ End of Act I.

Act II: ‘The Transformation’. Enter Pegeen Stapleford, the 40-year-old lesbian daughter of two old actor friends of Axler’s. She’s still recovering from her last serious relationship, which her girlfriend ‘Priscilla’ ended by surgically transforming herself into a man. She and Axler begin an affair. Pegeen begins to think of her lesbian past as a ‘17-year mistake’ and Axler is regenerated, though still chary of returning to the stage. The affair deepens, despite Pegeen’s parents’ mild disapproval, and in ‘an orgy of spoiling and spending that suited them both just fine’ Axler encourages her into the lineaments of a more conventional femininity. He disturbs an embittered and jealous former lover of Pegeen’s – Louise Renner, the dean of the college where Pegeen teaches – spying on his farmhouse, who warns him that Pegeen’s ‘an unusually childish person for her age. She’s a kid, really … Pegeen’s nobody, you know.’

Part III: ‘The Last Act’. Pegeen’s parents warn her against Axler more forcefully and he tries to suppress his irritation at their interventions. He also reads in the paper that Sybil Van Buren has shot her husband. Pegeen confesses to a couple of one-night stands with women and, in an attempt to regain control of their increasingly volatile sexual relationship, Axler initiates a threesome with a drunk young woman, ‘Tracy’, whom they pick up at a local inn. The encounter seems to accentuate his growing insecurity. Nonetheless, out of the blue, he suddenly feels all his old confidence return: ‘he imagined Pegeen having a healthy baby the very month that he opened at the Guthrie Theater in the role of James Tyrone … The stretch of bad luck was over.’ Axler is completely restored to himself and consults a specialist about the potential hazards of conceiving a child at his age. But Pegeen abruptly ends the affair. Axler’s new confidence collapses instantaneously. Inaccurately blaming her parents, Axler rages at them over the phone before retreating to his attic with his shotgun. He vacillates until, remembering Sybil Van Buren’s decisive act, ‘finally it occurred to him to pretend that he was committing suicide in a play … it would constitute his return to acting.’ He imagines himself to be Konstantin from The Seagull, his first successful role, picks up the gun and … well, I don’t want to give the end away.

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