Philip Roth has never been afraid to write about anything, particularly when it comes to sex. Portnoy’s Complaint was only the beginning. Portnoy’s dalliance with a cold steak was nothing compared to the narrator’s onanistic grief at the graveside of his dead lover in Sabbath’s Theater 26 years later. He’s also taken his lumps from women critics and feminists, who regularly — and cluelessly — complain that he’s never drawn a compelling female character, not apparently having read anything but The Breast, Our Gang, and The Great American Novel.
That Roth has now written a book that, in part, explores the notion that lesbianism can for some women be a matter of choice, I do not consider willful provocation on his part. In his 70s and, astonishingly, publishing a book every year or two, Roth is not only still writing with mastery, but he continues to brave any and every aspect of the human experience, however much it might sting the sensibilities of others.
The Humbling centers on Simon Axler, a stage and screen actor of near legendary stature, who, now in his 60s, has earned the “reputation as the last of the best of the classical American stage actors.” The novel begins: “He’d lost his magic.” Simon is suffering from extreme self-consciousness, which has robbed him of his spontaneity and intuition on stage, leaving him revealed on the boards as a fake, apparent to critics and audiences alike, as well as himself.
He couldn’t act. The ways he could once rivet attention on the stage! And now he dreaded every performance, and dreaded it all day long. He spent the entire day thinking thoughts he’d never thought before a performance in his life: I won’t make it, I won’t be able to do it, I’m playing the wrong roles, I’m overreaching, I’m faking, I have no idea even of how to do the first line.
After a fiasco performing Prospero and MacBeth at the Kennedy Center, Simon all but collapses, which causes his wife, a former ballerina, to flee to her drug-addled son in California, never to return. On the verge of suicide, with a gun in the attic, Simon commits himself to a mental hospital, where he gradually regains some equilibrium, and during his stay befriends Sybil, a young woman whose mental problems stem from finding her second husband abusing her daughter from her first marriage, and her inability to do anything about it.
Back at home, Simon resists the efforts of his agent to get back to work and is one day visited by “lithe, full-breasted” Pegeen Stapleford, the daughter of two actors he’d worked with years ago. She is gay and 40 and on the rebound from a long-term relationship with another woman, who has left her to go through a sex-change operation. From the beginning, we understand that she is going through her own mid-life crisis. She stays for dinner and they are lovers before dinner is over.
Months later he’d say to her, “How come you drove over that afternoon?” “I wanted to see if anyone was with you?” “And when you saw?” “I thought, Why not me?” “You calculate like that all the time?” “It isn’t calculation. It’s pursuing what you want. And,” she concluded, “not pursuing what you no longer want.”
Simon and Pegeen settle into near domesticity, the latter taking over two rooms in Simon’s old country home. “During the first few months they rarely got out of bed before noon. They couldn’t leave each other alone.” Simon showers her with gifts of fine clothing and an expensive new haircut — all to accentuate her femininity. He spends a small fortune with eagerness, and she accepts the changes they make in her appearance with gratitude, and feminine pride.
But then Pegeen’s thick brown shiny hair was cut — cut to below the base of her neck in a choppy way so none of the layers were even, a look that gave her precisely the right cared-for devil-may-care air of slight dishevelment — and she seemed so transformed that all these unanswered questions ceased to trouble him; they did not even require serious thought. It took her a little longer than it took him to be convinced that the two of them had chosen correctly, but in only a few days the haircut and all it signified about her allowing him to shape her, to determine what she should look like and advance an idea of what her true life was, appeared to have become more than just acceptable. Perhaps because she looked so great in his eyes she did not bridle at continuing to submit to his ministrations, alien though that might have been to a lifelong sense of herself. If indeed hers was the will that was submitting — if indeed it wasn’t she who had taken him over completely, taken him up and taken him over.
Among other things, this passage, with all its depth of insight, psychological complexity, and prose purity, displays the author’s seriousness dealing with a touchy subject.
There are complications, of course. Pegeen’s parents disapprove and begin to campaign against the relationship, and she is being stalked by her most recent female lover, the dean of the school where she teaches — who has in fact secured her the job and is bitter and angry at having been deserted.
The reader begins to worry about where this is going long before Simon does, and even Pegeen’s injection into their love play of ménage a trois fantasies doesn’t begin to concern Simon until it’s too late. The reappearance of Sybil, from the mental institution, and the resolution of her own personal destiny, foreshadows Simon’s ultimate fate.
To reveal any more would be to reveal too much (if I haven’t already).
The Humbling is a fine new addition to Roth’s growing shelf of novellas, including Goodbye, Columbus, The Prague Spring, The Dying Animal, and Everyman. Some of our greatest writers have written great novellas, including Henry James’ Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw, William Styron’s The Long March, Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. Roth’s output in this hybrid form is every bit their equal.
The Humbling is also, along with three of its predecessors, The Dying Animal, Everyman, and Exit Ghost, part of an ongoing project — a meditation in various modes and tropes on the failing powers, physical, sexual, mental, and emotional, that result from the aging process. I hesitate to say that they are also about death. In these books, death is the darkening shadow trailing behind Roth’s fading figures of life.
The objection, which has already been raised by William Sidelsky in The Guardian, that the novel is nothing more than a male fantasy “that a lesbian can be ‘turned’ by a real, potent man”, is nonsense. That is not only not what the novel is about — though it is, in part, about how heterosexual men can and do fall genuinely in love with homosexual women — such a charge fails to recognize both Pegeen’s volition (no homosexual has ever tried to embrace heterosexuality?) and, more importantly, her importance as a metaphor for Simon’s larger dilemma.
By the end of the novel, it’s clear that Pegeen’s failed attempt to find the heterosexual within is a mirror image of Simon’s professional psychological trauma. While she attempts willfully to challenge what is innate and natural in her makeup, and fails, Simon has lost his innate abilities, his natural talent, and he can do nothing to regain it. His pursuit of Pegeen is his pursuit of his lost genius. In the end, his failure to convert Pegeen not only confirms her own true nature to herself, but, in stark contrast, reveals Simon’s own loss of what has made him most alive and most truly himself — and with devastating consequences.
So, for those who wish to condemn the book, remember that its title is neither The Triumph nor The Conquest, after all.