Philip Roth – The Humbling

rothhumbling He would hear the cue coming closer and closer and know that he couldn’t do it. He waited for the freedom to begin and the moment to become real, he waited to forget who he was and to become the person doing it, but instead he was standing there, completely empty, doing the kind of acting you do when you don’t know what you are doing. He could not give and he could not withhold; he had no fluidity and he had no reserve. Acting became a night-after-night exercise in trying to get away with something.

The Humbling

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In the course of moving Bluestalking from Typepad to WordPress I’ve stumbled upon a few posts in which I’ve talked about disliking a certain author or book, sometimes for reasons I can articulate easily and others for reasons less obvious, more complex, less easily understood .

In this case, my nemesis is Philip Roth. And it’s quite easy expressing why I dislike him.

Previously, as I wrote in the old post, I’d read only Portnoy’s Complaint, the story of a young man who does little else save “wax his rocket,” or think about it, over the course of the entire damn novel. Prude I am not but neither can I abide the sexual ramblings of a character I greatly dislike, who repulses me without ever having compelled me in the first place.

It has a dirty old man/sex addict quality that makes my flesh crawl, even if the character isn’t old. Maybe I skimmed it too quickly (once I realized how repulsive it was) to get the point of it (I was holding it away from me, grasping it only by the corners to keep from touching it so as not to contract anything vicariously) but I don’t care enough to try again. Not worth my time.

Portnoy’s popularity continues to baffle me. It’s supposed to be funny and all that but I find it just plain grotesque. It could be argued Lolita is written in the same basic grain – worse, actually, when it comes down to it – but Nabokov’s work is a masterpiece featuring the deft skill of writing from the perspective of an unreliable narrator – very hard to pull off. Portnoy was nauseating, Lolita a work of genius.

Roth is no Nabokov. Argue if you will.

But while the American-Jewish novelist has thus had a subject, though he has been searching diligently, questing imaginatively, he has lacked an ideal form. Now, with “Portnoy’s Complaint,” Philip Roth (“Goodbye Columbus,” “Letting Go,” “When She Was Good”) has finally come up with the existentially quintessential form for any American-Jewish tale bearing–or baring–guilt. He has done so by simply but brilliantly casting his American Jewish hero–so obviously long in need of therapy–upon a psychoanalyst’s couch (the current American-Jewish equivalent of the confessional box) and allowed him to rant and rave and rend himself there. The result is not only one of those bullseye hits in the ever-darkening field of humor, a novel that is playfully and painfully moving, but also a work that is certainly catholic in appeal, potentially monumental in effect–and, perhaps more important, a deliciously funny book, absurd and exuberant, wild and uproarious.

The New York Times, 1969

What?

I know I need not agree with all critics but it drives me positively mad my reaction to Portnoy bears no resemblance to the majority of reviewers and readers. I have to learn to accept that, to suppose my WASP background is so far removed from the Jewish experience I simply cannot fathom the supposedly masterful way it portrays the culture of that ethnicity. And it is true there’s a certain brand of humor I don’t find funny, a dark, often unfamiliar, ethnic-based and male-centric brand of writing I dislike. Portnoy clearly falls into this category.

Yet, I was reluctant to give up on Roth. Would he have been so lauded if he had written nothing worth reading? Nothing that appeals to those who don’t find themselves fascinated by the sexual dreams of a young man fixated on lust and built up hormones?

Searching through my book collection for another book by Roth, I stumbled upon The Humbling in my bedroom bookcase. I bought it for a pittance, back when Borders went out of business (moment of silence). Now that I’ve read it I ask myself Why, Why did I buy it, even when they were practically giving the thing away, it was so cheap:

Starred Review. A deteriorating and increasingly irrelevant actor finds the possibility of renewal in a younger woman in Roth’s tight Chekhovian tragedy. At 65, Simon Axler, a formerly celebrated stage actor, is undergoing a crisis: he can no longer act, his wife leaves him and, suicidal, he checks himself into a psych ward. Then he retires to his upstate New York farm to wait for… something, which arrives in the form of Pegeen, daughter of some old theater friends who is now a lithe, full-breasted woman of forty, though with something of a child still in her smile. A Rothian affair ensues, despite (or perhaps because of) their age difference and Pegeen’s lesbian past. Axler overlooks all the signs that should warn him not to trust too much in the affair and instead tries out more and more sexual turns with Pegeen (spanking, strap-ons, role play), until one night they pick up a drunk local for a three-way that might prove to be soul-crushing. Roth observes much (about age, success and the sexual credit lovers hold one with another) in little space, and the svelte narrative amounts to an unsparing confrontation of self. (Nov.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

An affair with the daughter of old friends. A woman he’d last seen nursing at her mother’s breast. Granted, she was 40 and my lack of prudishness alone isn’t enough for that to bother me – beyond a brief shiver. It was the writing, the sudden switch from a well-drawn character to the appearance even Roth had grown tired of writing the book. Flat, flat, flat. Clunky and amateurish. This should never have been a final draft.

The side character Sybil Van Buren manages to be more interesting from the background than main character Simon Axler. Now her story I’d like to hear more about. Roth gives us just enough to make her interesting, then out of the picture she goes.

Bookmarks magazine had this to say:

What happens when a man loses the one thing that defines him as a human being? With nods to Shakespeare, Chekhov and Shaw, Roth’s grim new novel explores this question – with varying success. While the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post praised Roth’s elegant writing and caustic wit, other reviewers found the novel superficial and oddly lifeless, citing flat characters, a lack of humor and a caustic portrayal of homosexuality. Even the graphic sex is “coarse” and “dull,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Though not his best work, The Humbling may appeal to Roth fans; others should pick up one of his earlier novels.

I’d say no one should pick up any of Roth’s novels, in my own admittedly biased opinion. What I’ve read has been grotesque and coarse. Awful. Though Roth did start out well, creating a very sympathetic and despairing, aging actor at the end of his career, he went off in a course so demeaning and sickening there’s no way I’d ever recommend this book to anyone.

I rarely condemn an author’s entire oeuvre (have I ever done so before?) but I feel confident doing so with Philip Roth. At some point, and for some reason, he became an untouchable, a writer with the reputation of being a genius. I don’t know, maybe at one time that was true but obviously he grew too big to be edited.

This happens with lots of writers. Look at JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. DREADFUL. No one dared touch her now that she’s a superstar. Anyone care to tell the diva she’s created something vile? RIGHT. That could happen.

Yet, I did buy her latest, The Cuckoo’s Calling, written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. (Side note: it already has almost 900 reviews on Amazon and is sitting on a four-star rating: 477 5-star, 65 1-star, etc.) This is her last chance with me, in her writing for adults at least. If this mystery is as big and clunky as The Casual Vacancy I can do without her.

The Humbling may well be my worst read of the year. It is so far and it would be difficult to beat. That’s one distinction. I have at least one more Roth in my collection. Maybe two.

Half Price Books will have them as soon as I can locate both. Good luck to his next reader.

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One thought on “Philip Roth – The Humbling

  1. Thank you for your candor on Roth. The Humbling was on my wish list. Not any more. If you want to give him one more try, get The Dying Animal.

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