This week, Umapagan Ampikaipakan takes a look at the last two offerings by one of America’s greatest living authors
by Philip Roth
(140 pages, Jonathan Cape)
PHILIP Roth’s The Humbling begins in decline. Simon Axler is in his mid-60s. He is the greatest of the classical American stage actors. He isn’t the best of the last, but the last of the best.
He was Falstaff. He was Vanya. He was Peer Gynt. But when the novel opens to us, he is barely even Prospero, let alone Macbeth. He has lost it. “His talent was dead.” And it happened, ironically, predictably, in the most dramatic fashion.
It was at the Kennedy Centre, during a demanding double bill of Shakespeare, when Axler has a nervous breakdown. He is unable to memorise his lines. He is unable to perform on stage. “It happened three times in a row, and by the last time nobody was interested, nobody came.”
He begins to question himself, his talent, his usefulness. He becomes doubtful and depressed as he bears witness, first hand, to his degeneration.
“When you’re playing the role of somebody coming apart, it has organisation and order. When you’re observing yourself coming apart, playing the role of your own demise, that’s something else, something awash with terror and fear.”
And so we find him alone. We find him suicidal. Yet he can’t quite bring himself to kill himself. It is yet another failure, another role he cannot perform. And so he indulges in something that is possibly even more destructive. He holes up in his rural home and begins a sordid affair with the daughter of two old friends. She is 25 years his junior and, until that point, a life-long lesbian.
His challenge is to restore her femininity. Her challenge is to renew his confidence. Faithless, fruitless efforts both.
The novel is a reflection upon its own title. The Humbling. What effect does such forced humility have on a man? It is a meditation on suicide. On being able to take control of at least one thing when everything else seems to be spinning out of control. It is a smutty sexual fantasy.
We know how it’s going to end. Right from the outset. It is an inevitability. Like Willy Loman, like Joe Keller, like Don Parritt. But after all this time, after 30 novels, Roth is still able to walk you there without any feeling of familiarity, without any semblance of worn weariness. He does it with his typically controlled language, with his uncomfortably startling revelations.
by Philip Roth
(280 pages, Houghton
OUR hero is 23-year-old Bucky Cantor, beautiful, strong, unflinchingly dutiful, unquestionably patriotic. He would have been the perfect soldier, fighting the good fight against Adolf Hitler, if only it weren’t for his appalling eyesight. Something that renders him classified 4-F and exempt from the draft. A good fortune that leaves him ashamed and unworthy. So much so that he dedicates his every care and attention to being the best and most energetic physical education teacher and playground director he can be. He is a role model to the children he looks after.
He is a model grandson to the man and woman who raised him, who saved him. He is a good man. He is heroic to a fault.
Philip Roth builds him up in such a way for a reason. To painfully demonstrate how such virtues, how duty and obligation, how loyalty and goodness, can turn bitter and resentful when faced with uncertainty and risk, with danger.
In this case, it happens when the menace of polio creeps into the picturesque suburbs of Northern New Jersey. First one child dies. Then another. And as the disease begins to spread uncontrollably through the young citizenry of Weequahic, Bucky begins to succumb to this new strain of fear. He finds his ideals challenged. He begins to question everything he knows.
Polio, in this case, is merely the McGuffin. It is the device that serves as a trigger for the plot. The novel could just as well have been set at any time and in any place. In New York, after 9/11.
In Mexico, during H1N1. In China, during SARS. He steeps his protagonist in uncertainty, in circumstances far beyond his control. He threatens his resolve. He makes him question God.
As the novel progresses, Bucky faces a crisis of existential proportions. He experiences every possible stage — of denial, of anger, of bargaining, of depression, of acceptance.
This is an exceptionally restrained novel. The prose is deceptively simple, so much so that there are times when the novel feels like it lacks ambition. But do not let that fool you. For this is a novel of incredible clarity. It is precise. It is focused. It once again takes the everyman and forces him to come to terms with the extraordinary moral dilemmas of self.