At 140 pages, Roth’s latest is undoubtedly shorter than the combined review coverage it’s already received. And most of those reviews make it sound like the book’s charms end with its terrific cover. Simon Axler is a great actor who, in his 60s, is suddenly gripped by stage fright (“a symptom of age fright, as it were,” quips one critic), which results in a nervous breakdown. Breakdown completed, Axler does what any Roth protagonist would: he seeks sex with a younger woman, this one a disgruntled lesbian.
Some U.S. papers have adopted a reverential tone. In the L.A. Times, Richard Rayner calls The Humbling “elegant and brutal . . . direct and urgent, a taut and controlled fever-dream that demands to be experienced at a single sitting.” And in the Washington Post, Elaine Showalter says, “[T]he book’s restrained eloquence makes [its] gloomy, over-determined ending convincing and powerful. . . . [Roth’s] ability to inspire, astonish and enrage his readers is undiminished.”
But the majority of the critics express disappointment. In the Boston Globe, Richard Eder is especially put off by the protagonist in “one of Roth’s weakest novels”: “Axler is charmless, an old man of sodden anger and self-pity. Roth has given him no sardonic side trips, no ingenious speculations, no humor. He squats upon his unhappiness like a large bullfrog upon a small lily pad.” It’s William Skidelsky in the Guardian that makes the most convincing and damning case, saying that the novel is “dismayingly poor” by Roth’s standards, and that its plot hinges on a ridiculous, insulting fantasy of an old man turning a lesbian straight.
The Humbling by Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin, 140 pp., $22.00