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Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Philip Roth -- The Humbling

The most difficult part of reading "The Humbling" is the excruciatingly painful personal associations to one's own heartbreak experiences.   Philip Roth mixes several levels of reality, no doubt, when depicting his protagonist's sense of being cornered without an exit, and, despite the fact that the reader can anticipate clearly where things are going, the genius of resolving the plot depends on carrying through the "acting/non-acting" dichotomy Roth introduces from the start.  Yet, we find that at the end of the novel, Simon Axler's conviction to his art has never really left the aging actor but rather has been dormant, pulsating throughout the short novel without the reader noticing until the very end.

Suicidal to some small extent, Simon Axler's stay at a psychiatric hospital begins his alteration of reality, a reality he needs to bring back his unconscious ability to act.  He is surrounded everywhere by people whom he thinks are in the process of acting themselves into some sort of life.  Waiting for the doctor, he notes that "Everybody else would be sitting there gloomingly silent, inwardly intense and rehearsing to themselves--in the lexicon of pop psychology or gutter obscenity or Christian suffering or paranoid pathology--the ancient themes of dramatic literature: incest, betrayal, injustice, cruelty, vengeance, jealousy, rivalry, desire, loss, dishonor and grief."  This is an internal observation by Axler that thunders of paradox--he's a man trying to find his way back to his art (acting) painfully aware of others' ability to act a part according to their circumstances.  What Axler fails to see in this passage is that these are not actors, nor is it amateurs trying to act a role of sorts--these are people living real life, the very problem Axler ignores about his own situation.  His is not a problem of art/acting but of life.  At the hospital he meets a woman, Sybil Van Buren, whose new husband sexually abused her daughter and she turned a blind eye of sorts out of cowardice, or so she explains her dilemma.  Her own shame demands she right the wrong by committing murder, even asking Simon Axler if he would undertake the task of killing her husband.  The pattern of "sub-plot-appearance-tell-me-your-story-pause-come-back-a-little-later" is obvious enough, but as Axler leaves the hospital, the reader encounters "the meat" of the novel and quickly forgets about Sybil's issues.

Axler becomes involved with a woman 25 years younger than him; 40 years old Pegeen Mike Stapleford is the daughter of old friends of his whom Axler has seen grown up over the years.  She is also a lesbian, and, despite the underpinnings of what occurs to them as they become intimate, Pegeen never strays away from her past to commit to Axler's life.  The sexual adventuring they engage in occupies a small part of the narrative, albeit explicitly detailed.  Yet, as Axler puts all his proverbial eggs in one basket, the writing is fluid enough and its currents share the secret of what is about to happen.  Pegeen's parents object to the relationship, of course, but it is Pegeen who shows her real self at the end when she (as she done quite a few times before) picks up and leaves with little or no explanation.  This, of course, pushes Axler over the top and he concludes to commit suicide once and for all.  Before he works up the courage to do so, he calls Pegeen's parents and goes into shameful rants.  This is the part where the reader considers how, at one point or another, he/she has behaved in such a deplorable fashion.  We've all had moments we are not very proud of, and the extent of Axler's behavior can take a reader back--way back--to those experiences, especially when the writing is this good and clear.  

Simon Axler reads of Sybil Van Buren's case on a local newspaper--she had shot her husband and was now awaiting trial for murder.  She (and not Axler's own pain) is the catalyst of the protagonist's suicide.  "Sybil Van Buren became the benchmark of courage. He repeated the inspiring formula to action [if she can do that, I can do this!], as though a simple word or two could get him to accomplish the most unreal of all things: if she could do that, I can do this, if she could do that... until finally it occurred to him to pretend that he was committing suicide in a play. In a play by Chekhov. What would be more fitting? It would constitute his return to acting, and, preposterous, disgraced, feeble little being that he was, a lesbian's thirteen-month mistake, it would take everything in him to get the job done. To succeed one last time to make the imagined real he would have to pretend that the attic was a theater and that he was Kostantin Gavrilovich Treplev in the concluding scene of 'The Seagull.'"  And he does commit suicide.  What is not clear at the end of the novel is how much of reality vs acting the protagonist exercises.  Philip Roth is among the best writers of his generation mainly because of techniques such as the one in "The Humbling."  While the text is literal enough to conclude the magnitude of Axler's actions, the underlying philosophical/existential/real vs imagined doubts Roth plants inside the reader's mind is enough to wrench us with both pain and exhilaration, love and hate, anger and peace with one's self. 

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At 8:37 AM, Blogger Simon Barrett said...

OK, how come you write favourite the British way, you rebel you, and how come I can't search for, say, any comments you had on Zbigniew Herbert's Still Life with a Bridle? Do you know Guy Davenport's Objects on a Table? Now he was a formidable intellect - but nice with it


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