“As the days dwindle down to a precious few” and one begins to feel the powers of youth slipping away, there are those who choose to keep on fighting the good fight and there are those who succumb to depression. Simon Axler, the protagonist of Philip Roth’s short novel The Humbling, is a well known stage actor now in his 60s, separated from his wife, and as the book opens: he’s lost his “magic.” His latest performances as Prospero and Macbeth at the Kennedy Center have been failures. There was a time when he commanded the stage, when he felt that he lived the characters he portrayed; that time was gone. He feels he can no longer act. “His talent was dead.” His wife unable to deal with his distress, has left him, and he is alone and depressed in an empty house. This is the situation as The Humbling opens.
We follow him to a psychiatric hospital where he seeks help after thoughts of suicide and becomes friendly with a younger woman patient with problems of her own. We see him fall for and have an affair with a younger woman who happens to be the daughter of old friends of his and is running away from a lesbian relationship. We see how the relationship seems to renew his spirit, although it doesn’t do much to renew the magic of his acting. Still, the younger woman is good for him. She allows him to remodel her into the kind of woman he thinks she should be, new clothes, make-up, a $200 hair cut. Nonetheless, she is a younger woman; she is a lesbian — no good can come of this.
The Humbling is a book about a tired man, but it is not a tired book. In many ways it is a powerful demonstration that it is never too late to seek a newer world. You may not be able to find it, but you can try. Like the books of his earlier years, The Humbling plumbs the depths of passions that never quite dry up as we grow older. Approaching our 70s we still need emotional connections, and dare I say it, sexual connections as well. What Roth did for Portnoy as a young man, he does here for the septuagenarian to-be. Sex is not particularly pretty in this book. It is the essence of lust. It is brutal and animalistic. It may well be that these kinds of May-December relationships are doomed even before they begin, as Pegeen Michael (Axler’s new love interest) is warned by her parents. Old men get sick; they get weak. They need to be taken care of. Indeed, one may well question the emotional stability of a young woman willing to tie herself to an aging lover, and in this case make herself over completely. Sill, while it is happening, it not only captures the lovers themselves, it captivates the readers. Caught up in their passion, it is very easy to push the age differences out of your mind.
It is not strange that Roth, approaching his 80s in a few years, should find himself concerned with the problems of aging. Yet if The Humbling is any indication, he personally needn’t worry about the loss of the magic, though there may well be the nagging thought that it might not last. After all, there comes a time when one has to wonder just how long anything can last. In any event, readers have to be thankful that at least for now, the magic is still there.