The Hum­bling

  • Review
By – November 10, 2011

Simon Axler, a dis­tin­guished Amer­i­can actor in his mid-six­ties, has been desert­ed both by his frag­ile wife and by his defin­ing tal­ent: a mag­i­cal on-stage assur­ance which had let him lis­ten and respond with­in the dra­mat­ic moment. No tricks of craft can restore this authen­tic­i­ty, whose loss pos­es the con­tra­dic­to­ry hum­blings of revoked career and prof­fered mod­esty. Axler, feel­ing alone, inau­then­tic and sui­ci­dal, checks into a psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal, where a month of pills, talk, and art work­shops restores sleep. He is returned to his New Eng­land farm­house and his unre­solved predicament.

Enter Pegeen, a forty-year old les­bian and daugh­ter of old friends, who is try­ing to recov­er from two painful involve­ments by mov­ing in with him. Axler, uncom­fort­able with her butch look, lav­ish­es on her a Pra­da makeover and soon enjoys a sex­u­al liai­son, which Pegeen guess­es might last a year. Axler gets a run of thir­teen months — and courts the illu­sion they might sojourn into mar­riage. Then as Pegeen’s les­bian impuls­es reassert them­selves, he sus­tains her arousal first with fan­tasies of a three­some, and then by arrang­ing the real thing, only to be exiled to bed­side voyeurism as she inducts their recruit into les­bian sex. Still he secret­ly fan­ta­sizes a faith­ful Pegeen inspir­ing him to reju­ve­nate him­self, resume his career, and father a child with her. He sur­rep­ti­tious­ly enrolls in a pro­gram of repro­duc­tive coun­sel­ing, only to be jolt­ed back to the abyss when Pegeen informs him the liai­son is over. Fin­ger­ing his old shot­gun, he invokes curs­es on every­one in her life. 

But Philip Roth’s novel­la pro­vides its lead­ing actor with no one to kill but him­self. Fix­at­ed now on clas­sic stage sui­cides and that shot­gun, which Chekhov would insist must go off, Axler per­forms his final authen­ti­cat­ing act. The brief note he leaves is the con­clud­ing speech of The Seag­ull: The fact is, Kon­stan­tin Gavrilovich [Tre­plev] has shot him­self.” Tre­plev, play­wright of no faith” or call­ing,” coa­lesces with Axler, actor of no iden­ti­fied reli­gion or assured voca­tion. By hum­bling this fel­low sojourn­er of an exis­ten­tial­ist world, Roth, who nev­er rein­vents him­self, rei­fies a con­di­tion of that life — that its pass­port be con­tin­u­al­ly revalidated.

Alan Coop­er teach­es Eng­lish at York Col­lege, CUNY. Notable among his numer­ous con­tri­bu­tions to peri­od­i­cals, reviews, and books is his Philip Roth and the Jews (SUNY Press, 1996). His lat­est book is the young-adult nov­el Prince Paskud­nyak and the Giant Bats.

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