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Still ferocious and looking for love

By Elaine Showalter
Wednesday, November 4, 2009

When the aging heroes of Philip Roth's late fiction succumb to despair, they seek redemption and renewal not through work, therapy, charity, fellowship or family but through an affair with a younger woman. The woman must meet certain conditions: She must be unattainable, foreign, the wrong class or the wrong religion, and ideally the affair must be clandestine and taboo. However ecstatic, moreover, the affair cannot work out, or it may become a marriage and dwindle from its unique status to become merely "one more of the many millions of stories of unhappily entwined men and women." Such a rigid pattern dooms these men to failure, and Roth presents their fate as the inescapable condition of aging.

In his new novella, "The Humbling," a great actor named Simon Axler suddenly loses his stage confidence and has a breakdown so severe that he commits himself to a psychiatric clinic for 26 days. Roth structures the book tightly and dramatically, in three parts or acts, and draws upon classical drama from Sophocles to Shakespeare to O'Neill for parallels. Simon is a deeply flawed tragic hero; suicidally depressed, he is also an isolated, self-tormenting, narcissistic fantasist who refuses his agent's constructive advice about facing up to his stage fright and making a comeback.

Instead, holed up in his rural home after his release, he begins a passionate affair with Pegeen, the lesbian daughter of two old friends. She is 40, he is in his mid-60s, so this is not so extreme a match in terms of age. But Simon attempts to transform Pegeen into the hyperfeminine antithesis of her former sexual self, while her role is to restore his virility and his professional assurance. He believes that erotic desire and sexual renewal will cure his fears of humiliation, failure, mortality and all the slings and arrows that flesh is heir to. We readers know it will not.

The bleak conclusion of this parable is inevitable and almost schematic: In Part 3, after trying a sadomasochistic threesome and then, in an extraordinary gesture for the paradigmatic Roth hero, seriously contemplating fatherhood, Simon crashes to earth. He cannot perform on the stage, and when the artist can no longer create, Roth suggests, he has nothing to live for. Yet the book's restrained eloquence makes this gloomy, over-determined ending convincing and powerful. "The Humbling" is Roth's 30th book, and his seventh in this decade alone. At 76, he is still a literary colossus, whose ability to inspire, astonish and enrage his readers is undiminished.

Showalter is the author, most recently, of "A Jury of Her Peers: Celebrating American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx."

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