Compelling read from Roth

2010-02-24 00:00


The Humbling

Philip Roth

Jonathan Cape

RUNNING to 140 compact pages of ­elegant clear print, The Humbling is more novella than a novel.

Simon ­Axler is a highly successful stage actor who suddenly finds himself unable to perform. His life crumbles, his wife leaves him and he voluntarily signs himself into a psychiatric institution.

Recovered enough to look after himself, Axler leads a hermit-like ­existence into which comes Pegeen, the daughter of old acting friends. He’s 65 while she’s a 40-year-old lesbian fresh from a long affair with a woman who has now decided to become a man. Pegeen determinedly sets about her own gender reassignment and the two embark on a highly charged ­sexual relationship.

At first glance — given the auto­biographical content of his past books — The Humbling looks to be the ­76-year-old Philip Roth pondering his own failing powers (creative? ­sexual?).

He needn’t worry about the ­writing. This is a compelling read, ­although the clinically explicit sexual riffs have come in for critical flak.

The novel is divided, appropriately enough­, ­into three chapters, and the third act packs an oblique but satisfying punch. That said, while an undeniably intriguing tale, The Humbling balks at exploring any of the issues it raises.

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