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The Humbling Hardcover – October 21, 2009

3.1 out of 5 stars 88 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. A deteriorating and increasingly irrelevant actor finds the possibility of renewal in a younger woman in Roth's tight Chekhovian tragedy. At 65, Simon Axler, a formerly celebrated stage actor, is undergoing a crisis: he can no longer act, his wife leaves him and, suicidal, he checks himself into a psych ward. Then he retires to his upstate New York farm to wait for... something, which arrives in the form of Pegeen, daughter of some old theater friends who is now a lithe, full-breasted woman of forty, though with something of a child still in her smile. A Rothian affair ensues, despite (or perhaps because of) their age difference and Pegeen's lesbian past. Axler overlooks all the signs that should warn him not to trust too much in the affair and instead tries out more and more sexual turns with Pegeen (spanking, strap-ons, role play), until one night they pick up a drunk local for a three-way that might prove to be soul-crushing. Roth observes much (about age, success and the sexual credit lovers hold one with another) in little space, and the svelte narrative amounts to an unsparing confrontation of self. (Nov.)
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From Bookmarks Magazine

What happens when a man loses the one thing that defines him as a human being? With nods to Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Shaw, Roth's grim new novel explores this question—with varying success. While the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post praised Roth's elegant writing and caustic wit, other reviewers found the novel superficial and oddly lifeless, citing flat characters, undeveloped plot contrivances, a lack of humor, and a hostile portrayal of homosexuality. Even the graphic sex is "coarse" and "dull," according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Though not his best work, The Humbling may appeal to faithful Roth fans; others should pick up one of his earlier novels.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Trade; First Edition edition (October 21, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0547239696
  • ISBN-13: 978-0547239699
  • Product Dimensions: 7.4 x 5.2 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (88 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,056,100 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Mary Murrey on November 8, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Don't get me wrong. Philip Roth's work deservedly belongs in the category of "Great American Literature", if we insist on such a category. I've always eagerly bought almost all his work--willing to pay for the hardback, I couldn't wait to get my hands on his latest book, and his world. I think his best novel is AMERICAN PASTORAL. This is great literature. But lately.... I don't know. Maybe we should call it the Woody Allen Effect. Old writer/auteur who has written classics, great work, has run out of steam and obsessed with himself and sex with younger women--his major driving force--can only write this theme over and over, which may be fascinating to him, but is borish and repetitive to most others. It's amazing that I haven't seen one negative review of Roth's new novel, THE HUMBLING in any major newspaper or magazine.Maybe the fact that the reviews, such as in the NTY's, are so short say something. I think critics are afraid of him.

The novel starts out well enough, interesting in fact... I believe,for some brief period that I'm with the master Roth, but alas, I'm not. My husband put the novel down on page 9 when we learn summarily that the protagonist's wife of twenty-some years, Victoria, has left without any believable reason other that Roth writes that it is so--i.e. her son's drug problem and her inability to put of his demanding, apparently never-ending negativity. "After the Kennedy Center debacle and his unexpected collapse, Victoria fell apart and fled to California to be close to her son." The entire marriage is summarized in about two pages.

The book is an OUTLINE. I would love to read about the protagonist, Simon Axler--an aging man losing his powers,in this case, his ability to get on the stage and pretend, that is to act.
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Format: Hardcover
You can still feel the Rothian magic in this modern tale of one man's agony and struggle to regain his reknowned reputation as a master of stagecraft. Debilitated by physical and emotional pain, the protagonist reveals his innermost torments as he comes across some unforgettable characters who will play decisive roles in his personal drama. Somewhere between a novella and a longish short story, this book is easily digested in one reading and leaves one with much to think about. Can't really ask for more than that.
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Format: Hardcover
I read the new Philip Roth novel the other day --- it's just 140 pages, with fewer words than usual per page, so you can knock it off in a few hours --- and I'm still disturbed.

This in an improvement over my reaction when I finished it.

I was shaky. Almost shaking.

I hope you will read 'The Humbling' --- I found it to be Roth's best work in years; sentence for sentence, paragraph for paragraph, he's still the most readable serious writer we've got --- but I have a problem saying much about it.

I didn't see the third and last section ("The Final Act") coming. I didn't want the ending to be what it was. Even afterward, I couldn't accept that this was how the story had to end. And I don't want to spoil it for you by describing it in any way.

I feel the same unease in discussing the second section ("The Transformation"), which also came as a surprise to me. In the interest of having it come as a surprise to you, I will speak no more of it here.

Which leaves me to convince you to read this masterful --- and, as I say, very disturbing --- book by discussing only the 43 pages of the first section ("Into Thin Air").

Well, okay. Simon Axler is one of the great stage actors of his generation. But now he's in his mid-60s, and he's adrift. This is how the book starts:

"He'd lost it. The impulse was spent. He'd never failed in the theater, everything he had done had been strong and successful, and then the terrible thing happened: he couldn't act. Going onstage became agony. Instead of the certainty that he was going to be wonderful, he knew he was going to fail. It happened three times in a row. And by the last time nobody was interested, nobody came. He couldn't get over to the audience. His talent was dead.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
That one of our two or three best living literary fiction writers -- author of remarkable works like American Pastoral and Sabbath's Theater -- would let this novella be published is sad. Unless it is, as someone else wrote, a joke on us. By a master joker.

The Humbling centers on an aging (60's is that old?), hugely accomplished, long-acclaimed actor who's "lost his talent" as he repeatedly puts it, and is wrestling with suicidal thoughts.

But from the get go, this premise is difficult to accept, primarily because so little meat is put on its bones. How did Axler get here? We don't know. He apparently is concerned enough to voluntarily institutionalize himself for 27 days, and actually shows mild signs of improvement. But then, home again, how can this former lion of a man immediately return to his simplistic loop of "It's over....It's finished....I'm finished forever with happiness..etc. He goes on this way for months, a person we increasingly experience as a soulless stick figure with a mantra-mindedness that is, simply, unconvincing. Where is the psychological, philosophical and/or historical texture needed for our exploration of this dull, whining guy? Where are the vestiges of the man he was until a year earlier?

In comes the intriguing 40 year old woman, who literally appears on his doorstep. Axler had known her slightly as a girl through her parents, and had learned years before that she was a lesbian. When he asks her months after her unexpected knock at the door, "How come you drove over that afternoon?" she says "I wanted to see if you were with someone." Why him? We don't really know.
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