by John Boland

Age, illness, loneliness and the troubling persistence of male sexual desire – these have been the preoccupations of Philip Roth throughout the past decade and they remain so in this 140-page novella by the now 76-year-old author. But while there’s been a defiant and eloquent grandeur to some of his recent fiction, which has raged against the dying of the light, The Humbling depends on a scenario that never really persuades and that descends gradually into a bewildering silliness.

This time around, Roth’s alter ego is Simon Axler, “the last of the best of the classical American stage actors,” who at the age of sixty-five is afflicted by a stage fright that has forced him to abandon his profession and seek psychiatric help. After a spell in hospital, he is visited one day at his upstate New York farmhouse by Pegeen, the forty-year old daughter of old theatrical colleagues (they named her after Pegeen Mike in the Synge play) and the two promptly embark on a passionate sexual relationship.

Pegeen is yet another of Roth’s late-career women – “soft and curvaceous,” considerably younger than her aged yet priapic lover and viewed by the author more as an object of desire than a real human being. Indeed, Simon moulds her in much the same way James Stewart moulded Kim Novak in Hitchcock’s Vertigo – buying her chic clothes and paying for a fashionable and more feminine hairstyle.

Pegeen, you see, has been a lesbian for the last seventeen years, though in this age-old male fantasy she succumbs enthusiastically to the power of the penis, about which she marvels “It fills you up, the way dildos and fingers don’t. It’s alive. It’s a living thing.” She’s just as open to anal sex (“It hurts, but it’s you”) and when she asks him to slap her it’s “because it makes me feel like a little girl and it makes me feel like a whore. Go ahead. Harder.” As for her lesbianism, she merely describes it as “my seventeen-year mistake.”

This is all more than a little embarassing and becomes even more so when Simon asks a drunken young woman to join them for a threesome, with Pegeen employing dildos and a cat-o’-nine tails to enhance her contribution to the action before turning to Simon and urging “Your turn. Defile her” as she “gently rolled the stranger’s large, warm body towards his.” Meanwhile, Simon muses that “this was not soft porn,” though that’s precisely the effect.

Soon afterwards, Pegeen summarily dumps Simon in favour of her new conquest (“I made a mistake,” she tells him), leaving him stranded in his farmhouse to contemplate the indignities of age and the idiocy of passion and to contemplate the suicide he’s been toying with throughout the book.

Along the way, there’s much that’s both alert and poignant in Simon’s observations about waning powers and dwindling hopes, but the insights play second fiddle to an old man’s delusions about what women want. And what’s dismaying is that the author seems to share these delusions. Indeed, those admirers who’ve argued  that Roth is long overdue to receive the Nobel prize may wish the Swedish arbiters to quietly forget about this latest book, which doesn’t do him justice.

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