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The Humbling

By Philip Roth
Jonathan Cape £12 99
140 pages

Dateline: 31st January, 2010

For his 30th book, one of the greatest living novelists, Philip Roth, takes as his protagonist Simon Axler, a renowned stage actor who, like Prospero, has "lost his magic".

The first third of what is more a novella in length than a full-scale novel explores the angst that this causes. For Axler, his God-given talent represents far more than just a means of earning a crust. It is also tied up with his personal pride and masculinity.

The consequence of his loss is not only unemployment but the depths of despair that lead him to enter a psychiatric clinic on a voluntarily basis. There, he meets a fellow inmate with far more serious problems, which get played out later in the book. Within a month, he is restored to sanity if not full confidence, despite the efforts of his devoted agent.

The middle section shows us a man still in retirement but for the most part restored. This comes about thanks to an affair with a woman 25 years his junior, the daughter of friends but in the teeth of active opposition from both of her parents, not to mention a crazed former lover.

The heretofore lesbian Pegeen Mike, inevitably named after the character from JM Synge's Playboy of the Western World, seems the solution to almost all of his problems. Axler recreates the 40-year-old as an affluent woman about town and in return, she ensures that the graphically described sex is great, perhaps too great.

In some ways, the latter stages of the book are the most moving as the (relatively) old man is forced to reflect on his life and consider the most appropriate future if he is never again to risk the joys of the limelight. One hopes that it would not be giving too much away to suggest that his solution is more Chekhovian than Shakespearean.

The Humbling provides a remarkable impression of what it must be like for an actor whose natural gift deserts him. As such, there must be a real danger that someone who is already aware of the seeds of self-destruction gnawing away at their confidence could tip over the edge after reading this book.

For anyone else, it should prove a short but rewarding read that might well both shock and amuse, which has been this author's defining talent for five or more decades now.

Philip Fisher

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©Peter Lathan 2010