Jonathan Cape 12.99 (140pp) 11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Humbling, By Philip Roth

When a great performer fluffs the lines of his life

A couple of years ago, before he provocatively scolded US literature as "too insular and ignorant" to rival Europe, I took part in a discussion about book prizes with the then secretary of the Swedish Academy, Horace Engdahl. His fellow panellists, and the audience, wanted to know about Philip Roth. Had the Academy secretly banned the saturnine magus of American fiction from ever winning the Nobel? Not so, Engdahl assured us; no hidden obstacle stood in Roth's way.

Yet the Nobel still eludes him. This month, when Herta Mller accepted it, critics across the Atlantic renewed their fire at the Academy for its alleged anti-American above all, anti-Roth prejudices. The strange thing about this clash-of-civilisations spat is that neither side seems to have paid heed to Roth's recent work. Since, half a decade ago, The Plot Against America ended a spectacular run of high-energy, wide-angle masterworks that began with American Pastoral, Roth has almost become a postwar "European" writer of a quite familiar kind.

Exit Ghost briefly reprised the "counterlife" conventions of his Zuckerman novels, while Indignation fused fragments of history into a distorted mirror of memory. Everyman and now The Humbling deliver in slim and grim epitomes the "information" about waning powers, dwindling hopes and the inevitable end of art and love. Anyone who admires the tormented subjectivity, existential dread, winnowed language and corrosive gallows humour of, say, Thomas Bernhard and Samuel Beckett should feel at home in late Roth.

The Humbling shares with both Beckett and Bernhard a preoccupation with suicide a motif "fundamental to the drama" of the Western theatre, thinks its thwarted actor hero. Simon Axler, the "last of the best" of American classical actors, has "lost his magic". At 65, this giant of the stage, revered for his Falstaff and his Vanya, has "failed appallingly" with both Prospero and Macbeth. Where acting once meant to him an "instinct" that made performance true, now he feels an utter fake who simply mouths dead words. His art never promised any "ironclad security", and the frail gift has fled.

Deeply depressed, his dancer wife gone, a martyr to back-pain, Simon in the first act of this consciously stagey piece checks into a psychiatric hospital and meets troubles deeper than his own. The friend he finds at the clinic lost her mental footing when she found her surgeon husband abusing their eight-year-old girl. As Simon reflects, as late Roth often affirms, "everything gruesome must be squarely faced".

Yet soon the skies brighten. Free of the therapeutic fetters, encouraged by his agent into planning a hunt for his "mislaid" talent via (of all roles) James Tyrone in O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night, Simon retires to his country home and there begins an affair with the hoydenish 40-year-old daughter of - far less successful - theatrical friends. Pegeen, however, has been a lesbian for the past 17 years.

Act Two of The Humbling takes shape as a wild, skittering erotic scherzo. To please him, Pegeen for her hetero comeback sheds her sensible waterproofs, buzz cuts and hiking boots for a girly-girl masquerade of "soft and curvaceous and enticing" femininity, from the shoulder-length "thick brown hair with a natural sheen" enhanced by a top-dollar New York salon through the "luxurious lingerie to replace the sports bras" down to her Prada pumps.

To please him, to play a role, or to take a vacation? Roth in the bedroom still has an undimmed capacity to annotate the shifting power-plays of desire. The most absurd-sounding passages here (and they do get pretty silly: "'It fills you up,' she said, 'the way dildos and fingers don't. It's alive.") send out risky sparks of irony and parody that, we know, will eventually ignite.

Sex becomes an intimate theatre, his new roles humbling but liberating Simon. He dreams it might lead him back into more public parts - even that of elderly fatherhood. But who is directing this X-rated revue? Younger, and stronger, Pegeen, who feels to her lover like some "magical composite of shaman, acrobat and animal", blocks the moves out in advance. A casual threesome with a drunk blonde picked up in a bar veers into the finale many readers might expect. So ends the old lion's "reclamation of exuberance".

Now the last scenes beckon, with Chekhov not O'Neill as his guide. "The culprit wasn't Pegeen," the actor thinks. "The failures were his, as was the bewildering biography on which he was impaled". That sentence runs, and ends, as only Roth would choose. Yes, The Humbling takes his hero down to a naked place where self and skill evaporate: the word "nobody" tolls like a Beckettian bell. But the show for Simon, for Roth, for fiction must go on. Happy they are not, but Roth's senior endings won't quite rise to tragedy. The rest is not silence. The remorseless old comedian publishes a 31st book next year. Its title will be Nemesis.

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