Cape £12.99

The Humbling, By Philip Roth

An actor, famous and fêted, at the peak of his career, steps on stage one night. Starting to speak, he finds that he simply can't do it any longer. He feels fake, inauthentic, unprepared, and, though he goes through the motions, it becomes apparent that his audience has perceived a change in him, too, and not one for the better. His gift, whatever it was, has gone. How does a life continue when the talent it rested on is abruptly removed?

It's a risky subject for a novelist to take on, but Philip Roth's late career might seem to protect him against any suggestion that the disaster visited on Simon Axler, his actor protagonist, might have happened to him too. At an age when most novelists are happy to go on ploughing familiar ground, Roth's technical command has widened, deepened, and taken on newly ambitious subjects. The novels from 1995's Sabbath's Theater onwards are mesmerisingly good, and it is becoming a global scandal that so masterly a novelist is regularly overlooked for the Nobel Prize in favour of some Teutonic footler or other.

Having said that, The Humbling is not vintage Roth, despite its compelling premise. The bizarre series of episodes – mostly sexual encounters with women – which make up this short novel don't play to Roth's strengths. A mental patient talks Axler through an episode of hideous observed abuse; Axler's wife leaves him; and the lesbian daughter of some old actor friends of his embarks on a complicated and rather brutal affair with him.

In the past, Roth's virtuosity has lain in his densely envisaged fictional world, and in his unmatched ear for dialogue – he is about the only American novelist I can think of who can write a convincing conversation between English characters. Both of those merits have gone here; we don't really know what the setting of each episode looks like, and sometimes Roth seems to have forgotten too. A lengthy dialogue between Axler and his lover's ex neglects, in tone, the fact that Axler is pointing a gun at her all the way through.

When the dialogue falters, it suggests that a character has not really been heard or understood. Axler's lover Pegeen is a lesbian as envisaged by aged heterosexual male novelists, happy to embark on threesomes, to accept more feminine clothes and expensive ladylike haircuts. One of her exes has decided to take hormones, grow a moustache and have a penis installed; another vengefully stalks around in the approved embittered-dyke fashion. None of them seems to talk like a human being: "I watch her in the pool. I watch her in the locker room. A rich kid. A privileged kid. She's never known a minute's hardship. She's perfect. Blond. Crystal blue eyes. Long legs. Strong legs. Perfect breasts."

And when the reader hears Pegeen observe that, "You really think you've fucked the lesbian out of me in 10 months," the deafening clang of sexual agendas being serviced drowns out any more humane voice. When the characters are so clearly puppets, without any power to disagree or act without reference to a single character's needs, we are not going to be moved or affected when they have an affair, walk away or commit suicide; the strings may be cut, but there will be another lot of puppets along in a minute.

As Axler's agent points out, his crisis is not so very unusual; the dream of standing before an audience, unable to act, is a near-universal nightmare. The Humbling disappoints because it avoids these universal implications, and veers off into a baroque world of the unique and fantastic, never quite deigning to make its world concrete or to give its characters the honour of an independent will.

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee