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The Humbling | [Philip Roth]

The Humbling

Everything is over for Simon Axler. One of the leading American stage actors of his generation, now in his 60s, he has lost his magic, his talent, and his assurance. His Falstaff and Peer Gynt and Vanya, all his great roles, "are melted into air, into thin air". When he goes on stage he feels like a lunatic and looks like an idiot. His confidence in his powers has drained away; he imagines people laughing at him; he can no longer pretend to be someone else.
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Audible Editor Reviews

An actor loses his magic touch. A mother uncovers a horrific secret. A lover unleashes powerful, hidden desires.

Every action has consequences.

Every word counts.

These are the essential ingredients of The Humbling, a riveting, unflinching novel by Philip Roth, America's greatest living novelist. Many eminent writers Roth's age (76) have long since settled into the role of the polite, genteel elder statesman. Not Roth. His books still sizzle with raw emotions and stark language which possess the power to shock and enthrall listeners. This decade alone, Roth has produced one startling masterpiece after another. The Plot Against America and Everyman stand out in particular. Add The Humbling near the top of this elite list of remarkable books.

Written in a commanding, powerful voice, this compact novel revolves around acting legend Simon Axler, who has suddenly lost his ability to act. "instead of the certainty that he was going to be wonderful, he knew he was going to fail," the narrator intones. Axler's mysterious, artistic paralysis leads to the dissolution of his marriage and lands him in a psychiatric hospital. There he meets Sybil Van Buren, a suburban housewife suffering from the effects of accidentally uncovering a disturbing family secret. But soon after leaving the hospital, another woman, Pegeen Stapleford, plays a more prominent role in the daily drama of Axler's life. The grown daughter of Axler's longtime friends, Pegeen ignites dormant desires in Axler and introduces more exotic ones he didn't even know existed inside him — producing dramatic consequences in "the last act", Roth writes, as if the novel were a play.

That's actually the best way to approach this book, as if it's a classic, three-act play. And the audio version of The Humbling perfectly captures the book's theatrical quality and illustrates the dramatic power of Roth's writing. Listening to the book, Roth's simple, elegant sentences flow seamlessly from one line to the next.

And like any great script, it takes a great actor to bring a writer's words to life. Luckily, Dick Hill was chosen to narrate The Humbling, and he delivers an astounding performance. He reads each word with conviction, transforming the people on the page into full-throated, three-dimensional characters. You truly believe the rush of chaotic feelings and emotions Axler and the other characters experience throughout the novel. Hill makes every syllable ring true, like a great, booming stage actor reciting the pitch-perfect dialogue of Chekhov or Shakespeare.

ironically, the book revolves around Axler's sudden inability to convincingly portray characters in these same classic works. Fortunately for us, Roth retains the power to tap into his own deep, creative well and magically emerge again and again with another artistic milestone. —Ken Ross

Publisher's Summary

Everything is over for Simon Axler, the protagonist of Philip Roth's startling new book. One of the leading American stage actors of his generation, now in his 60s, he has lost his magic, his talent, and his assurance. His Falstaff and Peer Gynt and Vanya, all his great roles, "are melted into air, into thin air". When he goes on stage he feels like a lunatic and looks like an idiot. His confidence in his powers has drained away; he imagines people laughing at him; he can no longer pretend to be someone else. "Something fundamental has vanished." His wife has gone, his audience has left him, his agent can't persuade him to make a comeback.

Into this shattering account of inexplicable and terrifying self-evacuation bursts a counterplot of unusual erotic desire, a consolation for the bereft life so risky and aberrant that it points not toward comfort and gratification but to a yet darker and more shocking end. In this long day's journey into night, told with Roth's inimitable urgency, bravura, and gravity, all the ways that we persuade ourselves of our solidity, all our life's performances - talent, love, sex, hope, energy, reputation - are stripped off.

Following the dark meditations on mortality and endings in Everyman and Exit Ghost, and the bitterly ironic retrospective on youth and chance in Indignation, Roth has written another in his haunting group of late novels.

©2009 Phillip Roth; (P)2009 Brilliance Audio, Inc.

What the Critics Say

“Creating distinctive characters is one of the gratifying gifts in the arsenal of a talented narrator. But more important in the case of a work by a literary giant is capturing the author's unique sensibility. That is what makes Dick Hill such a splendid reader of Roth's novels…As a character, Axler is exasperating and foolish, but in Hill's performance, mesmerizing.” (AudioFile)

“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.” (Publisher’s Weekly, starred review)

“his thirtieth book is brief and perfectly so…Using spare prose, he makes the situation only as poignant as it deserves to be…Roth’s voice, long heard and long appreciated, remains profound. (Booklist)

What Members Say

Average Customer Rating

3.4 (32 )
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  •  
    marnie seattle, WA, United States 01-28-11
    marnie seattle, WA, United States 01-28-11 Member Since 2006
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Dick Hill destroys The Humbling"

    I love Philip Roth and feel like I just heard someone completely destroy his written word. Here is an example of what can go wrong with audio books. I don't even know if I like The Humbling or not. I downloaded this over a year ago and started listening and realized Dick Hill was not up to the task of reading Philip Roth. So, now, a year later I was stuck on a plane and this is all I had left. My first impression was correct. He absolutely destroys the female characters as they all sound like wilting little flowers. He absolutely destroys sex scenes. And, worst of all, he takes on the voice of Axler, a great stage actor and makes him sound like a cartoon. Well, that was excruciating. Horrible.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Ry Bellingham, WA, United States 11-21-09
    Ry Bellingham, WA, United States 11-21-09
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Flawed novel but it's worth finishing"

    If you know the work of Philip Roth you're probably aware of the cringe-inducing sex scenes and the female characters that aren't fully realized. Nontheless, this is a serious and profound book, and I think I will still remember it ten years from now, and want to listen to it again.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Purchaser san francisco 01-28-11
    Purchaser san francisco 01-28-11 Member Since 2006
    HELPFUL VOTES
    1
    ratings
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    7
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    FOLLOWING
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    "Dick Hill destroys The Humbling"

    I love Philip Roth and feel like I just heard someone completely destroy his written word. Here is an example of what can go wrong with audio books. I don't even know if I like The Humbling or not. I downloaded this over a year ago and started listening and realized Dick Hill was not up to the task of reading Philip Roth. So, now, a year later I was stuck on a plane and this is all I had left. My first impression was correct. He absolutely destroys the female characters as they all sound like wilting little flowers. He absolutely destroys sex scenes. And, worst of all, he takes on the voice of Axler, a great stage actor and makes him sound like a cartoon. Well, that was excruciating. Horrible.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Nancy Santa Monica, CA, United States 01-16-10
    Nancy Santa Monica, CA, United States 01-16-10

    SoCalNanynan

    ratings
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    22
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    Overall
    "The Humbling humbles"

    I found this Phillip Roth book uninteresting and hard to follow. Not one of the best of Roth's endeavors.

    0 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    JOHN H. RUSSELL III 01-05-10 Member Since 2008
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    Overall
    "slow"

    A good bedtime story for me.

    0 of 1 people found this review helpful
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  • Amazon Customer
    United Kingdom
    11/1/11
    Overall
    "Roth newbies start elsewhere"

    The Humbling follows a trajectory those familiar with Roth's later work will be accustomed to.

    Simon Axler is a successful stage actor in his mid-60s. However, after struggling with spinal problems and several poor reviews he suffers a crisis of confidence so debilitating his wife flees and he winds up admitting himself to a psychiatric institution. In an art therapy class there he meets Sybil, also depressed after discovering her husband abusing their daughter.

    Amazingly for a Roth protagonist, Simon doesn't sleep with Sybil and in fact turns down her request that he murder her husband. On release and moping about at home, the normal course of events for a Roth novel are restored. Simon is visited by Pegeen, the daughter of a mutual friend and a lesbian, but not now she's met Simon, even though he's 25 years her senior! Pegeen's lover Louise, also her boss at the college where she teaches, is understandably upset and tells all to Pegeen's parents, who were unaware of her previous sexual orientation and now must deal not only with this but the fact she's now having an affair with the much older Simon and wants to have his child.

    Simon and Pegeen act upon a fantasy to have a threesome, affecting the dynamic of their affair which Pegeen then breaks off. This, in essence, is Simon's humbling.

    This is the first duffer I've read from Roth; even his usual fluid prose, still present, can't save it. His late work usually teeters on the brink of descending into dirty old man fantasies but sadly this one oversteps the line without the saving grace of having his protagonist raging eloquently against his failing body and the dying of the light as in Everyman and The Human Stain. both superior 21st century Roth.

    At less than 4 hours, I'm afraid it smacks of "will this do?" and suggests Roth, now 78 and still churning out a book a year might be well advised to slow down and focus on quality, not quantity.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
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