The previous book of Philip Roth that I read was The Plot Against America which a historical ‘what-if’ type of story describing an alternative path that the American history could have taken in the period at the start of the second world war, and speculating about the possible fate of his own self and family in that hypothetical loop of history. It’s also the last solid and long breath novel that Roth has written to date. What followed were a cycle of four novels (until now), much shorter in length, closer to novellas in size, and more personal in subjects. The Humbling is the third novel in this latest cycle, and the 30th of the author.


The hero of The Humbling is Simon Axler, an aging theater actor of some fame who one day loses his artistic gift.

… he had lost his magic as an actor for no good reason and it was just as arbitrarily that the desire to end his life began to ebb, at least for the time being. “Nothing has a good reason for happening” he said to the doctor later that day. (pag. 16-17)

After a short treatment for his suicidal tendencies he retires in a remote mountain chalet which somehow reminds the setting of Stephen King’s horror stories, incapable of finding too much sense for the rest of his life, with suicide still lurking around permanently

Every morning when he awoke to his emptiness, he determined that he couldn’t go another day shorn of his skills, alone, workless, and in persistent pain. (pag. 45-46)

The salvation comes, how else, under the form of a woman. It’s not a simple relation, but it’s fascinating. Pegeen is 25 years younger than him, is the daughter of fellow artists that he had seen as a baby, and is just out of a long lesbian relationship. There is everything to be feared in this companionship – age, sexual orientation, persons from the past (as one of the former relations of Pegeen named Louise), Pegeen’s parents who disapprove the connection, and among all the fear of failing, the terror of going back and being completely finished. The terror of becoming the next Louise (pag. 95)


I will not tell more in order to leave to other readers the pleasure of discovering where lead the accumulated signs of warning around the relation of the two characters. Despite the relatively reduced number of pages Roth succeeds to build a convincing pair of characters which fight the incertitude of their identities, the doubts concerning their power of creation and power of living. The solution of seeing the salvation in each other at a moment of crossroads in the life of both seems for a moment convincing. The outcome is one of the possible outcomes of such situations.

(video source TheDailyBeastVideo)

Some may consider this minor literature in the bibliography of a writer who is one of the few who have defined in his books in an authoritative manner what is America nowadays and what are the principal dilemmas of its inhabitants. The personal universe and the social universe combine in the best books of Philip Roth. As many of his heroes try to build their own world and live into it, the world outside intervenes and prevails. In this short novel the outer world is represented by the intervention of Pegeen in Simon’s life, and the question that the hero is asking himself from the start, and that we as readers are also lead to ask is whether this intervention is blessing or curse. To answer it you will need to read the book, which despite its rather depressing mood is a beautiful reflection on love, art, sex, aging and loneliness, concentrated and well written as you would expect from a book signed Philip Roth. The pleasure of reading another book of his was all here.