Monday, May 21, 2012

Book Notes — A Poor Player Who Struts And Frets His Hours Off The Stage

I have committed a crime.  I have purchased a book on the remainder stack.  As a writer, I am aware that the author will get none of the few dollars I paid for his book.  I can only suggest that Philip Roth is no doubt far wealthier than I am.  Certainly, his sales and public esteem are far, far greater than I can ever hope for. I toss off the guilt.

Though he is regarded by many as one of the greatest living novelists — and I recall seeing his name on the best seller lists many times — I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never read Philip Roth before. Correcting that oversight and the fact that The Humbling is a novella — a form I’m obsessed with at the moment — appealed to me. It is fiction, but unlike most books on my blog, it isn’t really crime fiction.  A murder is committed during the course of the story, so I squeeze by here on a technicality.

But about the book? The Humbling is obscene.  I wasn’t offended so much as put off.  That, in itself, caused more than a little introspection.  Simon Axler, the main character and through whose eyes the story is told, is old (about my age).  He is a celebrated actor who has suddenly and shockingly, to him, lost his ability to act. After enduring the pride-shattering period in a mental hospital, he moves away from civilization to suffer his humiliation out of the public eye.

A younger woman (the daughter of a fellow actor of Axler’s vintage) moves nearby. She contacts the old friend of the family and the two begin an affair, explicitly described for the reader’s pleasure or discomfort.  I won’t divulge the end and I have neglected many nuances that add to the rich and unpleasant nature of the book.  In fact, though I didn’t know it at the time of purchase, many respected reviewers were harshly critical of the work.  Some reviewers seemed angry with the author, I suspect for the same reasons I found the book to be a depressing read.  However, like most well told stories, The Humbling asks questions.  The answers are your responsibility.  When I was done I tried to toss it off as an appropriate exposure to a highly regarded talent even though it was, for me, a waste of time.  The book had a mind of its own, it seems.  It stayed with me.  Maybe it’s not the story that was so unpleasant, but the questions it forced me to consider.

One of those questions, less specifically personal than the others that I still think about, had to do with identity.  At some point in a long and dedicated actor’s career does the assumption of fictional roles become real and the real person become fictional, or worse, non-existent?  If something then renders the actor unable to act, what is left? 

Various reports suggest that Al Pacino has bought rights for the book and is planning a film with an expected release in 2014.

1 comment:

scottocs said...

I had a similar Roth experience having never read his work until recently when I picked up The Dying Animal, a book given to me by a friend years ago ( It's about a distinguished literature professor / radio host that cannot commit. A bit strange and disturbing, it made me think about aging, friends, work, and relationships. I'll look for The Humbling and more Roth work in the future, thanks for the post.