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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Humbling

Philip Roth

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To purchase The Humbling

Title: The Humbling
Author: Philip Roth
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009
Length: 140 pages
Availability: The Humbling - US
The Humbling - UK
The Humbling - Canada
Le rabaissement - France
Die Demütigung - Deutschland
L'umiliazione - Italia
La humillación - España

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Our Assessment:

B : very distinctly odd

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Globe D 1/11/2009 Richard Eder
The Economist . 12/11/2009 .
Entertainment Weekly B 20/10/2009 Jeff Giles
Financial Times . 7/11/2009 Toby Litt
FAZ . 13/3/2010 Albert Ostermaier
Globe & Mail . 21/11/2009 Guy Gavriel Kay
The Guardian . 14/11/2009 Alex Clark
The Independent . 30/10/2009 Boyd Tonkin
Independent on Sunday . 15/11/2009 Philip Hensher
The Los Angeles Times . 1/11/2009 Richard Rayner
NZZ . 21/7/2010 Thomas David
New Statesman D 29/10/2009 Jason Cowley
The NY Rev. of Books . 3/12/2009 Elaine Blair
The NY Times . 23/10/2009 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 15/11/2009 Kathryn Harrison
The New Yorker . 2/11/2009 .
The Observer D 25/10/2009 William Skidelsky
San Francisco Chronicle . 1/11/2009 Martin Rubin
The Spectator . 11/11/2009 Simon Baker
Sunday Times . 1/11/2009 Adam Lively
The Telegraph . 23/10/2009 Stephen Abell
The Telegraph . 4/11/2009 Michael Prodger
The Times . 24/10/2009 Aravind Adiga
TLS . 6/11/2009 Bharat Tandon
USA Today . 3/11/2009 Bob Minzesheimer
The Washington Post A- 4/11/2009 Elaine Showalter
Die Welt . 4/11/2009 Hannes Stein
Die Welt . 10/3/2010 Arne Willander
Die Zeit . 4/3/2010 Ulrich Greiner

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus -- opinions range from somewhat impressed to very disappointed, with most thinking it's one of his worst efforts

  From the Reviews:
  • "Roth is engaged in tackling a legitimate and interesting question: How does creativity die? (...) The Humbled is one of Roth’s weakest novels: a promising theme, perhaps, with a ragged fictional covering. It is not the first time he has created a character to make a point (though his best books are far richer and more complex than that). But usually he takes such pleasure in the creating, along with a slug of malice, that readers are able to indulge themselves on both." - Richard Eder, Boston Globe

  • "Mr Roth’s prodigious gift for storytelling and character seem to have become eclipsed by his equally prodigious gifts for rage and indignation. This book bears out his view of the sad consequences of ageing." - The Economist

  • "It's a good, not great, book -- an entertaining inquiry into the relationship between sex and creativity, sex and age, and sex and the ego. (See a theme?) There are some sparks here, but momentarily at least, Roth seems to have lost his own ability to perform." - Jeff Giles, Entertainment Weekly

  • "There is no contradiction in saying that The Humbling is, at one and the same time, a masterpiece and a piece of fiction that, unless it did admit to being by Philip Roth, would stand no chance of being published." - Toby Litt, Financial Times

  • "Was aber das Entscheidende an dieser Geschichte ist, deren Fäden sich immer mehr zu einem Strick verdrehen, der stark genug für einen Hals ist, das ist die Erzählhaltung Roths. Denn was in diesem sich streckenweise wie ein poetisch polierter Porno anmutenden Buch aufscheint, ist etwas zutiefst Irritierendes: eine unsagbare Trauer, aus der erzählt wird, ein Tinnituston der Verzweiflung, ein Leitmotiv der Unausweichbarkeit des Unglücks im Angesichts des Glücks in den Händen, auf der Haut und auf den Lippen. Dadurch ist Roth nie pornographisch. Nein, es ist geradezu von antiker Wucht, wie unausweichlich er sich ins Verderben liebt und hofft." - Albert Ostermaier, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "There is matter to admire in The Humbling, and more than a little to think about, but there is also a sense that this material has been covered before by Roth with greater force and subtlety. The book is of interest to those tracking the palette and preoccupations of the man who may be the United States' finest living writer. It is not, however, a good starting place for encountering his art, nor for deepening a response to it." - Guy Gavriel Kay, Globe & Mail

  • "What begins as a meditation on the source of artistic power and the artist's apparent helplessness to maintain it ends, then, as a lament for the loss of sexual power. This is clearly deliberate and not, in itself, completely spurious: few, surely, would argue that there is no connection between the two. But Roth's perplexing determination to vulgarise his narrative strips The Humbling of its own power: where he seeks to be nuanced, he too frequently appears trite; where he attempts to be brazen, he comes across as pointlessly crude." - Alex Clark, The Guardian

  • "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." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "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. (...) 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." - Philip Hensher, Independent on Sunday

  • "Readers, according to their taste, may find the sex scenes in The Humbling shocking or arousing or just plain silly. On the one hand, Roth's 30th book deals with themes that his work, especially his recent work, has made familiar. On the other, it's direct and urgent, a taut and controlled fever-dream that demands to be experienced at a single sitting." - Richard Rayner, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Im Spiegel der schockierenden Geschichte dieses brillanten, alle Lebenslügen und alle Trugbilder entlarvenden Romans zeigt Philip Roth abermals die Fragilität der menschlichen Identität, den immerwährenden Kampf der an den schmerzenden Nerv des Lebens gefesselten Existenz -- die zeitlose Tragödie des Jedermann." - Thomas David, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "(T)he latest product to roll out of the Philip Roth fiction factory is an old man's masturbatory fantasy which, wrapped in a smart dust jacket, the equivalent of the pornographer's brown paper bag, purports to be a novella of late-middle-aged existential crisis -- at least during its more serious moments. (In its less serious moments - and I still can't decide whether these are intentional or not - it has all the aesthetic surprise of the latest upload on YouPorn.) (...) It clearly wants to be read as a companion piece to his impressive late works about the inescapable senselessness of death. Yet it is at times so ridiculous, so stylistically careless and shabbily executed, the characters so thin and artificial, that you think, at first, the whole thing must be an elaborate joke or parody, or else an exercise in character assassination" - Jason Cowley, New Statesman

  • "Everything, for Axler, comes back to the original crisis: the loss of his ability to act, an event so painful and baffling that nothing else can be expected to make sense -- including the actions or motivations of other people. And so Roth, with Axler, seems to beg to be excused from having to imagine why these women do the crazy things they do." - Elaine Blair, The New York Review of Books

  • "The Humbling, Philip Roth’s latest novella -- an overstuffed short story, really -- is a slight, disposable work about an aging man’s efforts to grapple with time and loss and mortality, and the frustrations of getting old (.....) Mr. Roth recounts these events in an offhand manner, as though he were simply going through the motions of ticking off plot points on a spindly, ill-conceived outline." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "A lazy work, The Humbling lacks its author’s genius -- all that would help us, as it has so many times before, to forgive him his prejudices and blind spots." - Kathryn Harrison, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The novel, bleak, uncertain, and full of fear, finds traction in familiar Rothian interrogations -- of the self’s deviousness, the impossible murkiness of motive, and the performative nature of identity -- and it is these which produce the book’s cruellest apprehension" - The New Yorker

  • "Roth's new novel is, by his standards, dismayingly poor. (...) Brief to a fault at 140 generously spaced pages, it can hardly be called a novel at all; it is more an old man's sexual fantasy dressed up in the garb of literature. There are, of course, redeeming features: an interesting initial conceit, the usual beautifully controlled writing. And the novel asks interesting questions about ageing and what it does to you. But these things aren't nearly enough to make up for the absurdity at its core." - William Skidelsky, The Observer

  • "It's not only that it's short, more a novella than a fully developed novel, but it lacks depth despite all the sturm und drang packed into it. The ending is appropriately stagy, but a little too pat. Roth has not bothered either to put in those trademark grace notes of his." - Martin Rubin, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "One conclusion from reading The Humbling could be that when you can write with simple beauty, say painfully wise things about mortality and create a plausible enough main character, you cannot fail completely. However, the problem with this book -- and one that is more or less unprecedented with Roth -- is that almost everything else is wrong. The novella’s shortness seems to be the main issue." - Simon Baker, The Spectator

  • "The Humbling is Roth unplugged -- he has done away with amplification and gone for Ockham’s razor instead. It’s a bold move, to cut out what makes your writing most attractive, and there is something admirable and bracing about the way Roth breaks the creative-writing-class rules about "show not tell" and "build a scene". (...) But there’s also a loss of flavour, a loss of voice, in the distillation. In part this is Roth’s point. Axler has lost his voice. The book’s insubstantiality is also the insubstantiality of Axler" - Adam Lively, Sunday Times

  • "The Humbling is a slight but grave -- and important -- novel about "ending": how it shifts between a participle (the process of reaching the end) and a noun (the end itself). It is a fine, unsettling piece of writing that deserves its place in Roth’s canon. (...) His new work will not detain you long, but it will linger." - Stephen Abell, The Telegraph

  • "The novel, or really novella, rushes to a close, its snap fading as soon as the characters leave their messed-up bed. They are tentatively drawn, too: Axler in particular is never flesh and blood enough to persuade the reader that he could be so easily unmanned and he is too actorly to dispel the notion that he is hamming his way through his life crisis. Rather than being the central player in his own drama, Axler is more a caricature in his own melodrama. While Philip Roth can never write badly, he can write better than this." - Michael Prodger, The Telegraph

  • "(A) slim, fast-moving, sometimes funny but mostly bleak read. (...) You close the book thinking, "What else could Axler have done?" This makes The Humbling an original and unsettling book, and also, when considered as a novel, a failure." - Aravind Adiga, The Times

  • "(A)t once stern and slight, unlovely and oddly compelling, The Humbling's 140 pages compose a series of awkward variations on authenticity and its discontents." - Bharat Tandon, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Roth's writing flows gracefully, but the plot suffers from a kind of gender gap: The most vivid characters are men, the aging actor and his loyal agent." - Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today

  • "Roth structures the book tightly and dramatically, in three parts or acts, and draws upon classical drama from Sophocles to Shakespeare to O'Neill for parallels. (...) The bleak conclusion of this parable is inevitable and almost schematic (.....) Yet the book's restrained eloquence makes this gloomy, over-determined ending convincing and powerful." - Elaine Showalter, The Washington Post

  • "The Humbling ist um keinen Deut besser und ein Stück schlechter gemacht als Empörung; tatsächlich muss man sich schon sehr anstrengen, um die Ähnlichkeiten zwischen beiden Büchern nicht zu bemerken -- vor allem die gnadenlose Konsequenz, mit der hier wie dort auf nicht einmal 140 Seiten Prosa eine Geschichte bis an ihr logisches Ende vorangetrieben wird." - Hannes Stein, Die Welt

  • "(E)ine Lektion in Verzweiflung, eine gespenstische Sonate über das Verschwinden. (...) Roths beinahe skelettierter Stil erlaubt keine Sentimentalität und Larmoyanz. Das Leben geht dahin zwischen zerstörter Empathie und vergeblicher Hoffnung, zwischen Hospital und Landsitz, und auch die Tröstungen der Sexualität sind von Torschlusspanik überschattet." - Arne Willander, Die Welt

  • "Bleibt zu sagen, dass das Ende dieser Geschichte vom ersten Satz an feststeht und dass man sie gleichwohl atemlos liest -- und ehrfürchtig staunt über das Können dieses wahrhaft großen Schriftstellers." - Ulrich Greiner, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Simon Axler, the protagonist of The Humbling, is humbled several times over the course of this novella. Old age is part of it: old age is getting to him, wearing down his body -- his back gives him considerable trouble (when he has sex he's reduced to the passive role of lying on his back and being mounted, and he sees it's likely he'll be in a wheelchair within a decade) -- but it's the loss of "his magic" that really hits him hard (and with which the book begins).
       An actor, Axler suddenly finds he doesn't have it in him any longer. He is alive, and can go through the motions, but there's little more to what he does on the stage: "His talent was dead". He tries to work through it a few times, with disastrous results, and finally gives up, recognizing:

I can no longer make a play real for people. I can no longer make a role real for myself.
       His life was built entirely on artifice, but he finds artifice is suddenly beyond his reach. What's left is grim reality -- including the grim reality of aging.
       Axler is married, but his wife flees as soon as his failure becomes evident. Humbled by his failure, the loss of his wife is a more sudden and resounding blow; tempted to take the easiest, desperate escape -- to blow his brains out -- he still has enough sense to look for some other escape:
But once she'd left he didn't make it through the first hour alone -- didn't even go up the stairs toward the attic -- before he had phoned his doctor and asked him to arrange for his admission to a psychiatric hospital that very day.
       The twenty-six day stay does him so good, if only to reconcile him more or less to going on without continuing to act. He also makes friends of sorts with one of the other patients, a woman who was unable to deal with what she discovered about her husband; later in the book, she finally finds away to deal with it, to the surprise and shock (and also admiration) of Axler.
       Unable and unwilling to expose himself on the stage again, Axler lives withdrawn and alone. His life is only upended again when he meets the daughter of some old acting friends of his, even though:
     It was not likely -- particularly as Pegeen Mike Stapleford had lived as a lesbian since she was twenty-three -- that when she was forty and Axler was sixty-five they would become lovers who would speak on the phone every morning upon awakening and would eagerly spend their free time together at his house
       Axler transforms Pegeen: not only does she go hetero, he buys her pretty clothes and gets her hair styled and all of a sudden she's all (man's-ideal-)feminine and everything; even her mother doesn't recognize her the first time they meet again. But fundamentally Pegeen is not so easy to change.
       Pegeen's former lover continues to obsess over her, and stalk her; she also warns Axler of her power -- acknowledging that she's hardly worth obsessing over to such a degree, and yet ... :
She's not at all beautiful. She's not that intelligent. And she's not that grown up. She's an unusually childish person for her age. She's a kid, really. She turned her Montana lover into a man. She's turned me into a beggar. Who knows what she's turning you into. She leaves a trail of disaster.
       How Pegeen manages all that is something of a mystery -- Axler ascribes it to her potent sexuality, but Roth has difficulties convincingly conveying that. Axler does not succumb too quickly, either, even acknowledging her parents' attempts to talk some sense into her, especially regarding the age gap, but ultimately she comes to mean a great deal to him.
       Of course, in the end there's a humbling coming to Axler. It doesn't happen when Pegeen straps on the dildo, nor even when she seduces another woman to join them in bed (though certainly if Axler were not so besotted by then he might have seen what was coming). No, it's the much more mundane, and simpler, and domestic, when Axler believes, for a moment, that he can again find a hold against death and obscurity. Instead, again -- and again almost in an instant -- he is left bereft: a different sort of magic -- and one that was just as much an illusion as his acting -- is lost
       Throughout his whole ordeal, Axler is repeatedly drawn to suicide. Less solution than rash act it nevertheless appeals to him, a proper final curtain (and a way to get out of whatever mess he's in). And it's appropriately theatrical: at one point he tries to recall as many suicides in plays as he can, and resolves to read them again:
Yes, everything gruesome must be squarely faced. Nobody should be able to say that he did not think it through.
       And yet he doesn't really think it through, not very convincingly. Roth is interested in the idea of the aging man with nothing left to live for who sees suicide as a way out, but it doesn't feel like an issue he has ever really wrestled with. By the end Axler is reduced almost to drama-queen state; violent death in this book -- there is more than one instance of it -- seems nearly fraudulent. The sort of thing that happens and you read about in the newspaper, but with Roth unable to convincingly fill in the backstory leading to it. (More surprisingly, the sex, too, does not feel convincing -- but as the product of an old man's dirty mind is typical enough for fiction that it's not as bothersome as how Roth deals with death here.)
       The Humbling is written with an almost off-hand ease; no matter how absurd things get -- and, once or twice, they get very absurd indeed -- Roth smoothly draws the reader along. Its brevity (and, ultimately, lack of sufficient depth) makes The Humbling feel like an exercise-piece -- but still one by a master. There's enough richness here -- some well-executed scenes, a confident narrative flow -- that makes it worth reading. But it is a very odd story, and a very odd take on aging and the losses that aging brings with it.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 October 2009

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The Humbling: Reviews: Philip Roth: Other books by Philip Roth under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author Philip Roth (1933-2018) wrote many highly acclaimed works and won numerous literary prizes.

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