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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Roth Bound - The Humbling

I actually love the form of the novella and wish there were more great ones, but publishing today doesn't encourage novellas, too long for magazines, too short for books - unless you're of a grand enough stature to publish a novella as a book under the guise of a novel, as Bellow did late in life and as Philip Roth is doing now, with "The Humbling." (Great novellas? A Month in the Country, The Light in the Piazza, many by James and the Russian writers, to name a few.) As to The Humbling, I've read the first 2 (of 3) sections. Main character is an actor, Simon Axler, +60, who suddenly loses his talent, feels his acting is fakery, critics rip him, he goes into a deep depression, hospitalized, suicidal, befriends a much younger woman fellow-patient whose husband abused her young daughter, wife leaves him, end of section. 2nd section months later, drops all characters in first section except Axler, he's in virtual isolation on remote farm, his agent visits, encourages him to return to stage, 40ish woman (daughter of old theater friends) visits, she's a lesbian, she falls for him anyway, they begin a relationship, he buys her lots of clothes, restyles her (a la Pretty Woman), her parents upset, her ex-lover threatens Axler, he's attracted to her, too, kinda. Okay, a lot of plottish elements here - but sadly, so far, this feels like an outline for a novel rather than a novella. Roth rips through the action, padding with lots of stagy, awkward dialogue. It's a shame because some real Rothian themes are unearthed: the artist in therapy, recalls Portnoy, but here so much darker, artist near end of career and without the swagger and confidence. Nothing made of this, however. The artist paralyzed, recalls Zuckerman Bound, and of course Roth will resist an effort to read The Humbling as a portrait of Roth, but he's pushed these boundaries his whole career and you can't help not seeing the obvious parallels and wondering about the state of Roth's psyche and his own sense of his career and his capacity. Of course the sexuality - the older man, priapic, powerful, seducing the younger woman - at least here he's honest enough to note that part of the seduction is the wealth and status he can bestow on her and it's not just (or at all) that she finds him physically attractive, in this way at least the sexual conquest is more realistic than in so many other male-fantasy novels (and movies). But it's still disturbing how little distance he puts between himself and his material. He seems to be writing out of his own need to console himself for his diminishing powers (sexual, artistic). This could be a great book, but, so far, it just isn't. Plot has never been his strong point, but honesty has been and The Humbling seems to be delusional - up through section 2 at least.

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