Monday 14 December 2009

'Oh, play it however you like'

The Humbling
by Philip Roth

You can understand I'm sure how excited I was when I discovered that perhaps my favourite novelist had written a book about an actor. Imagine also my creeping sense of dread as the bad reviews piled up, followed by a nomination for the Literary Review's Bad Sex Award; could the opening paragraph of the book refer as much to the author himself as his central character Simon Axler?

He'd lost his magic. The impulse was spent. He'd never failed in the theater, everything he had done had been strong and successful, and then the terrible thing happened: he couldn't act. Going on-stage became agony. Instead of the certainty that he was going to be wonderful, he knew he was going to fail. It happened three times in a row, and by the last time nobody was interested, nobody came. He couldn't get over to the audience. His talent was dead.
Well it's easy, and perhaps another example of what David Denby calls 'snark', to use that paragraph against its author but it ignores one crucial thing: that's a great opening paragraph. In fact the first section of this short novel (140 generously spaced and margined pages) is fantastic. Many people have the wrong idea about stage fright, they think it refers to a state where actors freeze on stage, unable to recall their lines, or perhaps are scared of going on stage for fear of failure. One renowned actor I worked with described his own experience as like being able to hear the thoughts of the audience as he spoke and they all thought he was a terrible fake. Try getting through a play with that running through your mind. What Roth pinpoints brilliantly is that many of the great actors have no idea what makes them so great, they can't identify what it is they do which makes them different they just know there's something. Imagine then the horror when for no discernible reason that something disappears.

Of course, if you've had it, you always have something unlike anyone else's. I'll always be unlike anyone else, Axler told himself, because I am who I am. I carry that with me - that people will always remember. But the aura he'd had, all his mannerisms and eccentricities and personal peculiarities, ...none of it worked for any role now. All that had worked to make himself now worked to make him look like a lunatic. He was conscious of every moment on stage in the worst possible way. In the past when he was acting he wasn't thinking about anything. What he did well he did out of instinct. Now he was thinking about everything, and everything spontaneous and vital was killed - he tried to control it with thinking and instead he destroyed it.

The two extracts I've used so far are simply the first two paragraphs. I told you that first section was great. Roth is also aware of that other quality that distinguishes the great actors from the good: 'intensity of listening'. This is interesting for a couple of reasons beyond the fact that it is an astute observation. As far as I have been able to gather one of the surprising things about Roth, the man of letters, is that in person he is actually a charming host/conversationalist/humorist - I suspect that in the flesh he is someone who can exhibit that same intensity of listening which can make men so attractive to women. For Axler the ability to listen is something he learns once again through his meeting with a fellow patient at the institution in which he commits himself when the fallout from his career crisis leads to marriage breakdown and suicidal thoughts. He and Sybil Van Buren strike up a bond of support, she needing someone to confirm that she isn't insane for feeling as she does about her child-abusing husband. We'll come back to that section and relationship later.

So the first act is complete, containing all the references to suicide you could want and even, in classic dramatic style, placing a loaded gun amongst the many props. This is why the leap made in the second act is so baffling and, at times, absurd. Axler is sought out by Pegeen, the 40 year old daughter of long term friends who has been living as a lesbian since her early twenties but who wants now to sample a man, to sample our man (despite his advanced years and bad back which make just the one sexual position possible). Is this the stuff of an old man's fantasy? Well, no, it doesn't read like that. Pegeen isn't depicted as your obvious lesbian fantasy, she is damaged in many ways and there is something that makes sense about her picking Axler as the safest option for her experiment in sexual orientation. The reader of course can see that this relationship, as it soon becomes, is doomed to failure even before Axler makes the fatal mistake of introducing a third (female) party into their bedroom.

When a man gets two women together, it is not unusual for one of the women, rightly or wrongly feeling neglected, to wind up crying in a corner of the room. From how this was going so far, it looked as though the one who'd wind up crying in the corner would be him.

The major problem with this part of the book is its absurdity. As the Bad Sex Award nomination will tell you it's very hard to read about a green strap-on dildo without laughing out loud and for many readers the idea of an elderly man being sought out by a lesbian a whole generation younger than him, who then invites another woman into the bed, will be a little too fantastical to take seriously. But let's get past the increasingly sombre author photographs, the focus on mortality in his latest string of small novels and remember that Roth has always had a sense of humour. He is surely well aware of what he is writing, he wants us to laugh, wants Axler to seem ridiculous in his pursuit of one last fling and even sadder in his desire to develop the relationship into something even further. Roth also gets in before the critics can say it makes no sense, the ease with which Axler picks up a woman in a bar to become part of their sexual adventure.

Though what did make sense? His being unable to go out and act on a stage? His having been a psychiatric inpatient. His conducting a love affair with a lesbian whom he'd first met seen nursing at her mother's breast?

The fatal misjudgement that risks jeopardising the book's place amongst this late artistic examination of mortality is that by making Axler ridiculous rather than sad he maybe isn't the best choice of suicidal hero. If this is a book about suicide then the sub-plot of Van Buren, which Roth returns to before the end, is the one that might have made a better focus. In just a snatch of conversation and a letter he manages to make her a far more compelling character than should be possible with so little. There is something empty about the dramatic gestures of Axler, an actor who knows his own weakness for applying the skills of his trade to his own, supposedly real emotional life.

If he were given this role to act in a play, how would he do it? How would he do the phone call? In a voice that was trembling or a voice that was firm? With wit or with savagery, renunciation or rage? He could no more figure out how to play the elderly lover abandoned by the mistress twenty-five years his junior than he'd been able to figure out how to play Macbeth.
When he finally makes the call, giving himself acting notes along the way he realises the futility in a statement that I think backs up what I was saying earlier about Roth's approach to this novel.

Oh, play it however like, Axler told himself. Probably you're playing it for laughs anyway without your even knowing it.

For a couple of other views on this book may I recommend the similarly theatrical Kevin From Canada and The Mookse and The Gripes, who has the intelligence to see the worth of this novel as part of a body of work.


Anonymous,  14 December 2009 at 16:07  

I have been looking forward to your thoughts on this and you did not disappoint -- the professional perspective you bring confirms some of my own amateur observations.

I too found Part Two a bit of a challenge and admit I used a couple of tricks concerning it:
1. If this were an Albee play, would I go along with this? I think, yes.
2. If this were an opera, would I find this development at all strange? Definitely not.

So why should I deny Roth the licence.

William Rycroft 16 December 2009 at 00:07  

Ha! I love the 'if this were an opera' rationale. That sounds like a bit of a get out of jail free card!

I think a lot of the negative reviewing around this book has been because it wasn't the kind of book they wanted it to be. Having a bit of respect for the artist and making an effort to try and see what it is they are trying to do can help you to find some unexpected good points in something that may read as a disappointment initially.

On a completely different thought Kevin, you asked if I would check out the Tate Modern's latest turbine hall installation. I did. It was rubbish. I shall try and write a quick post to explain why soon but rest assured that you are missing nothing.

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