Roth's Curtain of Narcissism

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Roth's Curtain of Narcissism

THE MOST IMPRESSIVE American novelists of the generation that came of age after World War II are Philip Roth and John Updike, both born in 1 932. Precociously gifted, each was already making an impact on the country's literary culture in the 1 950s, and for the next half-century they evinced a remarkable level not only of virtuosity but of sheer energy. Updike, who died earlier this year, produced 30 novels and 13 volumes of short stories; Roth has just completed his 28th work of fiction.

From the very beginning the two presented a study in contrasts, most obviously in the intensity of their sensibilities - small-town Protestant versus urban Jew. As the years went on their characters, artistic aims and spiritual preoccupations diverged, until in old age they came to present two singular ideas of what it means to be an artist and what it means to be a man. Roth, who back in the 1970s was indisputably the funniest novelist in the United States, has taken the tragic line (always evident even in his more facetious books) as far as it goes, becoming ultimately a tragic writer in the fullest sense of the word. Humor in his recent fiction appears only incidentally, offhandedly; it never seems, any more, to be a central element ofhis vision. Sex and death are his major subjects (as they are the major subjects of so many male writers), and his theme is man's refusal to come to terms with them.

Updike, on the other hand, though also very much preoccupied with sex and death, developed over the long run into a "comic" writer - not in the slapstick sense but in the Shakespearean mode of accepting all of life, including old age and its manifold indignities, in an almost beatific cosmic vision. He even found an occasion for poetic wonder while lying on his hospital bed after receiving a death sentence from his oncologist; every phase of life was of value in providing the larger view. Roth, as he keeps demonstrating, has no such wish to resign himself; he is going to go down, and out, with a primal scream.

Roth is currently at work on a tetralogy of novellas. We have already seen Everyman (2006) and Indignation (2008); the newest installment, The Humbling (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 140 pp., $22.00), has just appeared. It is hard to tell what draws them together as a unit, except for their size and the fact that, like all of Roth's work, they have clear autobiographical elements. The Humbling, whose protagonist is an actor rather than a writer or any sort of intellectual, is almost a fable, for surely everyone on earth has had the classic nightmare of being onstage without having a clue about what they are doing there.

This is exactly how the last act of Simon Axler's life begins. "He'd lost his magic," the narrator tells us. "The impulse was spent. He'd never failed in the theater, everything he'd done had been strong and successful, and then the terrible thing happened: He couldn't act. Going onstage became agony. Instead of the certainty that he was going to be wonderful, he knew he was going to fail." Being an actor, which involves exposing oneself to intense and personal public scrutiny, is an obvious metaphor for public life in the larger respect. Who you are, who you feel yourself to be, is intimately associated if not quite identical with what you are in others' eyes, the outer persona you present to the world.

A shifting self-perception, a slide into apprehension, is fatal in the creative arts, and when Simon loses his ease on the stage his sense of identity immediately fades. "Of course, if you've had it, you always have something unlike anyone else's," he says, and this is true of the writer and the painter as well. "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." Yes, on a superficial level; but at a slightly deeper one all of us human animals are the same, and Simon's loss of what he saw as his inalienable individuality is symptomatic of the universal aging process: We spend our first 50 years accruing skills, knowledge, friends, property, and then spend the rest of our lives slowly losing all these things until we stand alone and defenseless before merging back into the common stream. …