While Philip Roth's latest novel The Humbling is definitely not on the same level as his earlier masterpieces American Pastoral and The Human Stain, its is still pretty good. Written in Roth's luminous style, The Humbling tells a story of Simon Axler, an aging actor who loses his capacity to act and is plunged into a depression as a result. His wife leaves him, and Axler sees himself as condemned to loneliness for the rest of his days. Then, he starts an affair with Pegeen, a lesbian who is 25 years younger than he is. When Pegeen gets bored with their relationship and leaves, Axler is devastated.
This novel offers a profound critique of the male chauvinist way of thinking and of the problems it causes to the men who try to hold on to the obsolete macho ideology. Axler treats Pegeen as a voiceless, malleable doll, who needs to be transformed into a version of womanhood he considers to be acceptable: "All he was doing was helping Pegeen to be a woman he would want instead of a woman another woman would want." Understandably, his efforts to "cure" Pegeen from being a lesbian through fancy clothes and expensive jewelry fail.
In his efforts to analyze his relationship with an independent, self-sufficient, intellectual woman from the vantage point of outdated chauvinistic beliefs, Axler makes himself look utterly pathetic. he expects Pegeen's parents to be happy about their daughter's relationship with him because he is rich and can 'take care of her', whatever that means: "Here is this eminent man with a lot of money who's going to take care of her. After all, she's not getting any younger herself. She settles down with someone who's achieved something in life - what's so wrong with that?" Later on, Axler expresses a belief that Pegeen is involved with him because of his erstwhile fame as an actor.
Axler forgets that, unlike decades ago, an educated professional woman has no need to be with a person of any age or any gender because of money, the imaginary need "to settle down," or because she needs anybody to take care of her. What Axler fails to understand - and what costs him very dearly in the end - is that Pegeen's only reason to be with him (or with anybody else) is her desire. Gone are the times when women like Pegeen needed to attach themselves to an older man for prestige, money, or protection. Today, a woman who makes her own living can choose the sexual partner(s) she wants based on nothing but her own feelings and desires.
Pegeen is not the only woman Axler misjudges on the basis of his outdated sexist beliefs. Sybil, a woman he meets in a hospital, is for him "helpless, frail, and child-like." He misunderstands Sybil's inner strength and determination and ends up completely clueless about her.
In his long career as a writer, Roth often was criticized for the sexism of his novels. In my opinion, The Humbling is the writer's attempt to atone novelistically for that.
P.S. After I finished this review, I checked out some of the other reviews on this novel. I was shocked to realize that most people who have reviewed it consider the novel sexist. Apparently, for some people the mere fact of mentioning a relationship between an older man and a younger woman is in itself sexist. According to this weird logic, in order to avoid being sexist we have to pretend that such relationships do not exist.