By Brooke Allen
HE MOST IMPRESSIVE American novelists of the gist; every phase of life was of value in providing the larger
generation that came of age after World War II are view. Roth, as he keeps demonstrating, has no such wish to re-
Philip Roth and John Updike, both born in 1932. sign himself; he is going to go down, and out, with a primal
Precociously gifted, each was already making an scream.
impact on the country’s literary culture in the 1950s, Roth is currently at work on a tetralogy of novellas. We have
and for the next half-century they evinced a remarkable level already seen Everyman (2006) and Indignation (2008); the
not only of virtuosity but of sheer energy. Updike, who died newest installment, The Humbling (Houghton Mifflin Har-
earlier this year, produced 30 novels and 13 volumes of short court, 140 pp., $22.00), has just appeared. It is hard to tell what
stories; Roth has just completed his 28th work of fiction. draws them together as a unit, except for their size and the fact
From the very beginning the two presented a study in con- that, like all of Roth’s work, they have clear autobiographical
trasts, most obviously in the intensity of their sensibilities— elements. The Humbling, whose protagonist is an actor rather
small-town Protestant versus urban Jew. As the years went on than a writer or any sort of intellectual, is almost a fable, for
their characters, artistic aims and spiritual preoccupations di- surely everyone on earth has had the classic nightmare of being
verged, until in old age they came to present two singular ideas onstage without having a clue about what they are doing there.
of what it means to be an artist and what it means to be a man. This is exactly how the last act of Simon Axler’s life begins.
Roth, who back in the 1970s was indisputably the funniest “He’d lost his magic,” the narrator tells us. “The impulse was
novelist in the United States, has taken the tragic line (always spent. He’d never failed in the theater, everything he’d done had
evident even in his more facetious books) as far as it goes, be- been strong and successful, and then the terrible thing hap-
coming ultimately a tragic writer in the fullest sense of the word. pened: He couldn’t act. Going onstage became agony. Instead
Humor in his recent fiction appears only incidentally, offhand- of the certainty that he was going to be wonderful, he knew he
edly; it never seems, any more, to be a central element of his was going to fail.” Being an actor, which involves exposing
vision. Sex and death are his major subjects (as they are the oneself to intense and personal public scrutiny, is an obvious
major subjects of so many male writers), and his theme is man’s metaphor for public life in the larger respect. Who you are, who
refusal to come to terms with them. you feel yourself to be, is intimately associated if not quite iden-
Updike, on the other hand, though also very much preoccu- tical with what you are in others’ eyes, the outer persona you
pied with sex and death, developed over the long run into a present to the world.
“comic” writer—not in the slapstick sense but in the Shake- A shifting self-perception, a slide into apprehension, is fatal
spearean mode of accepting all of life, including old age and its in the creative arts, and when Simon loses his ease on the stage
manifold indignities, in an almost beatific cosmic vision. He his sense of identity immediately fades. “Of course, if you’ve
even found an