“When you publish a book,” Philip Roth once wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “it’s the world’s book. The world edits it.” Not really, actually. When Mr. Roth publishes a book, he edits it. And the Transom has proof!
We were lucky enough to receive both the uncorrected proofs and the finished text of The Humbling, Mr. Roth’s 28th novel, which tells the story of aging out-of-work actor Simon Axler and his relationship with a 40-year-old lesbian named Pegeen. In an attempt to crack the code of the author’s heretofore invisible stylistic development, we compared the two versions. Here are some of Mr. Roth’s most substantial edits (a publicist for the publisher, Houghton Mifflin, confirmed they were his).
• Axler’s age is changed from 65 to 66, an even 10 years Roth’s junior.
• The narrative describes Axler’s sense-memory technique in his early acting classes. The airy description, “You try to summon up what it smells like there, is it cold there, is it warm, is it outside—they were very big in class in those days on your using all your senses and setting up things you can connect to,” is cut, leaving only, “Practice making things real.”
• When Pegeen’s old lover, a jealous college dean, visits Axler’s house unannounced, the narrative jumps inside Axler’s mind, revealing his thoughts: “No, it could not be easy for the loser to stand there and confront the person who had won,” he thinks. The final edit leaves it at that, but the earlier draft also interprets the scene for us: “The sick desperation of facing the new lover must be all but overwhelming.”
• The most bizarre part of the novel comes near the end, when Pegeen and Axler decide to bring a woman home with them from a bar. In the proofs: “There was something dangerous about it.” The final edit changes “dangerous” to “primitive.”
• Pegeen’s father runs a community theater in the capital of Michigan, a place for which Mr. Roth apparently has little love: “Lansing, Michigan” is changed to “middle of nowhere.”
• Throughout, Mr. Roth has removed commentary on the events of the novel. This is most apparent in the frantic ending, from which the following have been cut entirely:
“Yes, he was fucking up this role too. Surely there was some way for him to take being spurned other than by pursuing the most debilitating course.”
“This is the stuff not of high tragedy but of the funny papers, the aged suitor from the funny papers found wanting by the busty blond showgirl whom he has plied with jewelry and showered with clothes from the swankiest shops!”
“It was as though life had a mind of its own, indifferent if not maliciously hostile to his aims—as though he himself hadn’t the faintest idea of what was behind all that was going on or of what share of the blame for his failure was his.”