Call It Sleep | Critical Review by Robert Alter

This literature criticism consists of approximately 13 pages of analysis & critique of Call It Sleep.
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Critical Review by Robert Alter

SOURCE: A review of Shifting Landscape and Call It Sleep, in New Republic, Vol. 198, No. 4, January 25, 1988, pp. 33-7.

In the following review, Alter discusses Roth's Call It Sleep and asserts that his new volume, Shifting Landscape "provides the outlines of a spiritual autobiography."

The haunting question about Henry Roth remains his half century of silence after the publication of Call It Sleep in 1934. Call It Sleep, which, as I have just discovered, is one of those rare books that actually improves with rereading, exhibits the perfect pitch of genius in all the play of its invention and stylistic energy; it clearly belongs among the few great American novels of the 20th century. But this was not a case, as happens frequently enough, of a promising or even brilliant first novel that has no sequel because its author runs out of steam, because he has said the one thing he had to say. If this was Roth's Portrait of the Artist (As a Young Boy, for the protagonist, David Schearl, is seven when most of the action occurs), what happened to the Ulysses toward which the prodigious imaginative power of the large first novel seems to be moving?

Roth himself—he is now 81—has also been haunted by his own silence, as he repeatedly makes clear in Shifting Landscape, a collection of all his published short pieces from 1925 to 1987, assembled by Mario Materassi, his Italian translator and devoted friend. Materassi has helpfully prefaced each of the pieces with generous excerpts from Roth's correspondence, from taped conversations, from the many interviews Roth has given since 1964, when the meteoric success of the paperback reissue of his novel plucked him from the obscurity of his life as a waterfowl farmer in rural Maine. This new volume, then, gives us everything Roth has put into print beyond Call It Sleep. It provides the outlines of a spiritual autobiography.

The pieces exhibit the flickerings of an enormous talent, but scarcely any of them transcends the slightness of a fictional sketch or exercise. Between 1935 and 1940, Roth wrote about 100 pages of a proletarian novel, which he subsequently destroyed (one published chapter survives and appears in Shifting Landscapes), and three deliberately commercial stories. A state of depression marked the beginning of a total writer's block—even letter-writing, he confesses, became painfully threatening—that continued for a decade and a half.

Roth made his first tentative efforts to write fiction again in the later '50s, and the acclaim and income from the paperback Call It Sleep (over a million copies were sold) encouraged him to more sustained work. So far nothing substantial from this later period is visible, though in the last few years Roth has completed a thousand-page manuscript of a book he calls a "memoir-form novel," Mercy of a Rude Stream. (The title is from Shakespeare's Henry VIII.) He is apparently unwilling to have it published in his lifetime; the two excerpts included in the Materassi volume look intriguing, but they give little sense of what the shape or quality of the whole is like.

For the most part, Roth is his own severest critic on the subject of his deflected career. "I am hung with the albatross of myself," he writes to Materassi in 1964. The one partial exception to this severity is the attempt, made several times in interviews and in written remarks, to explain his withdrawal from literature as symptomatic of a whole generation of writers who never realized the brilliance of their initial promise. The explanation is not altogether persuasive. There is a big difference between decline and silence; and it is the former that applies to most of the writers Roth seems to have in mind. (Among those he mentions are John Steinbeck, James Farrell, Edward Dahlberg, and Daniel Fuchs.) And there is an even bigger difference between dissipated talent and the poignant plight (Roth's own) of aborted genius.

There is one clear and compelling reason for Roth's silence. It is his joining the Communist Party in 1933, even as he was completing Call It Sleep. That political act very rapidly impaired him as a writer, though its consequences, as I shall explain, would have certain retrospective complications. His novel's lyric immersion in the experience of childhood soon came to seem to him a throwback to the apolitical aestheticism of the 1920s, when the book was first conceived; he was made to feel a degree of bad conscience about his own achievement, earnestly aspiring instead to produce fiction that would embody revolutionary awareness. This aspiration, as he now says, violated all his inclinations as a writer, which were to the sensual, the personal, the visionary, the perverse. "Allegiance once deeply inhaled," he notes grimly in a letter written in 1968, "was as lethal as carbon monoxide."

Oddly enough, Roth is as vehement about James Joyce as about the Communist Party. Clearly it was the example of Joyce that galvanized his talent as a writer. Indeed, Call It Sleep is, together with The Sound and the Fury, which appeared five years earlier, the fullest American assimilation of Joyce; and, unlike Faulkner's novel, it is thematically consonant with Joyce as well as technically imitative of him. Roth's present quarrel with Joyce is not over technique, but over an ideal of artistic identity. He now dismisses the Joycean motto of silence, exile, cunning as "specious claptrap," and denounces the direction of "monstrous detachment and artistic autonomy" to which Joyce's enterprise points. Roth's recent concentration on a large memoir-form novel is an effort to place his actual life-experience squarely under fictional scrutiny, eschewing all Joycean pretense that the writer stands outside his work like a god, coolly paring his fingernails.

The ultimate source of Roth's vehemence toward Joyce, however, is something he has since discovered about himself—that he is a writer who needs to be deeply rooted in a particular culture with its distinctive complex of symbols. Though Joyce's point of departure was just such a connection with Irish culture, he moved toward an ideal of universal art that would integrate all cultures, working from a condition of self-imposed exile. Call It Sleep exhibits a productive tension in this regard. The author's intimate knowledge of the life of Jewish immigrants on the East Side, circa 1913, is masterfully evident on every page. It is a knowledge that is unsparing, affectionate, absolutely unsentimental. At the same time, the child protagonist pursues an essentially private visionary prospect (though partly by means of language and lore made available to him by his culture); had Roth written the sequel about David Schearl's adolescence and young manhood, the sequel that he says he ought to have written, the protagonist would no doubt have detached himself entirely from the world of his origins and realized his identity as an American Stephen Dedalus in the cosmopolitan realm of art.

In fact, this route was not psychologically viable for Roth. One might even wonder whether the Party's ideal of universal revolutionary solidarity, however illusory, was not an alternative family and culture for him, a substitute for the Jewish ones he felt he had to put behind him. Now, in the retrospection of old age, Roth appears to view Joyce as a kind of mirage that led him out into the wilderness of proudly autonomous art from which he fled, only to fall into the lethal air of Communist allegiance.

This perspective on his own experience was fixed for him not by the success of 1964, but, surprisingly, by the Six-Day War of 1967. Roth had severed all his Jewish ties, even declaring in a symposium in 1963 that the greatest boon that Jews could now confer on humanity would be to cease being Jews. But in the threat to Israel's survival in the spring of 1967, Roth suddenly discovered himself profoundly involved in the fate of the Jewish state, despite vestigial radical promptings that he ought to be siding with the Arabs. He has not, he says, become a Zionist, at least not in any official sense; but the idea of a new, secular Jewish culture under the conditions of political autonomy, and the identification with Israel, have become central to his imaginative life. In 1971 he announced that he had "adopted" Israel "as a symbolic home, one where symbols can lodge, whatever it is in actuality." Perhaps we will not be able to understand what precisely this means until we can read Mercy of a Rude Stream in its entirety, if then; but the identification with Israel seems to have liberated Roth from his sense of crippling isolation, to have made it possible for him to write again, after Joyce and contra Joyce.

Yet no reader of Call It Sleep will regret its Joycean inspiration. Formally, the novel interweaves the predominant technique of Ulysses with that of Portrait of the Artist. There are, that is, brief stream-of-consciousness passages in which staccato sequence of highly elliptical sentences and the repeated tag ends of fragmentary phrases are used to convey the dramatic immediacy, the groping confusion, at times the sheer panic, of a child's inner experience. The more pervasive technique, however, is that of the earlier Joyce. A finely articulate narrator, almost always adhering to the emotional and conceptual viewpoint of the protagonist, conveys that viewpoint in a wrought lyric language that would not be available to the protagonist himself.

Let me illustrate the nature of the connection between the two writers by juxtaposing passages from their novels that deal with similar subjects. Toward the end of Portrait, Stephen stands on the steps of the library watching a flock of birds wheel above him, "their dark darting quivering bodies flying clearly against the sky as against a limp hung cloth of tenuous blue." After watching, he listens to the cry of the birds, which sounds to him like the squeaking of mice. The simile, however, is too humble for his taste, as in a moment he will see in the birds a symbol or augury of his own fate:

But the notes were long and shrill and whirring, unlike the cry of vermin, falling a third or a fourth and trilled as the flying beaks clove the air. Their cry was shrill and clear and fine and falling like threads of silken light unwound from whirring spools.

In the last of the four sections of Call It Sleep, David daringly climbs to the roof of his tenement building for the first time, and suddenly finds himself in a world of dazzling immensities, under "the blinding whorl of the sun." From the quiet of his lofty vantage he looks all around:

And about were roof-tops, tarred and red and sunlit and red, roof-tops to the scarred horizon. Flocks of pigeons wheeled. Where they flew in lower air, they hung like a poised and never-raveling smoke; nearer at hand and higher, they glittered like rippling water in the sun.

Of course I do not mean to suggest that Roth was specifically imitating Joyce's rendering of bird-flight when he wrote these sentences. But the similarity of the object of description points up the stylistic bond between the two writers. The best literary influence is a kind of alchemy, as here Roth picks up from Joyce a certain incantatory rhythm, the strategic use of simile, and the lyric possibilities of certain kinds of simile (note the intriguing affinity between "a limp hung cloth of tenuous blue" and "they hung like a poised and never-raveling smoke"), and fuses them into the secret cellular structure of his own prose, his own fictional world. For the child David, in contrast to the self-conscious late-adolescent Stephen, the birds are not augury or emblem, they are the immediate objects of wondering attention; and yet Roth could not have made his hero see so well without the example of Joyce.

Technique is not easily separable, however, from literary ideology, and in this regard Roth's sense of vocation, and of the thematic embodiment of vocation, was kindled by Joyce. I have in mind particularly the orientation of fiction toward what Joyce liked to call "epiphany," the revelation of meaning and purpose for the character (and, implicitly, for the reader) in a moment of illuminating vision, when everything comes together. The most spectacular epiphany in Call It Sleep, of course, is the awesome moment near the end, when David thrusts a milk dipper into the third rail and experiences a surge of cosmic power through every cell, as he is flung between life and death.

But there are more delicate epiphanies earlier in the novel, including an exquisite one that should be mentioned for its Joycean associations of water and vision. In one of the most famous passages in Portrait, Stephen sees a lovely young girl, her skirt hitched up to her waist, wading in the Liffey. He immediately casts her as angel and omen in his privat mythology of a poet in the making, and is inflamed with ecstasy. Near the end of Book III of Call It Sleep, David, having been sent out to burn the crumbs of leaven on the morning before Passover, ends up on the wharfs, looking out over the East River. He has been much preoccupied with the passage from the sixth chapter of Isaiah that he has encountered in Hebrew school, in which the Lord appears before the prophet effulgent on his throne and an angel touches the prophet's lips with a livid coal to cleanse them of their impurity. In this case, the writing does not sound much like the corresponding epiphany in Portrait (which is a good deal more effusive and pre-Raphaelite in cast), but the Joycean moment might be viewed as a kind of matrix for the vision accorded Roth's protagonist:

His gaze shifted to the left. As the cloud began to pass, a long slim lathe of sunlight burned silver on the water—

     —Gee, didn't see before!
     Widened to a swath, a lane, widened.
     —Like a ship just went.
     A plain, flawless, sheer as foil to the serried margins. His eyes dazzled.
     Fire on the water. White.
     His lids grew heavy.
     —In the water she said. White. Brighter than day.
     Whiter. And He was.

Minutes passed while he stared. The brilliance was hypnotic. He could not take his eyes away. His spirit yielded, melted into light. In the molten sheen memories and objects overlapped. Smokestacks fused to palings flickering in silence by. Pale lathes grew gray, turned dusky, contracted and in the swimming dimness, he saw sparse teeth that gnawed upon a lip; and ladders on the ground turned into hasty fingers pressing on a thigh and again smokestacks. Straight in air they stood a moment, only to fall on silvered corrugating brilliance. And he heard the rubbing on a wash-board and the splashing suds, smelled again the acrid soap and a voice speaking words that opened like the bands of a burnished silver accordion—Brighter than day … Brighter … Sin melted into light …

Technically, this extraordinary moment could be described as Joyce doubled back on himself. The thematic juncture of privileged vision looking out over the water recalls Portrait. The musically lyric narration, with little fragments of stream of consciousness (typographically marked by introductory dashes), invokes the opening, or Telemachus, section of Ulysses. The scattering of crude details of tenement life, including a sexual image, in David's gyrating free associations, recalls the earthy realism of the Bloom sections of Ulysses, so unlike the vaporous poetic diction and perception of Stephen's world in Portrait. In 1960 Leslie Fiedler sought to explain this combination in Call It Sleep of pungent naturalism and visionary transport by invoking C.M. Doughty's epigram, "The Semites are like to a man sitting in a cloaca to the eyes, and whose brows touch heaven." But one hardly needs such canards about racial imagination to explain the marriage of opposites in Roth: it is already abundantly present in Ulysses, where Bloom (a Semite, to be sure, but conceived in a most Hibernian imagination) sits in the privy dreaming of sunbursts of paradisiacal splendor in a land to the East.

Roth's alchemic transmutation of Joyce has to do less with the application of the Irish writer's methods to Jewish materials (David's switchwielding kheyder rabbi in place of Stephen's punitive Jesuit masters) than with the peculiarly American resonances of his prose, of his whole imaginative enterprise. At a time when European novelists were creating classics of realism, a central tradition of American literature was producing (as D.H. Lawrence and others came to recognize) works of a potently mythic character. Joyce's three novels abound, of course, in mythological elements, but these are brought into play through an elaborate exercise of learned allsion. What I think Roth draws from an American matrix is his primary imagination of mythic drama, even without recourse to allusion, in his handling of realistic materials. He is not a mythological writer, like Joyce, but a mythographic one, like Melville.

This quality is felt, for a start, in certain recurrent traits of style. If Roth often displays a mood-painting delicacy reminiscent of the earlier Joyce ("The body was aware of a lyric indolence, a golden lolling within itself"), his language even more frequently evinces an explosive power of hyperbole that enlarges and violently transforms the experiences it describes. Here is David falling down a flight of stairs into a cellar:

Then darkness, swirling and savage, caught him like a wind of stone, pitched him spinning among palpable drum-beats, engulfed him in a brawling welter of ruined shapes—that parted—and he plunged down a wailing fathomless shaft. A streak of flame—and screaming nothingness.

It does not suffice to say that the language here catches the immediacy of the tumbling child's terror; what it also does is to make a fall down a set of stairs into a gripping intimation of the apocalypse. Prose like this ("caught him like a wind of stone") was scarcely written in English before Moby Dick. Roth, in his novel, does it again, just as well as the 19th-century master. Thus, at the center of David's great vision when he jams the dipper into the third rail are two sentences—like the whole vision, set out in italics as verse—that are pre-eminently Melvillian in their vigor of metaphoric invention, their muscular rhythm, their insistent force of hyperbole, their cosmic sweep:

     The hawk of radiance raking him with
     talons of fire, battering his skull with
     a beak of fire, braying his body with
     pinions of intolerable light. And he
     writhed without motion in the clutch of a
     fatal glory, and his brain swelled
     and dilated till it dwarfed the galaxies
     in a bubble of refulgence—

There is an obvious Oedipal triangle at the center of Call It Sleep, complete with Freudian Family Romance in the ambiguous suggestion that David may not be his father's child. What makes this representation of paternal hatred, maternal love, filial fear and desire utterly compelling is that the stuff of psychology has been transformed into the drama of myth. This transformation is in perfect keeping with a child's perspective, in which parents loom as large as the world, and life and death are at stake in a father's threat, a mother's kiss.

From the very first sentence, the father, with his "grim smouldering face," is like some titanic figure that has surged out of the archaic imagination, always threatening, never changing. He is repeatedly associated with motifs of upraised hammers, whips, bull's horns, volcanic fury. He is all knotted muscularity, phallic hardness, a man of stone. David's perception of his father standing over him after whipping him succinctly illustrates how faithfulness to the child's psychology moves the figure perceived into the realm of myth: "David's father towered above him, rage billowing from him, shimmering in sunlight almost, like an aura."

Call It Sleep, for all its beautifully limned realistic detail, is a novel that constantly pushes toward an order of meaning beyond the social and historical spheres—another quality that could not have endeared the book to the readers of The New Masses in 1934. This movement beyond is perhaps most vividly evident in Roth's English treatment of Yiddish dialogue. It has often been observed that Roth illustrates the linguistic predicament of the immigrants by giving them a finely articulate language when they are speaking in their native tongue, which stands in contrast both to their painfully hobbled, imperfect English and to the crude streeturchin's argot their children speak to each other.

But this is an incomplete description of what Roth accomplishes in the dialogues. The English that Roth lends his characters is more formal, more decorous and elevated, than the Yiddish they would actually have been speaking. A common colloquial expression for feeling sudden despair, es iz mir finster gevoren oif di oigen, through a slight modification of diction and word order, assumes a Shakespearean dignity, even falling into an iambic cadence: "The light before my eyes grew black!" The familiar Yiddish reference to a son as a kadish is transmuted into something strange and vaguely sinister when the father says, "And that over there is what will pray for me after my death." Above all, the famous Yiddish gift for invective is translated from fishwives' curses into a kind of poetry of resonant wrath—in the mouth of the rabbi, of David's outrageous Aunt Bertha, and, above all, in the mouth of the menacing father: "Curse him and his gifts!… May he burn with them! God bray him into bits!" Finally, then, this is not mimetic dialogue, but the speech of a personage in a dramatic prose-poem.

It is not a character in Sholem Aleichem who talks like this, but Melville's Ahab, raging in a state of virtual demonic possession against whale and God and man and life itself. Those cadences, that posture, can be heard again and again in the language of Albert Schearl, which is neither Yiddish nor colloquial English, but, like Melville's, a diction at once tragic and epic: "Nothing fulfills itself with me! It's all doomed!" And in his incandescent fury, when he thinks he has found out David's illegitimacy, he thunders with a 17th-century grandeur: "That's hers! Her spawn! Mark me! Hers!… Three years I throttled surmise, I was the beast of burden! Good fortune I never met! Happiness never! Joy never!"

It is possible to think of Albert Schearl in realistic terms as a study in psychopathology. The sweep of his language, however, and its signification, in dialogue and in narration, constantly invite us to see all of the figures in this family constellation, again in keeping with some of the classics of American literature, as images of humanity facing the absolute ultimacy of existence: the father seething with resentment against life, inwardly gnawed at by an unquenchable sense of inadequacy, avenging himself with the brute force of arbitrary authority; the mother dreaming of a lost love that was impossible from the start, and giving herself, like the gift of grace in a doomed world, to her cherished child; the boy lifting his mind toward a horizon of perfect brilliance beyond the grimy existence where fathers whip, other children mock, and tenement cellars swarm with rats and vague unspeakable terrors.

In all this, mastery speaks from every page of Call It Sleep, persuading us that its achievement could not have been a fluke. Perhaps we may yet see an answering mastery, in a different fictional mode, when Mercy of a Rude Stream is placed before the public. But even if that never happens, this single luminous book will have assured its author a place among the American novelists whose work will not perish.

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