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Critical Review by Zachary Leader
SOURCE: "An East-Side kid," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4743, February 25, 1994, p. 20.
In the following review, Leader proposes that in Roth's Mercy of a Rude Stream "The author wishes to recreate a world now lost, one defaced by the earlier novel's 'artistic' distortions, a product of complex personal and political needs."
The stream in question is Henry Roth's life: "rude" because materially impoverished as well as harsh, a life of immigrant slums and the coarse intimacies of crowded tenements; "merciful" because by returning to it as a source of art, after decades of "literary desolation", Roth the novelist at last regained his voice, was released from the most striking instance of writer's block in modern American fiction. Roth's block, like Wordsworth's "long continued frost" (a mere blip or glitch in comparison), dissolves in a work of epic autobiography: A Star Shines over Mt Morris Park is but the first instalment of Mercy of a Rude Stream, a projected six-volume life story. This story, sometimes only perfunctorily fictionalized, was begun in 1979 and is now, its eighty-seven-year-old author assures us, substantially complete, in a manuscript of over 3,000 pages.
Such epic self-absorption, paradoxically, signals a release from selfishness, the sort of writerly selfishness Wordsworth complains of at the beginning of The Prelude, that "with a false activity beats off / Simplicity and self-presented truth"—the chief virtues of Roth's new work. "My high blown pride / At length broke under me, and now has left me / Weary and old with service, / To the mercy of a rude stream", declares Cardinal Wolsey in the novel's epigraph, from Henry VIII. Wolsey, too, in lines Roth doesn't quote, fell victim to "a killing frost", one that nipped his hopes just when, like Roth, "blushing honours" like "blossoms" grew "thick upon him". But Wolsey's "mercy" is ironic; "mine", Roth declares, "is not. It is literal."
The occluding "selfishness" or "false activity" which blocked Roth was already, he believes, discernible at the end of Call It Sleep, the precocious first novel which, after much indirection, made his name. Call It Sleep belongs to two distinct traditions: its subject-matter—Jewish immigrant life on the Lower East Side—recalls other "proletarian" works of the 1930s, notably Mike Gold's Jews Without Money, Clifford Odets's Awake and Sing! and Daniel Fuchs's trilogy of Williamsburg novels. Its manner, though, is high modernist, echoing Joyce, Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, and Hart Crane. Nowhere is this modernist influence clearer than in the novel's penultimate chapter, a sixty-page "chorus" of immigrant and lower-class voices modelled on Crane's The Bridge and the "Game of Chess" section of The Waste Land. This chapter Roth has described as the beginning of the end: "an indication that the form of the novel was being broken, along with the creative psyche of the novelist".
The cause of this breakdown or dissolution was partly political. In 1933, while still at work on the novel, Roth joined the Communist Party. Immediately, he began to doubt what he'd written. Call It Sleep "didn't strike a posture, didn't locate anywhere, defend anything, or attack anything explicitly … and as soon as I realised this 'fact', as soon as I grappled with commitment, I becameimmobilized." Or, as he elsewhere puts it: "it had the effect of making me overly conscious of myself as a writer". Hence the several sorts of discontinuity embodied in the novel's penultimate chapter. Roth had begun to lose his way, under a pressure he saw as historically determined as well as personal: "What had happened to me was common to a whole generation of writers in the thirties. One author after another, whether he was Gentile or Jew, stopped writing, became repetitive, ran out of anything new to say or just plain died artistically."
A Star Shines over Mt Morris Park returns to the world of Call It Sleep, but importantly reconceives it. It begins at almost exactly the moment the earlier novel left off, in 1914, a momentous year for Roth's eight-year-old fictional alter ego, now called Ira Stigman rather than David Schearl. Though the outbreak of war is immediately recorded (and will eventually effect Ira's larger family), the event that matters most in the opening pages is local: Ira's family moves. The exclusively Jewish Lower East Side of Call It Sleep gives way to a tiny enclave of Jewish families within a largely Irish-Catholic neighbourhood in Harlem. The consequences of this removal Roth sees as disastrous: Ira becomes self-conscious about his Jewishness, self-hating, a victim: "he could almost feel the once self-assured East Side kid shrivelling within himself". Hence Ira's embarrassed reaction to the arrival from Europe of his maternal relations, with their "crudity and grimace, their green and carious teeth". Hence, also, Ira's later attraction to goyish strength, as in the choice of a boxer, an Irish-American, as the protagonist of his second, aborted novel—a choice Roth called "the end of my writing life": "after that came the block".
The new novel's rejection of victimhood begins with a more humane and rounded account of Ira/Roth's father, and a less formulaically Freudian conception both of Ira's anchoring mother and of family relations in general. Albert Schearl in Call It Sleep was a monster, a crude literalization of Oedipal fears. Chaim Stigman, though still jittery, paranoid, and violent, is less of a caricature, in part because his creator has come to identify with him. When Chaim complains that work on the trolleys has ruined his stomach, his wife asks how the goyim stand it:
"Because they're goyim", said Pop.
"it's not because they're always on edge like you? It's not because they have a skittish stomach?"
"Why should they have a skittish stomach?… Did they have to skimp as I did until I saved enough money for your passage to America?"
This ignoble blame-shifting is like Roth's demonizing father in Call It Sleep; or, some would argue, like the metaphor of blockage itself, in which the writer's difficulties are externalized and objectified, are seen as the result not of personal lack or deficiency, but of an alien obstacle or impediment. It is a trait shared also by Ira's Zaida or grandfather. "Such a punishment to befall me", Zaida wails when grief and anxiety stop his wife from eating. "If she won't eat, she won't eat. But at least cook. I die of hunger here." Earlier, Zaida offers Ira a "delicacy"; "He picked up a boiled chicken foot from his plate, bit out the one meaty bubble at the base of the toes, and handed his grandson the yellow shank and skimpy talons." That Roth can now find this sort of selfishness comical is a sign of his release from its grip.
The novel's looseness of structure is of a piece with its more relaxed and tolerant eye. The "plot" is the life: in effect, everything the narrator can remember from 1914 to 1920. The only frill in the storytelling is Roth's doubling of narrative voices, in which the main story is periodically interrupted by Ira's adult reflections: on what he's just written, on the causes and cures of his writer's block, on Israel, on characters yet to be introduced, in particular "M" (the composer Muriel Parker, whom Roth met at the artists' colony, Yaddo, in 1938, and who died in 1990). These reflections are addressed to Ira's word processor, named Ecclesias (as in the Biblical book of acceptance and release), which itself sometimes answers back. Though frequently wordy, stilted, repetitive, unsure of tone, and irritatingly enigmatic—easily the weakest sections of the book—they also reinforce central themes, often by virtue of their very artlessness.
For example, when Ira suddenly recognizes an error or misremembering in the main story ("his parents were not the first Jews living on 119th Street … enticing to the writer as that sort of extreme predicament. might be"), he panics and breaks into the main narrative. This panic recalls the "irrational fear" that blocked him long ago and, worse, "unforeseen stretched tentacles into his psyche in the present". Calm down, Ira tells himself: "append the omitted material and go on" which is just what this untidy interruption does.
The impression such moments create is of absolute fidelity to experience. The author wishes to recreate a world now lost, one defaced by the earlier novel's "artistic" distortions, a product of complex personal and political needs. True creation, in Wordsworth's words, is
A balance, an ennobling interchange
Of action from within and from without;
The excellence, pure spirit, and best power
Both of the object seen, and eye that sees.
Though Roth's new work often goes too far in its rejection of "action from within"—is, indeed, insufficiently shaped and worked—the recollections themselves ring true, and make his story utterly absorbing. Here, one feels, is the vanished immigrant world, a world which in turn allows the reader to deduce a prior "old country".
Early in the novel, one of Ira's uncles, newly arrived from Galicia, offers his eight-year-old nephew a bite of raw carrot, something Ira informs him "nobody eats" in America. This moment, the adult narrator recalls, "condensed into the first inference he was ever conscious of as inference…. The moist, orangy, peeled carrot at the core of recollection substantiated all that Mom had told him: about the meagreness of rations, about the larder kept under lock and key, about Zaida's autocratic sway, his precedence in being served." Though Mercy of a Rude Stream may be something less than art, such moments make two things clear: Henry Roth can write, and his story is still worth listening to.
This section contains 1,576 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)