Henry Roth | Critical Review by Paul West

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Henry Roth.
This section contains 931 words
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Critical Review by Paul West

SOURCE: "Waves of Memory," in WP Bookworld, February 5, 1995, p. 5.

In the following review, West discusses the confessional and autobiographical nature of Roth's A Diving Rock on the Hudson, pointing out that Roth asserts that the book is a work of fiction.

Stationary there on a brown promontory studded with stubs of girder, he has just trudged past us carrying a fishing rod, or he has been there forever. Behind him a tug makes its minor bow-wave in the cobalt blue water, and above him, as if the heavens are rending, a shower of white cloud reaches him. All he has on are dun shorts and a loose-fitting undershirt. This is Ira Stigman, Henry Roth's adolescent Jewish hero drawn by the jacket artist, and the scene—stirring, spacious, rugged—corresponds to a lovely page of writing early on in the novel, when we hear how Ira, a walker in the city, rambled along for a mile or so, "until he came to a painted arrow that marked the entrance to a path downhill whose other end opened on an artificially sandy beach. It was a privately owned swimming area on the Hudson, complete with dressing room, lockers, and a diving platform extending into the river."

Here Ira, a teen of roly-poly build, swims out into the Hudson estuary to "the rusting hulks of the Liberty ships," to anchored pontoon planes, ducking Navy patrol boats, willing the cramp away. A leviathan waits beneath him as he floats. At these times, he thinks of his mother, who said "I let you go because you have to learn about America." The novel is an impasto of romantic and American myths. Rites of passage abound, not least that of the lightning-bolt novel that has to wait a lifetime to be written, Roth making Ira wait just as Roth has. The novel uses two type faces, one for the escapades of Ira's school years (almost like something written by J.G. Farrell), the other for the octogenarian novelist looking back on the book's genesis and the shifting literary fashions among which it lingered, going nowhere.

Readers will have to make up their own minds about a non-biographical book that seems confessional. Roth says that "although some characters were inspired by people whom the author knew, the narrative is not intended in any way to be a depiction of any real events." So, what we have here is a simulacrum of an artifice or what Plato, if he didn't first toss the book into the sea, might have called a thoughtful deceit. Here is Ira in the New York of the Roaring Twenties, trapped in Bedford Stuyvesant, stealing pens, making love to his sister, incompetently slaving as trolley-car conductor, Yankee Stadium soda-pop hustler and plumber's mate. This part of the novel, matter-of-fact and straightforward, will be easy to translate, but the only section with any real power or magic is that dealing with incest.

On the other hand, the second type of writing in the novel, essayistic or ruminative, rises to impressive heights and informs us that the sometimes pedestrian teller, Henry Roth, has a shiny, agile, well-stocked mind. I caught myself wishing this were the autobiography of a truly Faustian intellect, with teenage mishaps relegated to the role of an almost unheard reveille. After the halfway mark, Roth seems unable to have his narrator keep at bay the book he clearly wants to write—the woof and incidentals of a self-censoring mind—and lets in all his ideas, which are a joy to have, so much more a literary offering than the de rigueur postcards of stoical immigrants making do in slum tenements worse than those they came from.

It's a matter of contrast. Roth thinks he needs solid realism to counter his elegant woolgathering, but what he truly needs is a style that can render the lower depths of Ira without textually cutting them off from the novel's intellectual hinterland. To be sure, an ethos comes to life: John McCormick singing "Mavoureen" on the phonograph; "colored" said as "cullud"; the cadences of Yiddish; incessant, clandestine talk of condoms, fried bacon and beans at camp. Ira passes through an alien world in which the women wear picture hats and long white gloves, but his true destination is neither home nor work, neither one school nor the other, neither Cornell (which he turns down without so much as a thought of Ithaca's savage winters) nor City College of New York, where he goes to study biology. His journey is to his imagination, long suppressed.

Ira, who is 16 in 1922, personifies for us the aroma of a long-unopened attic and becomes the incessant mourner of an era gone, a life almost lost. Wanting to be a fleur du mal, he ends up ranting against Joyce and his exegetes, taking the diuretic Furosemide, and mentally discussing his novel-in-progress with a guardian-guide he calls Ecclesias. References to T.S. Eliot, S.T. Coleridge, and Thomas de Quincey (misspelled) enliven the text, even though Roth's erratic narrator gives us more information than sensibility.

It is no surprise to receive this time-sliding, constantly interrupted book from Henry Roth, born in 1906, whose first novel, Call It Sleep, appeared in 1934, whose second novel, Mercy of a Rude Stream, took another 60 years. This second volume of that book will set readers comparing it with a biographical outline of Roth's life—and marveling at the closeness of the two. A portion of the novel appeared in the Lavender, a City College of New York journal, in 1925; so too does a portion of Ira's. Roth is the monarch of all he conveys.

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This section contains 931 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Paul West
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