Henry Roth | Critical Review by Mary Gordon

This literature criticism consists of approximately 9 pages of analysis & critique of Henry Roth.
This section contains 2,402 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Mary Gordon

Critical Review by Mary Gordon

SOURCE: "Confession, Terminable and Interminable," The New York Times Book Review, February 26, 1995, p. 5.

In the following review, Gordon discusses Roth's complicated relationship with his Jewishness as expressed in his A Diving Rock on the Hudson.

The circumstances that surround the writing of Henry Roth's novel A Diving Rock on the Hudson are so special that it is impossible to expect a reading untouched by them. At the time of publication of this novel/memoir/journal—a work deliberately hybrid and unfixed—its author is 89 years old. It is the second volume of a series that broke the 60-year silence following the publication of Call It Sleep, a masterpiece that told the dark side of the immigrant journey, reminding Americans that their streets were not aved with gold but strewn with victims.

Critics have often marked Joyce's important influence on Call It Sleep. But Henry Roth insists, both in this book and in the interviews and essays collected in Shifting Landscape, that the looming Joyce has paralyzed him. Mr. Roth maintains that he was forced to reject Joyce's model of the artist's being like God, paring his nails at the border of the universe, in favor of a greater ethical and psychological truth. "I'm no super-verbalist, super-designer of irrelevancies, super-scholastic. I'm just striving to restore one individual to himself."

This project of restoration under the collective title Mercy of a Rude Stream centers on a revelation that forms the core of the work. The narrative follows Ira Stigman from his expulsion from Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan in 1922 on to DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. It covers his beginning days at City College and his introduction to the literary world through a New York University professor who is the lover of one of his friends. Although Mr. Roth states in a disclaimer that the novel is not an autobiography, Ira is clearly identified with Mr. Roth by a series of interpolated conversations between him and his computer. He calls his computer Ecclesias, a name that recalls both the author of the Bible's darkest book and Holy Mother Church.

These interruptions—the Old Man and the Machine—are part of the structure of A Diving Rock on the Hudson, as they were in the first volume A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park. The machine allows Mr. Roth to reveal in his ninth decade that as a boy of 14 he began an incestuous relationship with his younger sister that continued for six years, and in addition took up with an even younger cousin.

Not only is incest at the center of the narrative, Mr. Roth believes it is also at the center of his identity as a writer. He tells us that incest is the impetus for breaking the boundaries of conventionality, so the slum boy could become an artist, and the source of the psychic warping that would eventually make the artistic life impossible.

But why after 60 years has the impulse to reveal grown irresistible? Mr. Roth tries to answer this question, but creates only a tenuous web connecting his writing, his sin and his Jewishness. He says that he began to be able to write again after Israel's victory over its Arab enemies in the 1967 war. The connection is never made explicitly. One can only assume that as it became possible for Mr. Roth to stop seeing Jews as the universal victim, he felt free to tell a story in which he himself was not victim but victimizer. In an essay written in 1988, he says that the point of his project, the sequel to Call It Sleep, is "to take the ground from under the innocent victim" of Call It Sleep and to show him as the "victimizer, but more to the point, all of us as victims—in a degenerative society."

This thought splits in the middle, morally. It seems to take in its teeth the question of individual responsibility, then drop it: something too hot to bear, the coal of Isaiah that burns the lips and tongue. In a degenerate world, all men are inevitably degenerate. But what then of the victims of the victims? The fate of Ira's sister, Minnie, and the effect on her of years of incestuous coupling never trouble her tormented brother. Nor does the effect on his still living sister of the publication of a novel whose very form insists on the connection between the fiction and the life. The octogenarian Roth worries about himself, the fate of the Jews, the State of Israel. He never worries about his sister.

Part of the fascination of A Diving Rock on the Hudson is that it is a deliberately unflattering self-portrait of the garrulity and narcissism of old age. This is something we haven't seen before in literature, and if for no other reason, it is valuable as the speech of a tribe until now silenced. Mr. Roth is aware of the position granted him by his infirmity and age: "The journey … couldn't contain any more, anyway ought not to. Maybe interesting stuff, but a plethora. Then what? Delete? All that followed?… Maybe he ought to delete this intervention too, this bit of Nestorian garrulity…. His sense of rightness required this interlude."

Mr. Roth is clear that, this sense of rightness is psychological or spiritual rather than literary. "Would that I had been spared the need to mention these painful events…. The story cannot continue without this admission. And I damn near don't give a hoot about the literary quality…. Oh, a million billion threads, motes, spirochetes—all of which he had to sweep aside to resume, in acceptable prose … the continuity of what be already knew, and knew only too well and grievously, to strive to nurture the masterpiece model he hoped to re-create."

But what is involved in the creation of the masterpiece model? For the modernist master, the writer must get out of the way of his own work, devote his attention to form rather than content, remain disinterested about the backwash of the work on his own life. The modernist writer is heroic in his self-forgetfulness and in his priestly service to the idea of art. Art is the only redemption, formal beauty the only ideal worth serving.

How does this ideal affect a man in his late 80's? A man who is writing against time, literal time, not the time that is another esthetic device the modernist writer shapes, controls, eventually entraps in the amber of his art? Mr. Roth can't be a modernist master because he has not felt redeemed by the creation of beauty. He insists on another kind of redemption: the redemption of confession, of exposure, of a relentless insistence on his own defilement. But this can only take place through writing: "Writing was all that could in some way gain rehabilitation—without his seeking pardon or absolution, but by employing what he was…. He had destroyed, or undermined irreversibly," the central strength of who he was, writing was all there was left to him as justification…. The literary path became thus his 'choice.'"

The problem, for Mr. Roth, is that the road that went before him was paved entirely by non-Jews. In A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park, Mr. Roth says: "Those were the stories he prized above all others, stories he loved: of enchantment and delicacy, of princelings and fair princesses…. And King Arthur's knights, they sought the Holy Grail, the radiant vessel like a loving cup out of which Jesus had drunk wine. So everything beautiful was Christian, wasn't it? All that was flawless and pure and bold and courtly and chivalric was goyish."

How then does a Jew, believing what Mr. Roth believes, enter the masterpiece tradition? Particularly the modernist one, with its cult of the priesthood of art, the golden calf to which, rather than to Yahweh, the practitioner must bend the knee? How does he participate in the Eucharist of art? How can be believe himself redeemed by it? Redemption, for a Jew, takes place not through the ritual actions of a priest but through ethical reparations made in the living community by a living soul.

This taste for an ethical dimension might explain Mr. Roth's becoming a Communist after the completion of Call It Sleep. It is usually understood that accepting the party's charge to write Socialist Realism was the cause of his writer's block. But it seems to me rather that Mr. Roth was not silenced by his Marxism, he was driven to Marxism by a Jewishness that could not be satisfied with the anti-communal anti-ethical, almost idolatrous tenets of his modernist models, Eliot and Joyce.

An artist does not choose the frequency he or she hears. The frequency is picked up by an inexplicably constructed mesh of miracle and accident. Mr. Roth picked up the frequency of the brooding dream: poetic, darkly lit and full of whispers. For this lyrical mournfulness, he needed his father, Joyce, to show the way. But Joyce, creator of the most famous Jew in modern literature, was not himself a Jew, and so could only be an uneasy foster father. Harold Bloom tells us that all strong writers kill the father before them. But what if the son murders prematurely, before reaching his full strength? Mr. Roth couldn't bear the yoke of the great high priest, Joyce, and killed him. But without Joyce he was unable to move forward into a tale that would accommodate his obsession with what he believed was the vexed state of being a Jew.

What needed to follow Call It Sleep was a deep dive into the mire of self-hatred. Mr. Roth says that this is what he's doing now. But he insists that his sense of defilement is personal, connected to nothing larger. "I'm not engaged in a sociological tract, but a rendering … of my lamentable past…. I feel bound not to mitigate the behavior of this literary scamp, bound to present him as despicable as he was." His prose rings most true when he takes this risk. He describes his sexual adventures with his young cousin: "Boyoboy, his blazing passion could kill this little, oh, fat little heifer, supine, submissive, inviting murderous sacrifice. Jesus. But where? Where freedom for rut to erupt, where a minute of privacy, innocent-seeming privacy? Think Upstairs. Possibly. Try."

Mr. Roth's description of sex with his sister is an unflinching evocation of the sordidness of lust unleavened by any affection or regard.

"You louse…."

"You don't get a thrill, too?"

"You're older, that's why it's your fault. Who started it?"

But Mr. Roth never reaches these heights, or depths, of understanding when he is discussing his Jewishness. A veil comes over his eyes, vital connections aren't made, vital admissions are glossed over. There is a moment when Ira brings sandwiches made of Jewish salami on a picnic with a more genteel Jewish friend and two Christian women professors. Before he meets with the company, however, he throws the sandwiches into the river: they're too heavy, too smelly, too insistent on drawing attention to themselves. But this half-comic scene or metaphor doesn't come to terms with Mr. Roth's conviction that "everything beautiful was Christian." It doesn't sear itself on our memory like the image, in Call It Sleep, of the milk dipper dropped onto the third rail.

In a confused and hypercomplicated way, Mr. Roth finds in the Lower East Side (where he lived as a young child before the family move to largely Christian Harlem) the Jewish mother lode that has fed his art and might, if he'd been allowed to stay there, have kept him whole: "I felt at home there shored and stayed by tenets I imagined inhered in the nature of things. I belonged. And therefore, everything I did, however wicked, was somehow endemic, indigenous, part of the general scheme." Is Mr. Roth saying that if he'd been allowed to live in an environment of wickedness and madness, because it at least had coherence, he would have been spared the wickedness and madness that later marked his life? That in a world of the wicked and mad he would not have had the pain of knowing himself different? This mysterious passage sheds light, I think on the knot of Mr. Roth's relationship to his Jewishness. It is a knot that, at 89, he has not yet untied.

Mr. Roth circles around the topic of Jewish self-hatred by creating a world of Jewishness without charm or humor. Its warmth is only suffocation; its attentiveness surveillance; its bonds, traps. Judaism provides no poetry for Mr. Roth and no spiritual sustenance. Even the beautiful mother of Call It Sleep is replaced by the homely downtrodden mother of Mercy of a Rude Stream. The father, less frightening, is perhaps more pathetic. The upper class Jews represented by the family of one of Ira's classmates are materialistic, grasping and limited in their horizons and imaginations.

In the part of A Diving Rock on the Hudson that is purely narrative, Mr. Roth gives us an enormous number of details, sometimes so many we can't form a coherent picture. Occasionally, though, the old magic of Call It Sleep is there; a street comes alive for us, or a moment. But mostly we are awash in what he has referred to as the "plethora" of details: a pileup of facts rather than concentrated images. Sometimes he lapses into the diction of the "Boys' Own Stories" that must have been his first reading: "the inexorable, irreversible doom that had befallen him—nay, nay, invited to befall him." Boys are referred to as "youths." At moments of stress Ira exclaims "Boyoboy!"

But is this kind of faultfinding appropriate to the enterprise of a man of nearly 90 who says it is part of his goal to include garrulousness, to avoid the trap of beautiful writing? Who says he is doing this, not for literature, but to justify his life? Clearly, this is a different order of work from Call It Sleep and must be read with different standards. Call It Sleep remains a masterpiece; nothing is lost from it, or added to it, by reading its sequels.

And so, how do we read these new works, trailing behind them both a history and a work of literature? We read them on their own clearly articulated terms and, having agreed to do that, we are wholly taken up by the touching and fascinating record of a marred life that insists on pressing on us its pulsing, painfully relentless vitality.

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This section contains 2,402 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Mary Gordon
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