Henry Roth | Critical Review by Frank Kermode

This literature criticism consists of approximately 5 pages of analysis & critique of Henry Roth.
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Critical Review by Frank Kermode

SOURCE: "'Holistic Rendering of My Lamentable Past,'" in The New York Times Book Review, July 14, 1996, p. 6.

In the following review, Kermode states that Roth's From Bondage "does what has rarely been done before; it enhances its brilliant youthful original by casting upon it the calmer, contemplative light of old age."

There can be few readers of modern American fiction unfamiliar with the extraordinary career of Henry Roth. Born in Galicia in 1906, he arrived in New York with his Yiddish-speaking parents three years later, and lived first on the Lower East Side and then in Harlem. He did many menial jobs and was a not particularly bright student at City College; but in 1934, at the age of 28, he published Call It Sleep, a novel dedicated to Eda Lou Walton, who introduced him to the literary world, became his mistress and detected and fostered a talent hardly perceived by anybody else.

Call It Sleep is a truly astonishing achievement. Written almost entirely from the point of view of a young child, it represents with virtuosity the language of the family, giving to its partly Anglicized representation of Yiddish a great richness and an often comic splendor, Roth borrows form James Joyce the technique of internal monologue for vivid accounts of the boy's bewilderment at the mysteries of his parents' marriage, and of the cold world around him, with its vast hostile streets, its ethnic gangs, its harsh employers and its conflicting notions of holiness. Beneath the fascinating surface there lies a powerful, even melodramatic plot involving the beloved mother, suspected by her husband of an infidelity that produced young David, and the terrifying father, almost mythically violent, who in jealous misery hates and persecutes a boy who has trouble enough already with his own day-to-day life.

Having enjoyed a mild success on its first publication, Call It Sleep surprisingly dropped from view, but it achieved greater fame when published in paperback in 1964 and now has undisputed classic status. Meanwhile Roth suffered what must be one of the longest bouts of writer's block on record. He made his living in many different trades—toolmaker, waterfowl farmer, math tutor—and delayed his return to fiction for over 40 years. From the work of his old age one deduces that he began to write again in the 1970's, and in the 80's, already in the grip of rheumatoid arthritis (R.A. he calls it, reflecting that ra in Hebrew connotes "evil"), reworked the text. He acquired a computer and began to convert the typescripts of the previous decade into a very long novel, planned to occupy six volumes. It is not clear whether he progressed beyond the third volume, though the earlier and fuller draft presumably survives.

Mercy of a Rude Stream is the title of the whole project. The first two volumes, A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park and A Diving Rock on the Hudson, were published in 1994 and 1995. Roth died in October 1995, and the posthumously published From Bondage is the third in the series. The central figure in these books is Ira Stigman, a boy with a past not unlike that of David Schearl in Call It Sleep, though at the outset he is three years older and has a milder (yet still abusive) father. We are warned not to treat these books as autobiography; but with the aid of his trusty word processor the author inserts into the narrative passages about his present condition, his love for his wife, his illness, how he has come to quarrel with his erstwhile master Joyce, how his fears for Israel have changed him from one who, like Joyce, chose silence and exile into a Jew again sure of his loyalties. He looks back rather enviously at what he calls his only novel, Call It Sleep, wondering how he was "for five decades … well-nigh immobilized," how he "painted himself into the corner of childhood." He chats with his beloved computer about the difficulty of what he has undertaken—his "attempt at holistic rendering of my lamentable past," at "the shedding of his abominable self," with many reflections on the progress of the story, and hints as to what is to come later. The narrative proper ends even before Ira becomes Edith's lover, and long before the writing of Call It Sleep.

The computer makes cutting so easy—why not press the delete key and abolish such embarrassing diversions? "Why was he doing this, demeaning himself—and perhaps Jews, the multitude of Jews who had transformed one previous novel into a shrine, a child's shrine at that—to the extent he was?" The commentary, which grows more copious as the story unfolds, is given its own typeface, and has a different tone and status from the rest of the narrative, but in view of what it adds it is hard not to see the entire work as fictionalized autobiography; nor does Roth actively dispute the description.

Indeed this huge second novel has a strong confessional aspect (and there are significant allusions to St. Augustine). The aged Ira brings himself with difficulty to the point of explaining the sense of guilt that partly ruined his life and was a cause of his block: his early incest with an under-age sister, and the sexual exploitation of a young cousin. His encounters with these girls are described with a sort of unrelenting, gritted-teeth dedication to the recording of the deceits, delights and disgust they entail. They are blamed for Ira's ignorance of "how to make a pass at someone refined"—at a woman who didn't belong to the family—as well as for his long silence. We can guess that in still unpublished later parts of the narrative Edith, the character based on Eda Lou Walton, and "M," his wife, Muriel, who died in 1990, will help rid him of this inhibition.

When the dialogue is simply in educated English, as it mostly is when Ira begins to move in literary circles—chattering about T.S. Eliot, discussing a smuggled copy of Ulysses—it lacks the vitality and charm of the domestic Yiddish that Roth so beautifully renders in the earlier parts, with its comic lamentation and terrible curses. And the registration of the settings lacks some of the dark, threatening detail of the first book, the old insights into maternal love and into panic, loneliness and lostness.

Yet this third installment of the new one is by no means lacking in energy. The effect is of an old man brooding fruitfully over the details of a youth 70 years past, his memory sharpened by fantasy and enlivened by an apprehension of other personalities now enriched by adult experience. An example is the portrait of his friend Larry, much better off, much smarter, at ease with poets, who in time proves too fragile and too changeable to achieve anything substantial and suffers burnout, atrophy, a fate that almost befell the narrator himself, who lived on ecause, after all, the rude stream proved—to him—merciful.

From Bondage resumes Ira's story at the point where he is closest to Larry, Edith's current lover. He grows more easy in refined company, but he still has to work, especially since his grades at City College aren't good; he has a job in a candy store, hustles soda at the ball park, sweats as a maintenance man or "grease monkey" in a subway repair yard. He does some petty thieving, but also takes his first little steps as a writer and becomes the confidant of Edith.

Ira isn't sure he likes the new direction of his life, but submits almost passively. From what he regards as the dreary company of the poolroom—"the first American-born generation of Jews, the bridge between the poor East European immigrants who landed here and the American Jews their offspring become"—he gradually moves into gentile circles and accepts his vocation as a writer.

It must be said that nothing we learn about Ira in this account by his aged shadow gives much of an explanation of why he became, almost at a stroke, a writer of quite exceptional accomplishment. The impression we are left with is that the chronicler doesn't really know himself. There were, he says, contemporaries much more brilliant and original than he, but he was, in a sense, chosen. He "deserved very little credit. Only that of striving to develop the most preeminent, if not the only gift he had … which was what the others did, also … those more gifted than he who yet failed to win universal appeal. It was all a Calvinist fluke."

That is a wise saying, even if it borrows the doctrine of election from an alien religion. This latest in the sequence Mercy of a Rude Stream does what has rarely been done before; it enhances its brilliant youthful original by casting upon it the calmer, contemplative light of old age. It is clearly indispensable to the appreciation of Roth's unique life and work as a whole.

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This section contains 1,486 words
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Buy the Critical Review by Frank Kermode
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