Monday, April 30, 2018
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“CALL IT SLEEP” by Henry Roth (first published in 1934); “MERCY OF A RUDE STREAM” (tetralogy of novels) by Henry Roth (first published 1994-98)
I hold to my principle that a novel should be judged by the words that appear on the page. It should not be judged by what we know of the author’s biography and it should not be judged by the circumstances in which it was written.
But sometimes the reason for a novel’s peculiar impact can be explained only by things outside the text.
I take as my example what is now regarded as an American classic, Call It Sleep by Henry Roth (1906-1995). The novel was first published in 1934, when Roth was 28. It was praised by the critics, who predicted that Roth had a great literary career ahead of him. But Call It Sleep did not sell well, and was not re-printed. Henry Roth published nothing else of note and by the 1960s his novel was in danger of being forgotten. In 1960 it was republished as a hardback, but again gained little attention. Only in 1964, thirty years after it first appeared, did it get a paperback edition. One influential review of the paperback turned it into as bestseller, and it has remained a “classic” ever since.
I first read Call It Sleep in the mid-1980s, when Henry Roth was himself nearing his eighties and was regarded as a one-hit wonder who would never be heard from again.
The novel puzzled me in a number of ways.
Told from the perspective of a little boy, it mixed stream-of-consciousness observations with hard-headed sociological documentation and much ethnic dialect. Roth acknowledged that the stream-of-consciousness bits were greatly influenced by the prose of James Joyce (whom he later saw as having had too much influence on him). As for the ethnic dialect, being about a Jewish immigrant family in New York, most conversations in the novel are in standard English, and these, we can assume, are the conversations in which characters are speaking comfortably in their own language. But when conversations go into broken English (grammar breaking down, Yiddish words mixing with English etc.), we know we are reading characters’ attempts at speaking in English. Given that at certain points the main character mixes with Irish toughs, there are specimens of another sort of New York-ese here too.
This was not what puzzled me most about Call It Sleep, however. I was baffled by the sense of menace that ran through it. Certainly the little boy at the centre of the novel is a sensitive creature, and certainly some bad things happen to him. But his nervousness, his jumpiness, his extreme reactions amount often to suppressed hysteria. I kept thinking that there must be something we were not being told; some unspoken abomination the author was not disclosing.
Let’s synopsise to get our bearings.
Call It Sleep takes place in New York in the years just before the First World War. It opens when its main character David Schearl is six years old; and closes about two years later when he is eight. David loves his mother Genya, but his father Albert is bad-tempered, violent, and eaten away with suspicion. Albert came to America on his own to seek work, and only later did Genya and the infant David join him from their native Ukraine (or “Austrian Galicia”, as it was then called). Naturally David has bonded more strongly with his mother. This in itself riles Albert, but Albert’s inability to find satisfactory work is another factor in his mood swings. Most disconcerting is Albert’s suspicion that Genya had an affair with another man when she was still in the Ukraine, and that possibly David is not really his son.
Because it is a modernist, and often stream-of-consciousness, novel, much is taken up with the little boy’s dreams, observations and fantasies. He intuits that something is wrong with his family, but is too young to diagnose the problem. Meanwhile the family moves from the largely-Jewish Lower East Side of New York to a part of Harlem where there are as many Irish immigrants as Jewish ones. Pre-pubescent David gets his first knowledge of sex from little girls who show their knickers to neighbourhood boys. He for a while idolises an older Gentile kid, an Irish Catholic tough called Leo, who uses David as a kind of innocent pimp, taking Leo to where he can see the girls misbehaving. It is possible that Leo rapes David’s cousin, though the text does not make this clear. Later David’s father, who takes a job as a milkman, nearly whips to death a man who steals some of his stock. Later still, David’s father seems prepared to whip little David himself in one of his rages at the possibility that David might not be his son.
Yet none of these things seem to be the real fuel of the child’s anxiety.
David receives religious instruction from a rabbi at a cheder school. If it were written by a Gentile author, the portrait of the rabbi (Yidel Pankower) could almost be seen as an anti-semitic caricature. Like David’s father, he is an ignorant and violent man. But the child is impressed by the story from Isaiah of the angel touching the prophet’s lips with live coal to make him eloquent. Near the novel’s conclusion the child, trying in some mystic way to heal what is wrong in his family, equates the angel’s hurt-giving live coal with the hurt-giving electrified rails of the train system. He touches a rail, is knocked out and badly hurt. When he is brought back to his family, both parents cherish him. It is obvious to the alert reader that this can be at best a temporary peace in an unhappy family, but it is for David a moment of blissful relief and freedom from the burden of over-active consciousness – one could almost “call it sleep”.
When Call It Sleep is praised, it is often praised in terms of its historical and sociological significance. Here is a novel of Jewish immigrants at the beginning of the process of becoming assimilated into American society. The novel does indicate strongly the sweat and toil and close quarters of the poor, and it does show the intermingling of Jews with other ethnicities. Much of young David’s stream-of-consciousness gives us the sights and sounds and sordor of New York a century ago. But, important though they are to the novel, it is not the documentary things that make this novel unique. Rather, it is the perspective of the child and his anxieties.
Which brings me back to that sense of dread – amounting to suppressed hysteria – that suffuses so much of the novel. Where does it come from?
I think I got my answer a few years after I first read Call It Sleep when, in 1994 and 1995 – amazingly, after what amounted to 60 years of literary silence – the 87-year-old Henry Roth published the first two volumes of his tetralogy Mercy of a Rude Stream (the last two volumes were published posthumously). Let’s make it clear that, like Call It Sleep, these novels are highly autobiographical. Like David Schearl of Call It Sleep, Henry (originally Herschel) Roth was born in the Ukraine; brought to America as an infant; had a mother whom he loved and a father whom he feared; and lived in the Lower East Side until 1914, when his family moved to the Irish and Jewish neighbourhood of Harlem.
In the Mercy of a Rude Stream sequence, we essentially get the further life of David Schearl (i.e. Henry Roth) as he grows through adolescence and young manhood between 1914 and 1927. Except that the main character is no longer called David Schearl, but is called Ira Stigman. I recall reviewing the first volume, titled A Star Shines Over Mt Morris Park, for the Sunday-Star Times (on 18 June 1995 to be precise), when the paperback edition of the novel first came out in New Zealand. The novel takes “Ira Stigman” to his high school days. I praised it for its vivid picture of old New York, as experienced by the less wealthy, and for the way it showed the difficulties a young Jewish man had in yielding his family’s traditional culture to the pull of assimilation with Gentiles. It also suggested the first adolescent fumblings with sex. I noted that Henry Roth’s strategy was to have “Ira” as an old man butting in every so often to comment on the experiences of his youthful self – in other words, old Henry Roth commenting on young Henry Roth.
So far, so innocuous. But the bombshell fell when the second volume, titled A Diving Rock on the Hudson, appeared in 1995, just before Henry Roth’s death. As I recorded in my reading diary, we are 140 pages into this 410 page novel when we are suddenly, and with no preparation, told for the first time that “Ira” has a younger sister called “Minnie”. And, it transpires, between the ages of 12 and 18, “Ira” regularly has sexual intercourse with his little sister. This is repeated and frequent (virtually every time the siblings’ parents are out on the weekend). To make matters worse, “Ira” adds his pubescent cousin “Stella” to his conquests. So incest, and the dark consciousness of incest, is the theme that runs through the rest of the novel, mocking everything “Ira” does, distorting his relationships with others, giving him a “hidden” personality that is at odds with the part he plays in public, dominating his life with furtiveness, self-disgust and awareness of sin.
An author’s note at the beginning of A Diving Rock on the Hudson states emphatically that “this novel is certainly not an autobiography, nor should it be taken as such.” But it is hard to believe this when old “Ira” keeps telling us about the one and only novel he had published in the 1930s, and repeatedly says he is now engaged in writing about his own youth. (Peripheral details also force us to make this identification – the high school “Ira” attends is Henry Roth’s old high school).
After Roth’s death, the cat was let out of the bag (you may easily find the details on-line). Henry Roth’s younger sister – of course herself a very old lady by 1995 – begged Henry not to include these shaming details in what was transparently autobiography. Roth paid her a large sum of money to soften her, and added the disingenuous “author’s note” at her insistence. There has been much discussion about this. Some praise Roth for facing up honestly to this formative circumstance in his young life. There has even been talk of his “redemption”, especially as, after his attempts at setting aside his Jewish identity, he re-embraced Judaism. Others, however, have seen great cruelty in his attitude towards his (elderly) sister, and they have noted the rather devious way he got to present his tetralogy to the world. Publishers were very eager to have a new work from the author who wrote the classic Call It Sleep. When Roth presented them with A Star Shines Over Mt Morris Park, they readily signed a contract to publish all four projected volumes of Mercy of a Rude Stream. Roth was careful to keep the details of incest out of the first volume, as it might have deterred the publishers from concluding such a contract.
After all this became generally known, critics had a much better idea why Roth’s “writer’s block” had lasted for the best part of 60 years. The simple fact was that, being one who always wrote autobiographically, Roth could not write about the incestuous adolescent he had been.
I have no way of proving this, of course, but as I re-read Call It Sleep, I can’t help feeling that the 28-year-old author’s guilt and shame fed into the novel, and added that odd dimension of foreboding, dread and hysteria that I detected.