[Marxism] Henry Roth's complete novels

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Apr 11 07:59:26 MDT 2015


NY Review of Books, Apr. 21 2015
A Prodigal Struggle with Demons
by Nathaniel Rich

Mercy of a Rude Stream: The Complete Novels
by Henry Roth, with an introduction by Joshua Ferris
Liveright, 1,279 pp., $39.95

Muriel Parker Roth and Henry Roth (left) with Muriel’s sister Elizabeth 
Parker Mills and brother-in-law John Mills IV (right), shortly after the 
Roths’ marriage. In 1939, the Millses invited the Roths to move into 
their penthouse apartment with them on East 23rd Street.
When Henry Roth’s debut novel, Call It Sleep, was published in 1934, 
critics judged it second as a work of fiction, and first as a work of 
anthropology. An autobiographical account of immigrant Jewish life on 
the Lower East Side, the book was praised in the New York Herald Tribune 
as “the most accurate and profound study of an American slum childhood 
that has yet appeared”; the New York Times reviewer wrote that it “has 
done for the East Side what James T. Farrell is doing for the Chicago 
Irish.” The New Masses, a Marxist journal, debated whether the novel was 
sufficiently revolutionary. This arid political criticism might have 
contributed to killing it off, for the novel was out of print by 1936.

When it was republished as an Avon paperback in 1964, it was the 
mysterious fate of the author, who at that point had never completed 
another novel, that captured the public imagination. Championing Call It 
Sleep on the cover of The New York Times Book Review, Irving Howe led 
with a discussion of the novel’s precarious “underground existence” and 
“vague rumors” that Roth had become a “duck farmer in Maine.” Within the 
week Call It Sleep had sold more than ten times the number of copies it 
had sold in the previous three decades, on its way to selling more than 
a million copies. This came as a shock to Roth, who, after stints as a 
psychiatric hospital orderly, precision tool grinder, English teacher, 
and maple syrup vendor, was in fact a waterfowl farmer in Montville, Maine.

Roth’s legend grew with profiles, to which he reluctantly submitted, in 
national magazines that, as his biographer Steven Kellman put it, 
“contributed to the myth of Henry Roth as the Rip Van Winkle of American 
literature.”* Roth did not awake from his long professional slumber 
until 1994, with the publication of A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park, 
his first novel in sixty years and the beginning of a four-volume saga 
called Mercy of a Rude Stream, which has now been published for the 
first time in a monstrous volume of 1,279 pages, nearly twenty years 
after his death in 1995.

The book comes with endorsements comparing Roth to Balzac (from Cynthia 
Ozick), Nathanael West (Harold Bloom), and Philip Roth (Bloom again, as 
well as Joshua Ferris, in his introduction to the edition). Roth bears 
resemblances to these writers, to be certain: he shares Philip Roth’s 
agonized sense of humor, Balzac’s interest in sociological detail, and 
West’s fascination with the grotesque. But the publication of the 
complete Mercy of a Rude Stream is an opportunity to appreciate how 
sublimely strange Roth’s masterpiece is. It is not remotely like 
anything else in American literature.

Even though Roth had repeatedly renounced Call It Sleep (“The man who 
wrote that book at the age of twenty-seven is dead,” he told 
interviewers), A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park continues where the 
previous novel left off—in the summer of 1914, with Roth’s 
eight-year-old hero moving with his family from the Lower East Side to 
Jewish Harlem. Roth’s alter ego, David Schearl in Call It Sleep, has 
been renamed Ira Stigman, but like Schearl he is an only child, 
Galicia-born. His parents, Genya and Albert, have become Leah and Chaim, 
which happen to be the names of Roth’s own parents. (“Genya,” oddly, is 
the name given to one of Leah’s sisters, whom we learn will later be 
killed in a concentration camp.) Ira’s parents are not identical to 
their predecessors; they are more complex, richer. Chaim, like Albert, 
is a milkman, though he is not nearly as cruel, possessing a 
self-deprecatory streak that humanizes him; Leah, while as excessively 
devoted to her son as Genya, is less beatific and a stronger adversary 
to her husband.

Though six decades have passed between novels, readers will find the 
same cold-water flat with the same green oilcloth–covered table, the 
same arguments about money, the same florid Yiddish imprecations. 
Several episodes are repeated nearly intact, including the attempted 
seduction of the narrator’s mother while she is left alone with her son 
(in Call It Sleep, the suitor is Albert’s coworker; in Mercy, he is 
Leah’s adult nephew). The novel also borrows a striking linguistic 
inversion from Call It Sleep: when the immigrant parents use Yiddish, 
their speech is articulate, sophisticated, even poetic, while their 
English is broken and addled, full of solecisms. They possess a dignity 
that their destitute, overcrowded apartments, which they share with 
legions of brazen vermin, cannot entirely diminish.

Stylistically, however, the tetralogy is the work of a different writer. 
In Call It Sleep, David Schearl is trying to make sense of a new 
world—the new world—that is baffling, dangerous, and chaotic. It is “a 
fable,” as Roth later put it, “of discontinuity.” Mercy of a Rude 
Stream, on the other hand, is compulsively continuous. No memory goes 
unrecorded. The approach is more than nostalgic; it is custodial. We are 
in the mind of a dying man struggling to remember every possible detail 
about his childhood, before they all follow him into oblivion.

For most of the first volume, the story advances creakily, haltingly. 
Sections are introduced like journal entries: “It was a February day, 
the first week in February, 1918.” “Once again it was summer, the early 
summer of 1919.” “And finally came 1920….” During these years Ira meets 
a series of charismatic boys to whom he attaches himself in the hope of 
escaping the loneliness of his solitary home life, and there are 
occasional scenes of intense emotion: Ira is molested by two different 
men, a stranger and a teacher; an uncle comes home from war and, in his 
anxiety, bites into a drinking glass; Ira steals an expensive pen from 
another student, lies about it, and is expelled.

But these dramatic interludes sneak up on the unprepared reader, who is 
lulled into submission by descriptions of every teacher, every class, 
every report card (“He was promoted, with B B B on his report card”). 
Often Roth seems to cast around, free-associatively, as if 
brainstorming, for details he might have forgotten. The memories have 
anthropological interest, but no clear significance to the novel:

If you went to the movies, alone and on Saturday, it was better to go 
there with three cents, and wait outside for a partner with two cents….
A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris aims for comprehensiveness—and yet 
something is missing. It feels as if Roth is stalling for time. As we 
will learn in the next volume, he is. Something is missing, all right.

The first volume is redeemed by images of crystalline beauty—“rowboats 
floating on spangles of water” in Central Park, steel-shod horses 
“suddenly skating in mid-stride” on the “long, icy ribbons” of frozen 
avenues—and Roth’s own awareness of his narrative’s shortcomings. This 
self-lacerating commentary is introduced through the first of Mercy’s 
two major narrative innovations: a second narrative, set some seventy 
years later, in which Ira is an elderly man. Appearing at irregular 
intervals and rendered in a different typeface, these passages are 
initially unwelcome disruptions, especially as the story struggles to 
gain momentum. Even Roth agrees: “If only there weren’t so many 
interruptions,” he carps, “so many distractions.”

These interruptions are difficult to characterize: some appear in the 
first person, some in the second, some in the third. Many are dialogues 
between Ira and his computer, whom he addresses, with self-conscious 
pretension, as Ecclesias. They range from a sentence or two to 
digressions that go on for a dozen pages. Some take place in 1979, the 
year that Roth (and Ira) began writing the novel; others take place as 
many as fifteen years later when, near death, he is making his final 
revisions.

We learn gradually, in bits and pieces of allusive, evasive prose, that 
Ira has a wife, M., whom he loves deeply and gratefully; that he now 
lives in a trailer park in New Mexico; that he is the author of a single 
novel, published in 1934; and that his “extraordinary hiatus of 
production…was the dominant feature of his literary career.” At several 
points in the first volume he refers, vaguely, to an “omission” in the 
narrative, but we never know whether this is important or merely another 
digression.

The interruptions assume greater significance as we realize that the 
novel’s central drama lies not in the misadventures of young Ira, but in 
old Ira’s effort to turn his life into literature. A tension develops 
between the Ecclesias sections and the main story, as the older Ira 
grows frustrated with the limitations of his style—even before the 
reader does. Fifty pages in comes the admission that the stories from 
his youth

should have gone into a novel, several novels perhaps, written in early 
manhood, after his first—and only—work of fiction. There should have 
followed novels written in the maturity gained by that first novel.
—Well, salvage whatever you can, threadbare mementos glimmering in 
recollection.

What begins as a young man’s coming-of-age novel turns out to be an old 
man’s coming-to-sober-terms-with-death novel. Why, Ira wonders, this 
compulsion to write everything down? Is it really, as he tells Ecclesias 
at one point, “to make dying easier”? Or is it to understand something 
crucial about his identity? He believes that his family’s decision to 
leave “the Orthodox ministate of the East Side” for Harlem led to an 
irreversible “attrition of his identity.” The question of identity, he 
decides, is inseparable from his Jewishness. As a child he hated being a 
Jew, felt imprisoned in Jewishness, and as an adult he has responded by 
becoming a devoted atheist (“Marxist-Socialist atheism offers the only 
salvation”). But the act of writing about his youth forces him to 
realize that his Jewishness is the source of his creative impulse. “When 
he tried to pluck it out,” he writes, “creative inanition followed.” So 
perhaps the meticulous exhumation of his past is actually an attempt to 
understand what drives him—and us all—to create works of art.

Or perhaps this is all a cover. Perhaps something else is going on.

Something else is going on.

What it is, exactly, is revealed 122 pages into the second volume, A 
Diving Rock on the Hudson. Until this point we have continued to coast 
along the contrails of Ira’s memory: expulsion from Stuyvesant High 
School, a series of menial jobs—office boy at a law firm, clerk at a toy 
company, a soda pop vendor at the Polo Grounds—transfer to DeWitt 
Clinton High School, and an encounter with a young black prostitute. In 
the Ecclesias sections, we’ve learned that excerpts from A Star Shines 
Over Mt. Morris Park have been refused for publication by “various and 
sundry well-thought-of periodicals,” a rejection that he concedes is 
deserved:

His stuff was now old hat…waning and wanting, and perhaps pathetic. Be 
better, more dignified, if he shut up, maintained an air of remote 
reserve, because that way his deficiencies would remain unexposed. Good 
idea.

Then, shortly after a summation of his junior year report card (“A, A, 
A, every quiz, every test”), with Ira lying in his bed on a Sunday 
morning while his mother goes shopping, we encounter two nonsensical 
words of dialogue: “Minnie. Okay?”

There has not been any previous mention of a Minnie, so why a woman 
named Minnie should be inside the Stigmans’ small apartment is baffling. 
Not as baffling, however, as what follows:

She said all kinds of dirty words at first; where did she learn them? 
After he showed her how different it was, “Fuck me, fuck me good!” He 
wished she wouldn’t, though he liked it.
There follows a page of hard-core raunch. This is the least of it:

She slid out of her folding cot, and into Mom and Pop’s double bed 
beside it; while he dug for the little tin of Trojans in his pants 
pocket, little aluminum pod at two for a quarter. And then she watched 
him, strict and serious, her face on the fat pillow, her hazel eyes, 
myopic and close together—like Pop’s—watched him roll a condom on his 
hard-on…. “Fuck me like a hoor. No, no kisses. I don’t want no kisses. 
Just fuck me good.”

In case there was any doubt, that second reference to “Pop” seals it. 
Minnie is Ira’s kid sister. As we later learn, they’ve been having 
sexual relations for four years, since Minnie was ten. But this 
information isn’t revealed at once, so we’re left to wonder if somehow, 
in 389 pages of anatomical description of every object in the cold-water 
apartment—every tablecloth and bathroom fixture and family portrait 
hanging on the wall—and of every activity Ira has experienced between 
the years of eight and sixteen, we might have missed the fact that Ira 
has a sister, and is regularly having sex with her. It is one of the 
most deranged moments in American fiction.

It also turns everything that’s come before it into a lie—including, if 
we are to read it as a work of memoir, Call It Sleep. David Schearl, 
like Ira Stigman, is an only child. The closest Roth comes in the 
earlier novel to revealing his secret is a scene in which a friend’s 
sister drags Schearl into a closet and gropes him. “I managed to evade 
[it] in the only novel I ever wrote: coming to grips with it,” says old 
Ira, in Mercy of a Rude Stream. “You made a climax of evasion,” replies 
Ecclesias, “an apocalyptic tour de force at the price of renouncing a 
literary future. As pyrotechnics, it was commendable.” But pyrotechnics 
and nothing more. The evasion in his first novel, Ira believes, was 
responsible for his writing block.

We also realize that, in the earlier parts of Mercy of a Rude Stream, 
what seemed a compulsion to disclose every detail of his youth was in 
fact a compulsion to erase every trace of his sister. It’s the liar’s 
first pantomime: tell everything, show nothing. Roth, it turns out, is 
not a laborious chronicler of lost time, but a trickster. Minnie’s 
sudden appearance forces us to question everything. For instance: Was 
Ira really so lonely after all? Doesn’t seem like it! Is he telling this 
story in order to come to terms with death, or with his own original 
sin? Might the “attrition of his identity,” his profound sense of 
alienation, relate not to Manhattan geography but to shtupping his 
sister and keeping it a secret for seventy years?

When volume two was published in 1995, Roth told interviewers that the 
incest, like most everything else in the novel, was drawn from actual 
experience. (His sister Rose, still alive at the time, issued a denial 
and threatened to sue his publisher; she settled with her brother for 
$10,000.) For literary critics incest replaced the “extraordinary 
hiatus” as the dominant feature of Roth’s literary career. But because 
the two final volumes were not yet published, it was impossible to see 
how the revelation transformed the substance of the novel itself. It was 
not appreciated that Minnie appears at the one-third mark of his 
story—the end, in conventional drama, of the first act.

After the revelation, it is as if the novel begins anew. Though we 
remain at the mercy of the chronological stream, the prose is livelier, 
the Ecclesias sections crackle with equal parts self-loathing and 
elation, and, for the first time, the story possesses momentum and 
suspense. Roth is liberated by his disclosure, free at last to move 
beyond childhood and into the thornier questions that arise with sexual 
maturity—particularly Ira’s sexual maturity. “I must admit that I come 
to life,” he writes, “when in the grip of the sexual escapade.” It is 
true that after nearly four hundred pages of chores, games with 
neighborhood children, and report cards, the incest scenes are a lively 
addition.

But the rest of the narrative is livelier too. His incestuous 
relationship, like “a dark binary star on a visible one,” has “altered 
the entire universe” of the novel. A life is now at stake. Ira is a man 
with a horrific secret, which is “the determining force in Ira’s 
thoughts and behavior.” It influences every decision he makes—from his 
choice of college to his desire to become a novelist. We need Ecclesias 
now, to serve as a guide through the tenebrous, overgrown forest of 
Ira’s mind.

Buried in the second volume, not long before Minnie’s appearance, is a 
short anecdote about Ira’s discovery of Wagner’s “Prize Song,” from Die 
Meistersinger von Nürnberg. It mystifies him when he hears it on a 
friend’s phonograph one aimless afternoon. After playing the song 
repeatedly, “with a tenacity born of sheer anomie,” what he originally 
perceived as cacophony becomes

deliberately ordered sounds, not just ordinary harmony, but unique 
sounds and cadences that once comprehended became inevitable…. So that’s 
what they meant by great music. After a while the music went through 
your head. It was a different kind of tune, altogether different at 
first, but it slowly became familiar, and when it became familiar, it 
sang—in its own way, and yet it was right.
That is exactly what it’s like to read Mercy of a Rude Stream.

It is one of the perverse satisfactions of the novel that Ira, despite 
his deep feelings of shame, writes shamelessly about the thrill of 
incest. It is a “glorious abomination,” “the jackpot of the 
transcendental abominable”:

Better, more obsessively sought after, for being a sin, an abomination! 
Boy, that fierce furor, with her alternately foul and tender outcries of 
the essence of wickedness…. He wouldn’t miss it, exchange it, for 
anything else in the world.

Even years later, long after they have concluded their affair, he admits 
desiring Minnie still. Yet Ira is painfully aware of how his desire 
cripples him, warps him, stunts his growth, and turns him inward. He is 
immured by his sexual appetite, “appetite always morticed to fear and 
self-reproach.” His life shrinks to the size of his incestuous 
compulsion. His sin infantilizes him, keeps him in a perpetual tawdry 
adolescence. He feels that he’s been ruined for adult relationships, and 
adult responsibilities. And like any obsessive, he can’t stop. Not long 
after Ira and Minnie finish their affair, he starts a new one with 
Stella, his pudgy fourteen-year-old cousin.

Ira can only observe the world of adults from the outside, like a spy. 
He gets an opportunity to do so in the final two volumes—From Bondage 
and Requiem for Harlem—when his best friend, Larry Gordon, begins an 
affair with Edith Welles, a pretty adjunct English professor at NYU. 
Larry, like so many of the boys Ira has befriended, is everything Ira 
wants to be, and isn’t: wealthy, handsome, articulate, culturally savvy, 
supported by a loving family that is generations removed from the 
shtetl, so assimilated that the fact of their being Jewish comes as a 
shock to Ira. Edith hopes to mold Larry, who has bohemian aspirations, 
into a poet. But Larry cannot produce lines. In his frustration he turns 
to sculpture, but he fails here too.

While Larry despairs, Ira, his clumsy sidekick, wins a story competition 
at CUNY, and Edith begins to shift her allegiance. As Edith and Ira draw 
closer together, he confesses his dark secret; to his surprise, Edith 
does not reject him, but sympathizes with him. She encourages him to 
liberate himself from the bondage of his compulsive depravity through 
literature. Returning from a trip to Europe she gives him a contraband 
copy of Ulysses, and in James Joyce’s novel, and later in the poetry of 
T.S. Eliot, Ira glimpses his future. Literature, he decides, can offer 
him “a way of buffering, of screening out, reality.” Through fiction he 
can rewrite his past. He can erase his sin. He can erase his sister. And 
his fourteen-year-old cousin, while he’s at it.

In the Ecclesias sections, meanwhile, old Ira refines his personal 
theory of literature. Characteristically it is full of contradictions. 
Some 750 pages into the novel he is still questioning himself, his 
narrative strategy, and the self-imposed exile that has swallowed up his 
career. Even as, in the main narrative, young Ira is discovering Joyce 
for the first time, in the second narrative old Ira is renouncing Joyce 
for abandoning his folk and abstracting their struggles into a 
narcissistic aesthetic exercise. Ira credits the richness of his 
immigrant childhood with inspiring him to create, in his first novel, “a 
fable that addressed a universal experience, a universal disquiet” that 
reverberated so deeply with readers. Yet at the same time he argues that 
his failure, and the failure of so many writers of his generation, lay 
in an inability to mature—“to align themselves with the future.”

Ira’s (or Roth’s) motivations for undertaking such an ambitious and 
peculiar novel as Mercy of a Rude Stream are just as conflicted. He 
claims, variously, that he is writing in order to “transmogrify the 
baseness of his days and ways into precious literature…[to] free 
him[self] from this depraved exile”; simply for the love of “creating 
something worthwhile”; to “help others avoid the pitfalls he had been 
prone to”; to impose order on his chaotic inner life; to celebrate his 
life’s disorderliness; “to ward off time”; “to make dying easier, more 
welcome, for myself and my fellow man”; and to tell future generations 
“what it was to be alive” in Harlem at the turn of the century. There’s 
nothing unusual about having more than one reason to write a novel, or 
to undertake a literary career. What is unusual is the author’s profound 
sense of turmoil as he struggles to organize his own thoughts. He is 
tortured by the way “contradictions within the self made you feel, as if 
you had lost all your substance, were hollow.” But he also realizes that 
“acknowledging his own contrarieties reunited him within himself.”

It is this pitiless examination of a writer grappling with his demons, 
at the highest reaches of his intellectual capacity, that gives Mercy of 
a Rude Stream its ferocious passion. This kind of self-questioning 
approach, as many other readers of Roth have pointed out, is as old as 
the Talmud, which he quotes in the epigraph of the novel’s final volume:

Without Haste, Without Rest.
Not thine the labour to complete,
And yet thou art not free to cease!

Really no other justification is needed. Ira writes despite his 
inadequacies and self-doubt, despite the fact that he doesn’t expect to 
finish the novel, or even for it to be read. There is folly in this, but 
also heroism. Mercy of a Rude Stream asks absolute questions and fails 
to answer them, as all powerful literature must do. If the novel is 
overlong and overstuffed, its prodigality is justified—it is an 
expression of the exhilaration felt by a man who has cast off six 
decades of self-repression and finally feels himself free.

* Steven G. Kellman, Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth (Norton, 2005), 
p. 232; reviewed in these pages by Daniel Mendelsohn, December 15, 2005. ↩



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