(Farrar, Straus and Giroux), New York
look to the best books as examples that fulfill both the basic commandments
of writingentertain, educate, persuadeand the subtle
slights of hand that stir something basic within the reader. Henry
Roths novel/memoir, Call It Sleep
, is an example of
a book which deserves, perhaps even demands, the title of classic.
Penned in 1934,
Mr. Roths only novel was not enthusiastically received until
its reissue in 1964, a time when the racial, familial, and societal
struggles he describes were likely more relevant to the general
reader. Alfred Kazin has called the work, The most profound
novel of Jewish life that I have ever read by an American.
Though that is sweeping praise, it is perhaps too exclusive. Call
is a thoroughly American book, one which details both
the struggles faced by the immigrant throughout the nations
history and the personal trials that are the torment of every school-aged
child. It is novel of hope and despair, of the search for a better
life, of the need for independence and tradition.
The novel details
a few years in the life of young David Schearl, the son of a doting
mother and borderline-abusive father, immigrants who are assured
of nothing but struggle, hardship, and the self-questioning which
unite and divide in alternate. David is plagued by questions of
belonging. His strong attachment to his mother is countered by a
subconscious aversion to the weakness that need indicates as he
yearns for adulthood and respect.
One of Mr. Roths
most powerful tools is the contrast he employs between the lyrical
Yiddish spoken at home and the street English spoken (badly) by
New Yorks adopted children. But these are unusual children,
forced to grow old too quickly by a reality that cannot be hidden
by youthful games. The sometimes startling rebellion which wells
within them at the notion of being forced to fill even one more
early 20th century mold gives the story the ring of truth. These
lessons are driven home for David by the problems emotional
and physicalof the elder Schearl as he makes his way from
one uncertain job to another. Though the tough life the family leads
would be familiar to working-class Americans of every era, the compassion
and insight with which it is handled touches Mr. Roths characters
with a special grace.
is the authors blunt description of Davids sexual awakening.
Crude, fatalistic, ambient, it is never snide or haughty or ridden
with cliches. Davids fear of the neighborhood children
a fear which is matched only by his terror at the thought of abandonmentis
propelled by a neighbor who wants him to play bad. When
David realizes the frequent visits on the part of his fathers
friend have little to do with his mothers cooking, he is horrified,
angered, and driven to understand the strange and emotive game.
dark history with a gentile lover, household violence and insecurity,
and memories of what now seems the better life pervade the grim
and accurate look at the ghetto. Yet the novel ends on a note of
hope. David is allowed back into his home after being beaten for
the unforgivable sin of taking a rosary from a Polish boy. To David
it is a toy, an object of wonder and beauty. To his family, religious
leaders, and friends it is the symbol of immutable sin
and of the anti-Semitism which played a large role in driving them
from their homeland. But he is warm in his bed, his mothers
never-ending understanding and love a comfort to the grief-stricken,
uncertain boy. And he is home, where the past and the present unite;
it is the only place which allows the indiscretion of dreaming of
a brighter future. A symbol haunts which the pages is employed a
final time: David falls into the shadow of death. One might
as well call it sleep. He shut his eyes.
And so do we, reminded
that life is the sum of so many small moments of joy and grief.
Perhaps Mr. Roth sought to write of a Jewish life. At that he succeeded
. But he also painted a portrait of childhood mistakes and ambitions,
of a family struggling to find an identity, of a young country in
all its lust and error. He tells the story of journeys and hope.
He tells it well.