Commentary Magazine


Henry Roth's Secret

The association may seem an odd one, but the figure most immediately called to my mind by the career of the American novelist Henry Roth is T. E. Lawrence, the Lawrence of Arabia.

Although Lawrence died in a motorcycle crash at the age of forty-seven and Roth is now eighty-eight, each man was the author of a single remarkable book when young, the success of which neither of them ever repeated. In Lawrence’s case this was The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, an account of the British-sponsored Arab guerrilla campaign against the Turks in World War I that is the finest work of English prose to have come out of that conflict. With Roth it was Call It Sleep, a novel about an immigrant family on New York’s Lower East Side that is considered by many to be the greatest single work of American Jewish fiction. Published in 1934, Call It Sleep was praised by reviewers, eventually forgotten, and then quickly recognized as a classic when it was reissued as a best-selling paperback three decades later.

After the appearance of their first books, both Lawrence and Roth chose to live what appear to have been lives of penitential mortification—Lawrence as an enlisted soldier in the British Tank Corps and the RAF, Roth as a gauge-maker, poultry farmer, maple-syrup salesman, math tutor, and mental-hospital attendant in rural Maine. Although neither formally repudiated what he wrote, each had deep misgivings about it. Lawrence refused to accept royalties from the sales of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, calling this “part of my atonement for the crime of swindling the Arabs”; Roth has disparagingly spoken of Call It Sleep as “camouflage,” and of David Schearl, its sympathetically depicted eight-year-old autobiographical hero, as having been in actual fact “a wicked little son of a bitch.”

Both Lawrence’s and Roth’s self-disgust seems to have pertained to some “secret,” a private wound that they chose to let fester rather than expose to the air and light of literary expression and clarification. With Lawrence, apart from reproaching himself for having concealed from his Bedouin comrades Great Britain’s imperialist plans for the postwar Middle East, the guilt was apparently sexual—or more precisely, homosexual, involving his emotional and physical life during his desert campaign. As for Roth, he recently told an interviewer (Jonathan Rosen, writing in Vanity Fair) that, during the years he was working on Call It Sleep with the help of his lover and patron Eda Lou Walton, a woman considerably older than he,

. . . his fragile sense of himself as an artist and a man was being overwhelmed. “I was really beginning to disintegrate,” he recall[ed]. “There was a degeneration. She [Walton] was taking care of me. Then some other guy became interested and we lived in a kind of ménage à trois . . . he’d come in on weekends and the bed would be his. I’d sleep in the studio. Don’t tell me that’s normal. But I didn’t have whatever . . . masculinity, or whatever you call it . . . to say “Nothing doing.”

And the interview continues:

“Portnoy’s Complaint, by my namesake Philip Roth, is mild compared to my life,” [said] Roth, hinting darkly at a sexual disintegration he refuse [d] to explain. He [would], however, confess, “I had become degenerate in my eyes. In my eyes homosexuality is degenerate.”

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It is true that the experiences hinted at here took place long after the childhood that Roth wrote about in Call It Sleep, and would seem to have no obvious bearing on the book’s contents. And yet that something hitherto undisclosed does have such a bearing in Roth’s opinion is made clear in his second novel, Mercy of a Rude Stream, Volume I of which, A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park, has now appeared1—“miraculously” has been the adverb most commonly used to describe this by reviewers—sixty years after Call It Sleep.

A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park picks up the story of David Schearl, now called Ira Stigman, and continues it to the end of World War I, when Ira is thirteen. As often happens to authors of great lyrical gifts as they advance in years, this book of Roth’s old age is far more spartanly written than the novel of his youth, of the virtuosity of whose prose it has little. Yet in one respect, it is more complex, for it is composed of two different, interfaced planes: that of the narrative itself, and that of the author’s reflections on the narrative, which are given us in the form of brief dialogues between him and his computer, nicknamed “Ecclesias.”

In one of these, occurring about a third of the way through the book, we read:

The time draws near. . . . Logey, and still under the spell of the mad dreams of last night, feverish and despairing, affected by the influence of the drug he [the over-eighty-year-old author] had taken in the early morning to ease the extreme pain of R[heumatoid] A[rthritis], he was loath to proceed. But more than all that, because the time drew near.

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But that was a year later [says Ecclesias]. You were twelve.

Indeed. That was in 1918.

And you’re speaking of the year before, 1917.

Just before the United States entered the war. Yes.

But the crucial point or moment was 1918.

Yes.

Then why not let it wait?

Why not indeed.

You’ll sooner or later have to get over that hurdle.

Yes.

I told you at the outset, when you deliberately omitted that most crucial element in your account, that you would not be able to avoid reckoning with it.

You did, Ecclesias. Perhaps I wasn’t ready for it.

And you are now?

Yes. I became so.

When you had to. It finally became inescapable.

Yes. Face-to-face with it as a consequence of continuing. Which is something, you notice, Ecclesias, I managed to evade in the only novel I ever wrote: coming to grips with it.

It was adroit. You made a climax of evasion, an apocalypse out of your refusal to go on, an apocalyptic tour de force at the price of renouncing a literary future. As pyrotechnics, it was commendable, it found favor, at any rate. Proceed.

By “pyrotechnics,” Roth is being figurative and literal at once, since he is referring both to the intricate verbal cadenza of Call It Sleep’s final pages and to the climactic event orchestrated by it: David Schearl’s near electrocution, in a shower of fireworks, by the third rail of a New York City trolley line. This scene—which is “apocalyptic” not so much because of David’s close brush with death as because it is accompanied by a religious fantasy on his part in which the power-charged rail represents a terrifying revelation of God—has been justly acclaimed as a brilliant denouement to a superbly accomplished novel. Yet here is Roth telling us that it was not only a lie, but one that caused him decades of writer’s block! There cannot be many cases in literary history of an author so cynically dismissive of the critics (“it found favor, at any rate”) for being so lavishly appreciative of him.

But what is the lie or “evasion” that, undetected by his readers, Roth accuses himself of perpetrating in Call It Sleep by ending the novel—quite literally—with a deus ex machina instead of continuing David Schearl’s story? While Mercy of a Rude Stream is by its own testimony a belated attempt to make amends for this failure, Roth is never explicit about its nature. There are only hints, our understanding of which will no doubt be revised as additional volumes of the novel—four more are said to exist—follow Part I.

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The first of these hints, which occurs in the narrative section directly following Ecclesias’s call for a “reckoning,” tells of a near-incestuous occurrence when Ira is twelve. In Call It Sleep, a novel that revolves around the Oedipal triangle between a boy, his lovingly protective mother to whom he overdependently clings, and his cold, abusive father of whom he lives in fear, David Schearl is a pre-pubescent on the cloudy verge of a sexual understanding that eludes him. Ira, on the other hand, although he too has a shaky grasp of the facts of life, knows about lyupka, the Polish word for “love” picked up from his mother that is his private term for sex. One night he lies thinking about it in her bed, in which he has been invited to sleep while his father is out of town:

. . . That was lyupka. That was why Pop had given him that awful licking with the butt of the horsewhip because he and the other kids had played bad with the little girls on Henry Street where they lived, because their mother complained they played bad. “Genuk! Shoyn genuk!” Enough! . . . What blue stripes Ira had on his back afterward. So . . . that was it, lyupka. He could see Mom still on the screen of closed eyelids, but he was falling asleep. . . .

And awoke—to his horror! He was playing bad against Mom’s naked legs, lying on his side and pushing, rubbing, squeezing his stiff peg between Mom’s thighs. She woke up.

“I didn’t mean it!” Ira wailed in his shame. “I was dreaming—”

She laughed indulgently. “Go back to sleep.”

He rolled quickly away, and still panting, lay with his back to her as far away as he could. What was that bliss that seemed about to well over? That drove him, made him do that to Mom in a dream . . . just a little more it would have, it wanted to: lyupka.

Is this, then—or whatever feelings and events in the young Henry Roth’s life this scene is a fictional dramatization of—the “crucial element” which Roth blames himself for “evading” with the staged theophany of Call It Sleep’s end? The answer is apparently yes and no, for it is only part of a larger constellation. Indeed, the next dialogue with Ecclesias, which comes immediately after this passage, suggests that Roth is talking about not one but a number of mysteriously related chapters in his life:

I foresaw you’d have difficulties.

It wasn’t difficult to foresee.

Shall I waft you into the future a quarter-century hence aboard a freight train bound east?

I cry you mercy, Ecclesias.

What will you do?

Do without.

Chugga. Chugga. Chugga. Whe-e-e! The whistle at the crossing. Dark is the night over Texas. And cold. And stars thick as traprock come tumbling out of the moonless heaven.

Yeah. But Procul O, procul este, por favor.

Translating the last line is not a great help, since it simply means “Be far away, please” in mixed Latin and Spanish. And as if this were not puzzling enough, toward the end of A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park, after a description of another traumatic incident in Ira’s early adolescence, one in which his homosexual eighth-grade teacher Mr. Lennard tries to engage him in an act of mutual masturbation, Roth and Ecclesias discuss why Ira did not report the matter to his parents in the following terms:

It was because you already felt guilty, wasn’t that the chief reason?

Yes, because I might betray something even more heinous than Lennard’s molestation.

Isn’t it time you cleared the air, exposed the clandestine burden? You can’t go on indefinitely in this fashion, with an unaccountably eccentric orbit, like a visible astral body with an invisible satellite. Besides, the enigma is beginning to wear thin.

Very well. Soon.

Yet all that happens “soon” is that A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park comes to an end with the enigma still intact. Nothing more is revealed about Ira’s life that might explain it, and while Roth and Ecclesias conduct several more conversations, none of these “clears the air” around the “clandestine burden.”

_____________

 

What are we to make of all this? Like a detective who lacks enough clues to solve the case he is working on, we can only marshal the incomplete evidence, add a few surmises, and await further enlightenment. So far, we either know or can infer that:

  1. Henry Roth believes that Call It Sleep was dishonest because it refused to come to grips with key experiences and emotional conflicts which, going back to his childhood and early adolescence, permanently affected and warped his character and adult behavior;
  2. These experiences and conflicts largely had to do with Oedipal feelings, incestuous promptings, and homosexuality;
  3. Although he has in the past blamed his inability to write anything substantial after Call It Sleep on his long association with the American Communist party, the ideological demands of which supposedly stultified his creativity, Roth’s new novel implies that this may be putting the cart before the horse. While Communism, which Ira is still too young to be attracted to, is only marginally referred to in A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park as the political outlook of one of his uncles, the novel prepares us for the possibility that it too was but a flight from Roth’s psychological problems, which would have kept him from writing even had he never been a party activist;
  4. While it is too early to tell whether this represents a literary stratagem, an aged man’s quasideathbed confession, or both, the tension between the author’s desire to bare his breast and the inhibitions that stand in his way will apparently continue to run through at least some of the remaining volumes of Mercy of a Rude Stream.

It is curious that, in the reviews that I have seen of A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park, all of which have treated Roth’s new novel as an extraordinary publishing event but a literary disappointment, almost no attention has been paid to this aspect of it.

Nor is this true only of superficially written notices like Paul Gray’s in Time Magazine (“Ira’s way—and Roth’s as well—takes the reader through a pretty grim, no-frills narrative. . . . Memories of his past have obviously obsessed Roth for most of his adult life, but he no longer seems willing—as he did so memorably in Call It Sleep—to let his readers experience and savor them firsthand”). It is equally the case with more thoughtful criticisms, such as Robert Alter’s in the New York Times Book Review (“The Oedipal triangle of Call It Sleep is still present in the new novel, but it is not permitted to become an electrified zone from which to view the world startlingly enlarged to the proportions of myth. Even a moment of inadvertent sexual arousal when the boy is sharing his mother’s bed while the father is off on a trip is presented not as a cataclysmic event but rather as a kind of hormonal ambush. . .”). What Alter overlooks no less than Gray is Roth’s determination, having once betrayed the truth precisely by surrendering to the literary temptation to mythicize, not to do it again.

_____________

 

Of course, the relationship of literary to biographical “truth” is never straightforward, and it is perhaps even the rule that the first is always achieved at the expense of the second. In this respect, Roth’s compunctions may seem naive, and the critics’ assessment of his work more trustworthy than his own. Nor is this the only barrier to our taking seriously the central premise of Mercy of a Rude Stream—i.e., that it is in some sense a work of expiation. An additional difficulty is Roth’s attitude toward homosexuality, which is sharply opposed to that of contemporary liberal culture.

“Homosexuality is degenerate,” Roth has said, and there is more than one indication in A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park that future volumes of Mercy of a Rude Stream will deal with the drama of the author’s moral fall and rescue by his marriage to Muriel Parker (called “M” in the novel), a talented musician with whom he had two children and lived for 51 years until her death in 1990. It was through M, Roth tells Ecclesias, speaking of himself in the third person, that “he had achieved his regeneration, such as it was, attained an improved adulthood—what to say?—an image of a self more acceptable, a less repugnant reality.”

In an age in which it is passé to regard homosexuality even as a maladjustment, such an attitude may strike Roth’s audience as embarrassingly benighted, and his castigation of himself for homosexual episodes in his own life as a form of moral hypochondria. Yet though final judgment will have to be reserved, it seems safe to say even on the basis of A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park that homosexuality for Roth is not only, or even predominantly, what is known today as a “sexual preference.” It is above all (as perhaps it always has been among most men everywhere) a metaphor for the abased condition of whoever has surrendered his manhood by letting it be violated psychologically and physically. T. E. Lawrence, himself a case study in degeneration who ascribed “irrevocably losing the citadel of my integrity” to his rape while a prisoner by Turkish soldiers, would have had no trouble understanding this.

The real miracle of Mercy of a Rude Stream may thus turn out to be its story of the regaining of the citadel, including—here, too, there are advance confidings to Ecclesias in A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park—Roth’s return after the better part of a lifetime to an identification with Israel and the Jewish people. (Under the impact of the Six-Day War in 1967, Roth renounced his Communist party-line hostility to Zionism and became an almost ferocious supporter of Israel; in his new novel, he fantasizes going to live on a kibbutz where “I would know chiefly hard work, rigor, danger, but also kinship, precious kinship, dignity.”)

Needless to say, such a structure would be mythic itself—would in fact hark back to one of the oldest of human myths, that of sin, atonement, and redemption—and would suggest that, wherever there is literature, myth will follow. Or as Roth tells Ecclesias, speaking of the pursuit of writing fiction: “The thing’s a fake anyway, [although] I don’t mean in the sense of a deliberate deception.” Perhaps this is the closest he has yet come to an exoneration of Call It Sleep.


Footnotes

1 St. Martin's, 290 pp., $23.00.

About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.




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