Yuh wanna play bad?
- Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth by Steven Kellman
Norton, 372 pp, $16.99, September 2005, ISBN 0 393 05779 8
- Call It Sleep by Henry Roth
Picador US, 462 pp, $15.00, July 2005, ISBN 0 312 42412 4
For a long time, Henry Roth’s silence was considered one of the most resonant in modern American literature. Ralph Ellison and J.D. Salinger were his only competition. When Call It Sleep (1934), Roth’s first novel, became a bestseller, thirty years after it first appeared, reporters found him scraping a living in Maine, gloomily slaughtering ducks and geese with equipment he’d made out of parts scavenged from discarded washing-machines. There had been no second novel. ‘As far as literature is concerned,’ he told an interviewer in 1969, ‘I am in reality no longer alive.’ Although he had managed to sell four short stories to the New Yorker during the intervening decades, the most eye-catching part of his post-Call It Sleep output was a short guide to setting up a home-butchering operation, written for a waterfowl trade magazine in 1954. He composed it, he informed an admirer years later, with uncharacteristic zest: ‘It was my first intimation that maybe I was coming out of this terrible, terrible bog.’
After his rediscovery, Roth took another thirty years to publish his second novel, A Star Shines over Mt Morris Park (1994), and during that time there was much speculation about the causes of his prolonged failure to write. A lot of it focused on Call It Sleep, which tells the story of a sensitive immigrant child growing up in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side a few years before the First World War. David Schearl, the protagonist, lives in terror of his father, an implacably resentful man called Albert, who boils with rage every evening while recounting real or imagined workplace slights: ‘They look at me crookedly, with mockery in their eyes! How much can a man endure?’ ‘Shudder when I speak to you,’ he commands his timid son. Genya, David’s mother, protects him from Albert’s occasional violence, but can’t do much about the threatening world outside their tiny flat: a world in which the family’s eloquent Yiddish speech, rendered in a quasi-biblical high style by the novel, is replaced by the cacophonous English of the local street kids and Irish cops.
As an imaginative little boy, David is frightened of their apartment building’s cellar, believing that rats creep up from it at night. It starts scaring him even more when Annie, the upstairs neighbours’ slightly older daughter, lures him into a cupboard in which her mother keeps a rat trap. Annie offers to teach him how to ‘play bad’:
‘Yuh must say, Yuh wanna play bad? Say it!’
He trembled. ‘Yuh wanna play bad?’
‘Now, you said it,’ she whispered. ‘Don’ forget, you said it.’
By the emphasis of her words, David knew he had crossed some awful threshold.
‘Will yuh tell?’
‘No,’ he answered weakly. The guilt was his.
‘Yuh know w’ea babies comm from?’
‘From de knish.’
‘Between de legs. Who puts id in is de poppa. De poppa’s god de petzel. Yaw de poppa.’ She giggled stealthily and took his hand. He could feel her guiding it under her dress, then through a pocket-like flap. Her skin under his palm. Revolted, he drew back.
David is about six years old here, and as he grows older his confused sexual knowledge gets bound up with other mysteries. Learning Hebrew from the surly neighbourhood rabbi, he becomes obsessed with the burning coal touched to Isaiah’s lips by an angel: ‘In a cellar is coal … Where is God’s cellar I wonder?’ He also overhears his mother confessing that, back in the old country, she disgraced herself by falling in love with ‘an “orghaneest”. What was an “orghaneest”?’ David is eventually enlightened by Leo, the Catholic boy next door: ‘A awginis’, yuh mean! Awginis’ – Sure! We got one in our choich. He plays a awgin.’ Impressed by Leo’s fearlessness, he starts coveting Christian paraphernalia and fantasising about his mother’s first love: perhaps Albert isn’t his father at all? Leo, sensing weakness, cajoles David into taking him to visit his Aunt Bertha’s candy store, attracted by talk of Esther and Polly, David’s cousins. ‘I like Jew-goils,’ Leo explains. Bribed with some broken rosary beads, David stands guard while his new friend plays bad with Esther in the cellar beneath the shop.
The book’s climax stages an odd resolution of the tensions that have bedevilled its hero: between Jewish observance and the surrounding Christian culture, between religious visions and secular modernity, and, most of all, between David’s gentle mother and brutal, distant father. With dreamlike inevitability, his transgressions are revealed. Albert reaches operatic heights of murderous wrath. David flees and – repeating a trick learned from some Jew-baiting kids – is zapped to the ground while sticking a milk ladle into the electrified trolley-car tracks, vaguely associating the ensuing short circuit with Isaiah’s ‘angel-coal’. The narrative dissolves into a medley of voices: Yiddish-speaking card players, Irish workmen, a sailor dreaming of fish and chips, an agitator speaking of ‘the day when the red cock crows’. Jewish and Christian religious motifs and bursts of sexual imagery flicker over the scene as David is revived, reborn, in the middle of a crowd of anxious onlookers. His parents set aside their differences when a policeman and doctor bring him home, and even his father has softened by the time his mother puts him to bed, where he feels ‘not pain, not terror, but strangest triumph, strangest acquiescence. One might as well call it sleep. He shut his eyes.’
Call It Sleep has a lot of heavy-handed interior monologue that struggles to anchor the book’s symbolic schemes in David’s consciousness. Albert’s rage and frustration, understandable enough in a downtrodden immigrant to the ‘Golden Land’, are also explained by a melodramatic back story linked to his strange preoccupation with cows. But the book’s fractured descriptions of the New York landscape, heavily influenced by Joyce and Eliot, are resourcefully done. David’s fraught transactions with other children are brilliantly dramatised, and despite the solemn treatment of his terrors and coming of age, there’s more than a touch of black farce in the novel’s stage management, especially during the final catastrophe. Above all, the translated Yiddish dialogue is splendid: ‘almost too splendid’, according to Alfred Kazin, who wrote the introduction to a 1991 edition of the novel, since it makes everyday idioms sound impossibly elevated. ‘Even the fixed word wavers, eh?’ Albert snarls when he thinks he’s caught his wife backtracking. ‘We must cleave to them like mire on a pig,’ Aunt Bertha says while following two strangers round the Metropolitan Museum for fear of getting lost.
In 1934, Call It Sleep’s first reviewers, though mostly admiring, were puzzled about how to classify it. Some saw it as a daring Modernist experiment, others as a campaigning slum childhood exposé; and among fractious Greenwich Village intellectuals of the 1930s the two views were held to be incompatible. An anonymous writer in the New Masses jeered at ‘the sex phobia of this six-year-old Proust’ and wondered why ‘so many young writers drawn from the proletariat can make no better use of their working-class experience than as material for introspective and febrile novels’. Roth – who had joined the Communist Party a few months before the book was published – took this kind of criticism to heart. As a result, he wasted a good deal of time on an attempt to write an epic of Midwestern class struggle, a fragment of which was published in a small magazine in 1936 under the unpromising title ‘If We Had Bacon’. (The hero, a non-Jewish socialist superman, is immoderately fixated on pork products.) Like other lost 1930s writers, he came to be viewed as someone whose career was derailed by the conflict, as he put it, between ‘personal expression’ and ‘social obligation’.
His reputation began to grow in 1956, when Call It Sleep was the only novel mentioned twice – by Kazin and Leslie Fiedler – in a printed symposium on ‘The Most Neglected Books of the Past 25 Years’. In 1964, Irving Howe described it in the New York Times Book Review as ‘one of the few genuinely distinguished novels written by a 20th-century American’. Saul Bellow’s Herzog topped the bestseller list that year; Bellow had already won a National Book Award, as had Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud. Call It Sleep became famous as a distinguished early entry in the new category of American Jewish fiction before going on to become an American classic. In 1963, Henry Roth had suggested in a Zionist magazine that American Jews should think about ‘orienting themselves toward ceasing to be Jews’. The Six-Day War changed his mind in 1967, and he started to blame both Marxism and Modernism for encouraging him to repudiate his Jewishness. Joyce, he later wrote, ‘renounced his people, renounced their trials, their yearning and their suffering’. Worse, ‘I too used my folk as mere counters in nugatory design.’
But if Roth couldn’t produce further novels because of his exile from a meaningfully Jewish life, then the problem, he often indicated, began long before he got round to reading Ulysses. At the age of eight, he said, he was dealt a disabling blow when his family moved from the ‘Jewish mini-state’ of the Lower East Side to an Irish area in Harlem, destroying his sense of ‘normal continuity’. Losing command of Yiddish, his first language, was a ‘terrible truncation’, and this can be seen as a key to David’s suffering in Call It Sleep. Unlike Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March (1953), in which Yiddish inflections, American slang and high-flown philosophising can happily coexist in the same sentence, Roth’s book is fastidious about segregating Yiddish and vernacular American speech from the narrator’s self-consciously literary English, which even uses British rather than American spelling. In an essay published in 1990, Hana Wirth-Nesher argued that David experiences the English language as ‘a foreign culture inhabiting his psyche. Whether he desires it or not, David is destined to live a life in translation, alienated from the culture of his language. It is no wonder that Roth could write no second book.’
Roth liked Wirth-Nesher’s essay enough to have it appended to future editions of his novel. But the reasons for his long silence still seemed intriguingly multifaceted. As well as Communism, the loss of Yiddish and the too powerful influence of Joyce, there was his relationship with Eda Lou Walton, a poetry teacher at NYU who introduced him to literature and fed, clothed and housed him while he wrote his first book. Roth felt that his older lover had unmanned him. ‘It was a real continuation of infancy,’ he said, ‘to be supported by a woman so long.’ But this was symptomatic: ‘I think I just failed at maturity, at adulthood.’ He broke up with Walton in 1938, and Fiedler later came to believe that Roth’s lifelong depression was triggered by his leaving her. On the other hand, a short story called ‘Final Dwarf’, published in the Atlantic in 1969, hints strongly that his father was still a problem. In another story, ‘At Times in Flight: A Parable’, a racehorse – a ‘poor beautiful animal’ – crashes to the ground at the moment ‘the race became real.’ The track crew shoot it in the head.
Shifting Landscape, a collection of his occasional writings edited by Mario Materassi, his Italian translator, appeared in 1987. Seven years later, he launched his Mercy of a Rude Stream sequence – the title comes from Wolsey’s farewell to his greatness in Shakespeare and Fletcher’s Henry VIII – with A Star Shines over Mt Morris Park. Roth’s long-delayed second novel is narrated by Ira Stigman, an elderly, arthritic, famously blocked novelist setting out to tell the story of his youth. Ira is cranky and garrulous, given to breaking off from his narratorial duties to chat about the weather, current events, his difficulties with the book and so on. He’s also enthusiastic about word-processing technology, indulging in imaginary dialogues with his computer, which he addresses as ‘Ecclesias’. And the story he tells – the story of his family’s life in Harlem between 1914 and the early 1920s – ‘displays’, as one reviewer put it, ‘documentary rather than novelistic ambitions’. In general, the critical response to the first volume of this transparently autobiographical enterprise was one of politely muted disappointment.
By the time of his death in October 1995, however, Roth’s trickle had become a flood. A third novel, A Diving Rock on the Hudson, published in February 1995, was followed by the posthumous From Bondage (1996) and Requiem for Harlem (1998). The tone, fairly sombre to begin with, darkens rapidly over the course of A Diving Rock, in which Ira acquires a younger sister not mentioned in the previous book:
Oh, Ecclesias, would that I had been spared the need to mention these painful events. Could they have believed that no sister ever existed? No. The story cannot continue without this admission. And I damn near don’t give a hoot about the literary quality, friend Ecclesias … I might as well confess to what has been all along a kind of spirit beneath the deep: Ira’s incestuous relations with his sister, Minnie.
Throughout his adolescence, he explains, he and his sister would jump into bed while their mother did the shopping; he describes them going at it in self-lacerating detail. He also describes seducing a 14-year-old cousin in the cellar of her family home – an encounter that left him, he muses, ‘doubly liable to indictment for statutory rape’.
Ira makes it clear that he feels – has always felt – crushed by self-hatred as a result of all this. But it’s not easy to tell which makes him feel worse: having played bad with two family members, or his failure to be more forthcoming about it in ‘a novel that eventually won wide acclaim’. He diagnoses ‘the fatal flaw in Ulysses’: its author didn’t have the nerve to admit that ‘the guy masturbating at the sight of a seminaked limp leg, the guy shoving a carrot up his ass, the voyeur peeking up the statue’s hind end, the guy pseudo-suffering at the thought of his own cuckolding, but in all probability wishing he were there to behold the act, the guy polluting the liver, was Joyce himself.’[*] He discusses the events of his first book, announcing that ‘it was as a prank, and by my own volition, that I dropped the milk dipper down into the third rail of the trolley – though it is true I had been previously initiated into the performance of the act by a couple of goyish gamins.’ In From Bondage, he denounces the ‘connivings, conscious and unconscious’, that enabled him to write his famous novel:
Was the achievement worth it in terms of the personal suffering, and the suffering of others … ? Was the achievement worth it at the expense of the man too? His integrity, his character? Foolish question, futile question, it would seem at first cry. And yet the whole thing involved a moral element that could not be denied or rejected. Who could say that the impaired moral element, the moral canker inherent in the achievement, did not exercise a subtle retaliation when again he came to assay the next stage of the creative process, this second novel – whether it was not the same moral canker, metastasising within him, that disabled him?
‘There is one theme I like above all others,’ Roth told a publisher in 1960, ‘and that is redemption, but I haven’t the fable.’ As Steven Kellman sees things, he ‘finally found his fable’ in the writing of the Mercy of a Rude Stream books, which ended the deeply-felt ignominy of his non-productive decades ‘even as it put rest to an old man’s mortal pain.’ ‘The arc of Roth’s 89 years was classic,’ Kellman writes, ‘in both its abomination and its cathartic redemption.’ He concedes that the catharsis was tough on Rose Broder, Roth’s sister, who was still alive when A Diving Rock on the Hudson was published. ‘This is not pleasant for me,’ she told a reporter. When she threatened to sue, Roth gave her $10,000 and a legal assurance that sibling incest would not feature ‘in future volumes of the fictional work’. He’d already recorded an interview for his publishers, who wanted to guard against possible liability, in which he stated that his story was largely true. They didn’t have sex as frequently as the characters in the novel, he said, adding, in Kellman’s words, that ‘although Ira Stigman coaxes Minnie into bed with dollar bills, bribery was never a factor in his own encounters with Rose.’
Kellman has few doubts about Roth’s version of events. Rose denied everything, but he seems to imply that she admitted it was true in a letter; the model for Ira’s cousin died in the 1960s. Not surprisingly, Kellman sees Roth’s guilt about these ‘odious experiences’ as his main tragic wound. He doesn’t think it cancels all the others out, though, and after a few chapters of the biography Roth has accumulated so many tragic wounds that it seems incredible he ever managed to lift a pen. This is partly because his later novels and interviews – often the only sources on his formative years – are obsessively concerned with the origins of his creative inhibitions. But there’s no question that Roth had a discouraging life, and Kellman’s attempts to put some cheer into the story by framing it as an uphill march towards his eventual resurgence don’t always work. For long stretches of time, complicated plane-geometry problems were the only thing that could distract him from his misery. The chronology at the back of the book records such key events as (May 1935) ‘HR beaten up visiting dockworkers; burns MSS’ and (October 1946) ‘Burns MSS; murders puppy’.
He was born in 1906 in Tysmenitz: now in Ukraine, it was a Polish town until 1772 when it was absorbed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Roth’s father, Chaim, had gone to America in 1897, changed his name to Herman, quarrelled with his brothers, failed to hold down a job and returned in 1903. He married Leah Farb, the romantically-minded daughter of a ferociously pious shopkeeper from nearby Veljish, then went back to America after Herschel, their son, was born. Leah followed him a year later and Herschel became Henry. The family settled in Brownsville, Brooklyn, before moving to more cramped accommodation in the Lower East Side. This was a reversal of the usual procedure, but Herman wanted to live near his work, which didn’t last long: he was always being sacked for fighting with co-workers or arguing with the boss, and his attempts to start small businesses all failed. Unlike the grimly potent father in Call It Sleep, he was, Roth recalled, ‘a timid, frightened, frustrated little guy, and that’s the best I could say about him.’ He died in 1971, bequeathing his son one dollar. Rose, Herman’s favourite, inherited $3000 and loyally gave Henry half.
Their stay in the Lower East Side – which Roth romanticised in life, though not in Call It Sleep – lasted only four years. He was eight when they moved to Harlem in order to be closer to Leah’s family, who settled there in 1914. Leah was unhappily married, and Kellman says she really did fall for a gentile back in Veljish: why else would her father have married her to a bum like Herman? She never felt at home in America or became fluent in English, rarely left their apartment, and began to hear noises after her children moved out. In 1957, she was treated for ‘deep depression, hallucinations and agitation’ with a course of electroshock therapy at Bellevue. During Roth’s childhood, however, she was a source of strength and stability in ‘barbarous, goyish, Irish-infested, Irish-plagued and benighted Harlem’, as he later described it. The anti-semitic bullying endured by David Schearl took place there rather than in the Lower East Side, and Roth said he ‘came to believe that we were all the things the goyim called us’. He was a fat child, ‘inept at marbles and team sports’, and wore glasses. His father beat him. ‘He wept easily,’ Kellman says, ‘and sometimes wet his bed as late as age 12.’
At first he performed badly at school and was expelled from Stuyvesant High for stealing pens. At DeWitt Clinton High School, where he was a contemporary of Nathanael West and Lionel Trilling without knowing either of them, he began to develop a talent for mathematics. He also befriended Lester Winter, a ‘polished, worldly, well-groomed’ young man who introduced him to the work of Robert Frost and Edna St Vincent Millay. Winter planned to become a dentist but had artistic aspirations too, and liked disparaging his family as avaricious philistines (his father was a successful dry-goods merchant). He valued Roth’s immigrant authenticity, while Roth was pleased to be taken up by a self-confident member of the Jewish bourgeoisie. After finishing high school, Roth went to CCNY, where his career was ‘a calamity … I retch in retrospect.’ Winter went to NYU, where he was taught by Walton. He became her lover and introduced her to his friend. As Winter lost interest in becoming a poet, Roth gradually supplanted him, and in 1927 he moved in with her.
Walton – a poet, anthologist and scholar of Navajo poetry – had become a well-known Village figure after moving to New York in 1924. She was friendly with Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, and Roth met Kenneth Burke, Hart Crane, James T. Farrell and Thomas Wolfe at her salon on 61 Morton Street. She set out to make an intellectual of him in the manner of Henry Higgins, Kellman says, and he suspects that her mentoring of young Jewish men – Roth and Winter weren’t the only ones – was unconsciously aimed at extending the jurisdiction of her white-bread background. Whatever her motives, she did a good job on Roth, who at this point in the biography abruptly mutates into a fervent disciple of Eliot and Joyce. He started wearing pigskin gloves and arranging to be caught ‘muttering snatches of Dante and Gerard Manley Hopkins to himself’, but he also worked steadily on Call It Sleep. It was impressive talent-spotting on Walton’s part, since his only publication so far was a student piece called ‘Impressions of a Plumber’. And she was supportive when Roth confessed that he’d recently ended two incestuous relationships: Mead had told her what she thought kids got up to in Samoa.
Working on his novel in the countryside and sending completed chapters to Rose, who typed them up, Roth wrote excitedly to Walton: ‘Incidentally, do you know, I’m not taken for a jew here?’ Not content with writing ‘jew’, lower-case, he bragged that he’d ‘jewed a jeweller down’. Then he took off his pigskin gloves and joined the Communist Party. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that this offered further opportunities for self-loathing: he already felt guilty about being supported by Walton and soon fell in thrall to a pugnacious Daily Worker-seller called Bill Clay, who poured scorn on his new comrade’s bourgeois aestheticism. After the publication of Call It Sleep, Roth signed a contract with Maxwell Perkins for a proletarian novel based on Clay’s life, which he researched on Walton-funded trips around the country. He also wrote a piece for the New Masses denouncing the show-trial defendants in the Soviet Union: ‘None maintained his innocence there … All stood convicted, their sentences sustained by demonstrations of Russian workers.’ In deference to the Hitler-Stalin Pact, he handed out isolationist leaflets on a march through New York in 1939.
By then he’d left Walton for Muriel Parker, an aspiring composer he met at Yaddo in 1938 and married a year later. Muriel loved him unreservedly. Her parents were even more white-bread than Walton’s – ‘such white potatoes’, as one of her sons put it – and disapproved of her marriage to a penniless Jewish Communist. When Roth’s writing dried up, she gave up her musical ambitions and became the primary breadwinner as he sank further and further into his ‘terrible, terrible bog’. He took up a succession of suitably blue-collar trades – precision metal grinder, mental hospital attendant – but his Party card made jobs difficult to keep. The FBI kept tabs on him, and at least some of his regular manuscript bonfires were inspired by a fear of McCarthy-style persecution. They moved to Maine in 1946. The waterfowl farm wasn’t much of a success, and their children grew up in a house without hot water, curtains, reading lamps or anything to read. Their father sometimes beat them – ‘Henry Roth shouldn’t have had children,’ one son’s wife would conclude – and at other times immersed himself in geometry problems. ‘My life might not be easy,’ Muriel said, ‘but I have an interesting husband.’ This period in their lives lasted for 18 years.
The rediscovery of Call It Sleep made a big difference to them. The book went on to sell more than a million copies in paperback, and fellowships, grants and awards began to flow in. They travelled to Spain and Israel – after his conversion to Zionism, Roth thought about moving to Tel Aviv – before settling in a trailer park in Albuquerque in 1973. Roth became an admirer of Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson, liking his strong stance on Jewish emigration from the USSR, and wrote to Jimmy Carter warning him not to trust Sadat. He started writing the manuscript that became Mercy of a Rude Stream in 1979. ‘What I have in mind,’ he told Materassi, ‘is to portray the evolution of the insufferably self-centred, immature, in many ways parasitic and contemptible autodidactic literary youth into approximate adulthood, approximate regeneration, his reconciliation with self and the necessity of change.’ Various disciples appeared on the scene and there were squabbles and fallings-out. There was also a lot of editorial heavy lifting by Felicia Steele and Robert Weil, his assistant and editor. Roth waited until after Muriel’s death in 1990 before making his revelations of incest, spending six months of 1991 ‘under treatment for suicidal depression’.
Kellman tells this story with quite a few eccentric flourishes. His linking passages are pretty bad – ‘Roth was receiving an advanced education in matters of the heart, but he still had another year to go before graduating from CCNY’ – and he often goes at things by way of pointless digressions, as when he feels obliged to draw attention to a historical error in An American Tail (1986), Don Bluth’s animated feature about a family of Russian Jewish mice who arrive in New York in 1885. The dates in the chronology don’t always match up with those in the text, and Kellman seems not to have made up his mind whether to deflate or pump up the mythical aspects of his subject’s life. He ends up trying to do both at the same time, repeatedly assuring the reader that Roth was more than ‘the anchorite of the Pine Tree State, the Jewish American Rimbaud, abjuring the novelist’s rough magic’, and so on.
This uncertainty of emphasis points to deeper problems, which spring chiefly from Kellman’s efforts to whip the life into a manageable narrative shape. Incest, unavoidably, is the master theme of his account, but there isn’t enough discussion of the extent to which Roth’s view of his experiences was coloured by all those years of stalled writing and anguished self-scrutiny. In Mercy of a Rude Stream, Kellman suggests, incest is a symptom as well as a cause of the immigrant hero’s paralysing psychological difficulties. In his account of the author’s life, however, it’s mostly a cause, and it tends to overshadow more mundane explanations for ‘the legend of Henry Roth the master novelist who called it silence for sixty years’, as he puts it. Joan Acocella, for example, has suggested that Roth may have had ‘another, less sensational problem: that he couldn’t produce a finished manuscript without a full-time editor’. Kellman broadly confirms this – Weil and Steele even wrote the last paragraph of Requiem for Harlem – without really acknowledging it: despite his myth-busting gestures, he’s deeply committed to the notion of tortured genius. He’s also surprisingly sniffy about Walton, perhaps because she later put it about that she did a lot of work on Call It Sleep.
The biography’s redemptive ‘arc’ is even more of a problem. Apart from the fact that Kellman sees ‘redemption’ and ‘regeneration’ as being more or less interchangeable (which, to be fair, was probably the way Roth saw them too), his upbeat verdict rests on the assumption that Mercy of a Rude Stream is a masterpiece. ‘Was the achievement worth it in terms of the personal suffering and the suffering of others? … Foolish question, futile question.’ Maybe, but there can’t be many people who’d willingly trade places with Roth – or Rose, or Muriel – in exchange for such sentences as ‘Ira pressed the F7 key again.’ The sequence is a remarkably detailed evocation of 1920s Harlem with some tightly written sections and some impressively sour descriptions of old age. But it’s a fairly joyless reading experience, veering as it does between crabbed self-indictment and documentary flatness. Roth came to equate literary form with bad faith, which made his last work a baggy monster; amplifying his ‘insufferably self-centred, immature … parasitic and contemptible’ qualities seems to have been the only creative licence he allowed himself. In the end, his renunciation of fictional artistry in the name of honesty is mostly of interest because he once wrote a novel notable for its fictional artistry.
Kellman has no trouble showing how his subject became the author of this endlessly expanding docu-fiction during the last few years of his life. The only mystery his book leaves standing has less to do with Roth’s non-productivity than the sudden flowering of his talent in the early 1930s. Seen from the outside in Kellman’s account, Roth in those days seems almost a buffoon – someone who decided to become a Dante-quoting bohemian intellectual in the same way that someone from a later generation might have decided to become a punk or a skateboarder. Yet nothing he wrote before or after shows the same acute sense of form and ear for language that he brought to bear on his childhood in Call It Sleep. Many prolific writers have trouble producing one great book. Although he regretted it later, Roth was lucky to have achieved it on his first attempt.
[*] ‘The guy polluting the liver’ sounds more like Alexander Portnoy than anyone in Ulysses, though Roth claimed to find his younger namesake ‘easy to shrug off’. An interviewer also described him as being ‘ferociously resentful of Bellow’s success’.