Tuesday, March 21, 2017
An American Classic!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Let's start with a statement directed to the uninitiated--no, Henry Roth is no relation to Philip--either in a biological or literary sense. Maybe to a degree in the latter, as both are writing about America Jewish life, but that is where comparison ends.
I have been urged by so many, over the years, to read this novel, and now I am glad I did. It is not an easy read, as the dialect slows down reader speed a bit, though it is necessary for the story, and, for literary types, it is true that the stream-of consciousness sequence near the end rivals the "Nighttown Sequence" of "Ulysses!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
Not since Isaac Bashevis Singer's "Enemies: A Love Story," (one of my favorite books and films!!!!!!!!) have I read such an unstinting account of American Jewish life. While the locale is similar--Manhattan's Lower East Side--the time period differs. Roth's story occurs in the early 1900's; Singer's several decades later, after the Second World War has ended. Hence, both works deal with different issues.
This is almost the Jewish equivalent of "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn." Roth published this book in 1934, while Betty Smith's classic came out nine years later. It had greater popularity, as audiences then were attuned to its more linear narration, which enabled them to read massive works, like "Anthony Adverse," or "Gone With The Wind." Today, forget it!!!!!!!!!
"Call It Sleep" is a superb account of the adult world seen through the eyes of a child. David Schearl is as important here, as Smith's Francie Nolan. Both have problematic fathers, irreverent aunts, and strong mother-child relationships. The one here is more clinging and possessive, like that between Rebecca and David in the musical "RAGS." Francie and Katie Nolan have a more ambivalent, though loving, relationship.
The difficult dialect in Roth's book mires the reader deeply into its time period, much the same way the Negro dialect in "Gone With The Wind" did. Apart from its child world view, some of the argumentative exchanges between the adults are sad and comical at the same time. Especially whenever the character of Aunt Bertha is on the scene.
The novel may be read on many levels, and I urge you to. Roth was a one-hit wonder; his book did not really gain popularity until three decades later, in 1964. Amazing it took me this long to get to it,
The title is "Call It Sleep," darlings, but I call it brilliant!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!