Henry Roth is one of the most elusive figures in American literature, a writer whose first book, the 1934 novel “Call It Sleep,” is a breathtaking piece of modernism, although it took three decades for it to be recognized as such.
The story of a young boy named David Schearl, navigating the immigrant world of Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the first years of the 20th century, it sold 1,500 copies in its original incarnation, but was rediscovered in the early 1960s after Irving Howe reviewed the paperback on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. Densely imagined, nuanced in its evocation of the new world, “Call It Sleep” is a masterpiece (there is no other word for it) — one of the most moving and beautiful novels I have ever read.
For Roth, it was also a creative Waterloo; although he worked for some time on a second novel, he abandoned it unfinished, then retreated to rural Maine, where he lived as a waterfowl farmer, writing sporadically until the 1990s, when, in his late 80s, he began to publish the four novels that would make up his epic follow-up, “Mercy of a Rude Stream” (Liveright: 1,312 pp., $29.95).
Roth didn’t live to see “Mercy of a Rude Stream” come out in its entirety; he died after the appearance of the second novel in the cycle, “A Diving Rock on the Hudson,” in 1995. Now, the four books have been reissued in a single volume, with an introduction by Joshua Ferris, which allows us to assess them as a whole. In many ways, the saga picks up where “Call It Sleep” leaves off, following a David Schearl-like character named Ira Stigman through adolescence and early adulthood, a period more fraught and treacherous than we have any reason to expect.
In part, that has to do with Roth’s rigorously autobiographical focus; because of what it is he must reveal. At the center of “Mercy of a Rude Stream,” after all, are a pair of incestuous relationships, one with his sister and one with a cousin, that apparently had a lot to do with Roth’s six decades of writer’s block.
Think about it: For an autobiographical writer, the life is the material. How, then, to come to terms with material that is unacceptable, that exposes you in a way you cannot bear to be revealed? This is why David Schearl has no sister, although as a young boy, pre-sexual, such tensions would not play a role in his story anyway. That’s not the case with Ira, whose last name, Stigman, suggests the stigma that has stained his soul.
To open up his narrative, Roth did two things: First, he framed “Mercy of a Rude Stream” as a back and forth, a dialogue almost, between Ira as protagonist and observer, as a young man, living his own torment, and as an elderly writer, looking back. Both are present in the novels, and their presence opens up our sense of time. But more important, Roth plays with us, not revealing the existence of the sister until the second volume, as a way of dimensionalizing his distress.
It’s a risky decision, for it means that the project doubles back on itself, that we are dealing with a writer who admits to having deceived us, even as he unveils the source of the deceit. At the same time, this is why it works — because “Mercy of a Rude Stream” is about not just that deceit but also its psychic weight, about a narrator deceiving not his readers but himself.
“Boy,” Ira tells himself in “From Bondage,” the third novel in the sequence, “you wouldn’t dare tell them: you wouldn’t dream of telling them about your … cousin you had [been with] only yesterday, while your pious grandfather silently chanted in his bedroom, earnestly praying for his death.” What we see in such a line are all the divisions that torment him, between soul and body, old and new world, his better and his lesser selves.
“Mercy of a Rude Stream” is something of a shaggy beast; at 1,300 pages, it lacks the shapeliness, the arc of “Call It Sleep,” sprawling across episodes and decades instead. And yet, it is a testament, a moral victory, an example of how literature can save us — not forever, but for a little while, and in incremental pieces at a time.
That it exists at all is something of a miracle, although Roth would have eschewed the term. It is, as Ferris writes, “an epic of the outside, a chronicle of self-survival and self discovery and the realization of the self,” full of the “romantic ideals Ira finds in books. … With their restoration comes the permission to dream, to live, to write.”