Finally, a Time for No Regrets : Books: At 88 and with the first volume of his second novel now out, Henry Roth comes to terms with himself and is ‘reconciled with the louse I was.’
For a man who has spent the greater part of his life in self-imposed exile, Henry Roth has an unusual number of friends.
More than 150 people gathered on a recent Sunday afternoon in the airy sanctuary at Congregation Albert to pay tribute to the 88-year-old author on the publication of the first volume of his highly autobiographical new novel, “Mercy of a Rude Stream,” out from St. Martin’s Press in January.
Natty in a plaid tam, sweater vest and shirt, Roth sat beaming in his wheelchair as his lawyer, his agent, his publicist and his editor sang his praises. His smile broadened as passages from the new book--his second novel in 60 years--were read aloud.
Roth clutched a microphone with hands swollen by rheumatoid arthritis, and in a voice that echoed the inflections of the long-ago Lower East Side of Manhattan, he recalled the accolades for his first novel, “Call It Sleep.” He also described how he grew alienated from the first book, published in 1934 when he was 28, and regarded as a classic evocation of immigrant life. “I no longer felt the work was mine,” Roth said. “It was the property of that arrogant young whippersnapper I once was.”
He fled his native New York in 1939 and abandoned the writer’s life for such occupations as tool-and-die maker, farmer and mental-institution attendant. For nearly 60 tortured years, he said, he worked at becoming “an adult--a mensch .”
“I think I have done so more or less successfully, so now, at last, when people praise my recent book, I feel it’s me they’re praising,” Roth said. “This old codger you see before you is me.”
Roth, who moved to Albuquerque in 1968, lives on a quiet side street in a house with a red tile roof that he bought after his wife, Muriel, died in 1990. In declining health for several years, he passes his days in his book-lined office, sitting in a motorized reclining chair. Close by is the word processor that enables him to write despite his arthritis.
In this high desert setting, with its hard, clear winter light and a rugged range of mountains looming on the edge of town, his feat of transporting himself back to the teeming New York streets of 80 years ago is regarded by his colleagues as nothing short of astonishing. But for Roth, the circumstances of his childhood have always remained close at hand.
“Mercy of a Rude Stream” picks up where “Call It Sleep” left off, conjuring the sights and sounds of a vanished city. The book is finished and will be published in six volumes.
The first volume, “A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park,” is set during World War I, when trolleys and horses still plied the city streets. Roth’s alter ego, 8-year-old Ira Stigman, moves with his unloving father and affectionate but ineffectual mother from the mostly Jewish Lower East Side to an Irish section of Harlem, where Ira is despised for his Jewishness.
Ira succumbs to corrosive self-loathing, a condition that has persisted for Roth himself over much of his life. The book is interspersed with ruminations by the aged Ira, who despises his youthful self for his timidity, clumsiness and dislike of his “greenhorn” in-laws, newly arrived from the old country.
The circumstances of Roth’s life are much like those recounted in “Mercy of a Rude Stream.”
Roth was born in the Austro-Hungarian province of Galitzia in 1906 and landed at Ellis Island in 1909. Like the Stigman family in his book, Roth’s parents moved him and his sister to Harlem in the summer of 1914, an event he counts as a major trauma in his 8-year-old life because of the prejudice he encountered there.
Roth lived at home until he enrolled at City College of New York, where he hoped to major in biology or zoology. But he found his literary calling when an expository writing assignment turned into a fanciful sketch that was published in the campus literary magazine (while earning a D from the instructor).
Roth took up with Eda Lou Walton, a poet and literature professor 11 years his senior, who nurtured his gift. She moved him into her Greenwich Village apartment, where he met and mingled with the intellectual lights of the day, including Margaret Mead and Hart Crane.
With Walton’s support, Roth began writing “a kind of strict biography of self,” which over four years turned into an autobiographical novel.
“I really had to learn to write a novel in those four years,” Roth says. He was deeply influenced by James Joyce’s protean use of language in “Ulysses.” “Call It Sleep” is similarly dense with description and sensuous imagery.
In “Call It Sleep,” the protagonist is called David Schearl, and the story traces in a fictional way Roth’s life up until the age of 8.
Here, the boy’s father is not merely cold, but tyrannical, subject to sudden rages. The mother is idealized as a warm, nurturing figure who stubbornly shelters her son from her husband’s anger. But even in this more-fictionalized vision of his youth, Roth depicts himself as a sniveling weakling too timid to stand up for himself.
The novel builds to a dramatic climax in which the father, maddened by suspicions that David is not his son, beats the boy savagely. David flees home and nearly dies in an accident, becoming a kind of sacrificial figure.
The book was a critical success, but it sold indifferently because its publisher went out of business. Still, it earned Roth a contract for a second book with the legendary Maxwell Perkins, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s editor at Scribner’s.
But Roth says “Call It Sleep” was a creative dead end, because to continue in that vein would have meant following Joyce’s example of writing books increasingly obsessed with the possibilities of language while growing more divorced from life.
“There’s no longer any illumination from life itself,” Roth says of Joyce’s later work. “All he’s got left is Dublin and the medium itself, and the medium starts to prey on itself. As far as illuminating the human condition--it’s nothing.”
In the late 1930s, like many of his contemporaries, Roth joined the Communist Party. The party involvement lasted 30 years and nearly proved fatal to his muse.
He started a second novel, about a worker who loses his hand in an industrial accident, that was meant to be politically correct proletarian fiction. But the subject didn’t ring true, and Roth eventually gave up.
“What happened was, the precocious young man no longer had a future,” Roth says. “It was necessary for me to start all over again and become an individual who did have a literary future, even though I was no longer that lyric artist.”
In 1939, he married Muriel Parker, a Protestant New Englander who gave up her promising musical career to rear their two sons. The family moved to Boston, where Roth worked as a machinist, then to a farm in Maine, where he raised waterfowl and sold blueberries.
Roth’s sojourn as a workingman “had that effect of bringing me back to the normal human condition,” he says. “After 40 or 50 years, I got a new perspective on things.”
His retreat from the literary world was compromised in 1964, when “Call It Sleep” was republished to great acclaim. He had repudiated the novel as inauthentic for failing to tell the whole story of his early life. How did it feel to be feted 30 years after the fact?
He smiles. “I took the royalties.”
Roth resumed writing in 1979, feeling his way as he sought a new fictional form. Tentative, stream-of-consciousness musings became a torrent that culminated in a 3,200-page manuscript.
Despite sharing the same themes and setting, Roth’s two chronicles of a childhood remembered couldn’t be more different.
“Call It Sleep” is filled with richly lyrical prose, especially where Roth renders the mother’s Yiddish dialect in a beautiful, poetic English. “Mercy of a Rude Stream,” with its leaner, more prosaic style, includes many passages in Yiddish.
And where “Call It Sleep” culminates in a confrontation, the first volume of “Mercy of a Rude Stream” is episodic, unfolding laconically. The lack of dramatic tension has disappointed some reviewers, who think the new book doesn’t make a point.
There is ample dramatic material, Roth says, but readers will have to wait for the next volume, “A Diving Rock on the Hudson,” due for release next January.
For all the power of Roth’s prose, his thinly veiled memoir is a painful read because of its persistent current of self-judgment. How could he harbor such dislike of the abused child he once was--or the gifted young writer he became?
“I think it was justified, after you read some of the escapades,” he says. These will not be recounted until the second volume.
What he regards as his youthful failings “were eliminated, erased in ‘Call It Sleep.’ ” he says. “When I wrote ‘Mercy of a Rude Stream,’ they came to the fore.”
Having faced up to those shortcomings in his fiction, Roth seems prepared to ignore the caustic inner voice that has hounded him.
“Rather than use the word forgiveness , I’ve become reconciled with the louse I was,” he says. “It’s one of those things--no use regretting any further.”