Monday, July 30, 2007

Fine Reads: Henry Roth

A couple of months ago, while browsing in a second-hand bookshop, I picked up an old copy of Call It Sleep, by Henry Roth. It was one of those books I was "supposed" to have read, a classic of its genre (which happens to be immigrant literature, a topic in which I have little interest). Though I was already a little bored, a book with this kind of reputation imposes certain obligations on you. I don't want to die ignorant, after all, and shouldn't I honor great writers by at least reading a page or two of their work? So, with absolutely no enthusiasm, I bought the book. And how wonderful it was! What a truly fine thing this book is - joyful, terrifying, Joycean in its stream-of-consciousness and detail, but actually compelling (unlike actual Joyce, who drags you around by a noose after his own ego, and for so little reward). Roth wrote this very autobiographical novel in the Depression, and then just disappeared, seemingly. Actually he moved to Maine and became a slaughterer of water fowl and an orderly at a mental institution. The rest of his oeuvre had to wait for about 60 years, when he took up writing again and didn't stop until almost literally the day he died. I went on to read those last books, too: collectively, they make up Mercy of a Rude Stream, which appears in four volumes and tells us exactly why Roth stopped writing, and why he began again. It's anguishing stuff, and terrific. I finished my journey with Roth by reading Redemption, a biography. If you've never heard of Roth, or heard of him but never read him, you really have to. If you care about literature, and gravitate at all toward modern American history, you're going to find this series absolutely revelatory.

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