Reprinted with permission from American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide (Jewish Publication Society).
Henry Roth’s first novel is nothing short of miraculous. An extraordinary work of literary art, it unites the modernist narrative techniques of James Joyce with the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud, and it layers all of this into a lavishly detailed story of a young boy’s childhood on the Lower East Side of New York.
David Schearl is six when the story opens, in 1911, and he is terrified. Though his mother dotes on him, his father, Albert, has a sharp temper, and when he is sent for lessons to a local Jewish melammed, or teacher, he encounters a merciless tyrant.
Owing to more than the threat of physical violence, though, David’s fearfulness is the result of his gradual loss of innocence, as he discovers his family history, religion, and sex. Eavesdropping between snippets of Polish, he learns about his mother’s affair with a gentile in the old country; meanwhile, a girl initiates him into the facts of life, informing him that babies come “from de knish…. Between de legs. Who puts id in is de poppa. De poppa’s god de petzel.”
Far from making his life more comprehensible, this education renders the world strange and forbidding to David: “Everything he knew frightened him,” the narrator remarks. His misunderstandings grow into an elaborate personal mythology, and finally, following what he thinks is the example of the prophet Isaiah, his story culminates in a harrowing, beautiful, dreamlike attempt to purify himself of all his guilt and the world’s filth.
Call It Sleep manages to be both the straightforward story of a child’s misfortune on the streets of the ghetto and a resonant symbolic exploration of the connections between Jewish and Christian theology.
Linguistically, Call It Sleep is remarkable for depicting a primarily Yiddish world in mannered English prose; it is only when someone speaks English (‘Well, w’yntcha gimme a Englitch noospaper?”) that one recalls that most of the characters’ speech and thought is being translated from mameloshen. The amount of fractured dialect, as well as Roth’s use of stream of consciousness and symbolism, make the book a challenging read, but it is, by far, one of the most rewarding of American Jewish novels.
Further reading: Roth didn’t publish another novel for 50 years after Call It Sleep. In the 1990s, an editor worked with the aging author and managed to carve an autobiographical four-volume work, Mercy of a Rude Stream (1994-98), out of thousands of pages of rambling prose. While continuing where Call It Sleep leaves off in narrating the life of a young Jewish boy, these books also deal with the reasons for Roth’s long silence. So too does Steven Kellman’s admirable biography, Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth (2005), which argues that Roth’s traumatic experiences of abuse and incest as a teenager prevented him from maintaining a literary career as an adult.