I found myself a few weeks ago recounting a bit of family history to a friend. I tried to give a sense of the four sisters and one brother (along with estranged mother and father) who arrived in New York in the 1890s from Germany. My grandmother and great aunts and uncle, especially to the eyes of a child, were strange and awkward beings, living in an American world never really far from the Old Country, at least in their reminiscences. (I heard only in whispers and never understood what transpired between their father and mother.) Noting this my friend suggested that I might like Henry Roths Call It Sleep, a novel published in 1934, forgotten and then resurrected in the sixties when it appeared in paperback. As I found out upon reading but a few pages of the work, it justly deserves the status of classic. It is an extraordinary achievement.I do not think I found much by way of shared experiences, at least as I remember them being retold, between my family and that of Roths fictional David Schearls, but the book took me to a world strangely foreign and strangely familiar: the consciousness of a hypersensitive child. The childhood eye, the lens that magnifies and distorts, and yet often registers intuitively great truths: this is Roths great narrative achievement. His text is modernist in its experimental style, unforgettable in its creation of character, and uncannily accurate in conveying sensory detail. The Noonday Press edition offers an essay by an Israeli scholar who explores one of the means that Roth uses to achieve his ends: the interplay of languages. We find the narrative and dialogue in English, which represents in speech Yiddish, the phonetic transcription of the heavily accented speech of the streets, Yiddish itself, and Hebrew and Aramaic in ritual use. The interplay can make some passages difficult to comprehend (sounding out the phonetic spellings to understand what the character is saying) yet the immediacy of the speech is such that the print fairly yells at times of great stress.This is a coming of age novel and takes in the attempts at assimilation to the Golden Land by David, his father and mother, and his Aunt Bertha. Davids father is an unforgettably violent and emotional man, suspicious of his wife, resentful of his son, and brutal in his treatment of both. The difficulty between husband and wife is introduced in the very first scene (she fails to recognize her husband at Ellis Island as he waits for her arrival), but the source of that difficulty is revealed gradually, through the increasingly comprehending eyes of David, their son. Aunt Bertha is an unforgettable shrew whose arguments with her brother-in-law reach poetry in their vitriol.The mother, presumably very beautiful and smothering in her protective concern for David, is his emotional anchor; he clings to her, infuriating his father, and occasions his own fear in his furtive observations of the life that goes on about her in one case, the attentions of his fathers work mate.The mysteries of sex seem to be linked to dark cellars and playing bad with his neighbors daughter, and later with the step daughters of his Aunt Bertha. Davids fears are reflected in the building and on the streets of the Lower East Side. At one stage his gets lost in his wondering and is unable to communicate the name of his street to the solicitous policeman his Yiddish English is too heavily inflected. The scenes in the cheder, the Hebrew school that he attends, are aching in their portrayal of academic success and the pressures to exonerate himself.The final section, multi-voiced, collage-like in construction, built around a central monologue that is stream of consciousness, moves in an almost hallucinatory way to climax and doubtful resolution. The loss of consciousness that ends the novel is the It that can be called sleep of the title. The waking from that sleep is Davids life to come.Roth clearly had read his Joyce and other great modernists; he adapted their ideas to a unique rendering of immigrant life. The autobiographical elements are undeniable and piercingly conveyed in the consciousness of the child David. And then there is the sense of New York in the early years of the last century teeming, chaotic, multi-voiced and intrusive. The stark contrast between the isolation of the boy and the throbbing demands of the city creates a tension that resonates with the rising conflicts of characters.Somewhere, I think, David and his parents might have crossed paths with those German immigrants, Catholic not Jewish, but similarly culture-shocked, making their way to a new life in the Golden Land.
Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.