Henry Roth's posthumous 'From Bondage' -- 60 years from 'Call It Sleep'

June 23, 1996|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,Special to the Sun

"From Bondage: A Novel" by Henry Roth. St. Martins Press. 432 pages. $25.95.

Henry Roth wrote "Call It Sleep," his masterwork, in 1934. He then descended into a 60-year writing block, to emerge only in the 1990s with a projected six-volume autobiographical novel. "From Bondage," now appearing posthumously, is the third in the series. Its hero is Ira Stigman, age 89, mourning his wife, dead five years as Roth's own wife died in 1990.

Using a double narrative, and two distinct type faces, Roth flashes back to the 1920s, creating a narrative centering on Ira as a young college student in search of his identity. Periodically Roth then abandons Ira's story to return to images of himself as a widower writing at his computer.

He wonders why he couldn't publish another book after "Call It Sleep." He bemoans his wasted years. "From Bondage" becomes an apologia pro vita sua as Roth attempts to explain why he stopped writing; a cosmopolitan world replaced the parochial one that formed his subject matter and which he had RTC himself rejected.

"From Bondage" is sometimes quirky, frequently uneven, occasionally over-written. Of a mosquito bite, Roth writes: "He swatted at the thin sting of proboscis penetration." More often than not it's self-indulgent.

What elevates this work and calls it to our attention is how startlingly frank it is in its portrayal of incest within the confines of an Orthodox Jewish family. "From Bondage" is described by its publisher as the story of the love triangle between the young Ira, his best friend Larry, and Edith, the young professor 10 years his senior who introduces him to James Joyce and T. S. Eliot.

Yet it's Ira's compulsive incest which thematically overwhelms the narrative, largely because Roth treats it so matter-of-factly that it becomes another detail of the environment, like the pirogi Ira wolfs down. What's startling is how nonchalantly Roth describes Ira having habitual sex with both his sister Minnie, with whom he began when she was 11, and his cousin Stella, age 15.

Even the man of 80-plus does not consider the points of view of the two young girls who have been so exploited; he treats the incest as something Ira will transcend once he wins Edith, or any adult woman. Since the author is writing from the vantage of 60 years hence, he knows the girls' fate; how did the incest affect them? He doesn't care; he doesn't say.

We learn that Ira went on to reject Edith after a 10-year affair, during which he wrote "Call It Sleep." He then married M. to whom he remained married for 50 years. Of his victims, we hear nary a word. "From Bondage" seems to be a portrait of the struggling artist as as a young man; yet what emerges is a callously conceived story of incest. It's as if Roth feels he has been punished enough with his life-long writing block, and the incursions of old age. He's more forgiving of his character, himself, than this reader was.

Roth's most vivid characters are Ira's grandfather with his fears for the Jews and his obese aunt Mamie, an immigrant survivor. Ira comes most alive when Roth reveals his shame at his Jewishness, and there are delightful moments when Roth offers a Joycean stream of consciousness, Yiddish style: "But, boy, was he a coaxer, when he wanted to be, on the edge of Pop and Mom's bed, what was the word? What a wheedler, wheedler, yeedler. Cajoler, cudger ..." The young Ira reads "Ulysses" with pleasure; the old Ira rejects Joyce for his evasion of history, his abandonment of the Irish people, which parallels Roth's own early rejection of his Jewish heritage. Both writers, Roth suggests, suffered from an arrested personal maturity. The midwife which rescued Roth from Joycean alienation, he reveals, was Israel.

Read "From Bondage" as a curiosity. It's not a great book, but it is a rich one. It's certainly unique in the brutal honesty with which Roth describes Ira's incestuous incursions on his sister and cousin, presented as of a piece with his shame over his Jewishness. Equally interesting are those moments when Roth debates the purpose of fiction, which he concludes should help people live lives more befitting human beings, with dignity, with decency, with a sense of probity. As an autobiographical novelist, he ponders whether to reveal that Larry suffered from premature ejaculation.

The book closes with Henry Roth facing death. He's crotchety and full of regrets and remains as oddly amoral, as unfinished a human being, as his callow hero. Yet he is simultaneously, now at the close of his life, a man rich in moral perspective, one able to acknowledge, for example, that in striking his son he reflected his own father's violence toward him. Ira-Roth sits before his flickering computer screen, his life ebbing even as he continues heroically to struggle with the moral dilemmas which are the stuff of serious fiction, as they are of an examined life.

Joan Mellen's dual biography, "Hellman and Hammett," will be published this month by HarperCollins. She is the author of 12 other books and teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Michael Pakenham's column will resume next Sunday.

Pub Date: 06/23/96

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