If James Joyce had been brought up in a Manhattan Slum: ‘Call it Sleep’ by Henry Roth (1934)

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I’d originally intended this post to be a companion piece to my review of ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn‘ – the immigrant experience in Manhattan rather than Williamsburg.  Then I realised it would be a bit like comparing Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ (‘If I should die, think only this of me: / That there’s one corner of a foreign field / that is forever England’) with ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ because they’re both about World War I.  ‘Call it Sleep’ begins on the boat from Ellis Island and the characters all live in the New York tenements, but it’s not a book about immigration, patriotism and The American Dream, it’s an exploration of Freudian depths and mystical epiphanies…

‘Call it Sleep’ is not an easy book to summarise so I’ll cheat and call it a mixture between Joyce’s ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ (coming-of-age presented through experimental writing and diction) and Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’ (epiphanies and Oedipal tension in the nuclear family).  It is highly ambitious and literary and I heartily recommend it to anyone who likes either of these authors in particular, or complex writing in general.

The Oedipal family dynamic, which involves a brutish father and a mother-child relationship that even Proust might think is a bit obsessive, is only a part of the story.  The whole book can be read as an enjoyable game of spot the Freud, covering fear of sex, fear of death and some good old madonna/whore tension when presenting the mother.  Poor David is such a mass of neuroses you fear for what his adolescence might be like, but the book does not go that far.  Instead, the story is a detailed account of his formative years as he slowly emerges as a powerful independent character in his own right.

Without wishing to be overly flippant, I found the psychology a bit silly and a lot of fun; what really gives this book it’s place as a top New York read is the language.  David and his family come from Eastern Europe; their first language is Yiddish and, when speaking it, they are fluent, polished and erudite.  The vocabulary is complex and the syntax sophisticated.  In contrast, when anyone in the book speaks in English, accent and grammar are faithfully written out, giving a wonderful presentation of the cocophany of accents in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  It’s also a brilliant subversion of immigrant stereotypes, contrasting their rich ‘old world’ culture with the brash new sounds of New York.

Although very different from ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’, the immigrants’ aspirations are shown in their adoption of the American language, and the youthful ambition of the city is personified as the children are the most fluent English speakers.  Typically, the first conversation in English is about an alarm clock which a boy has opened ‘id’s a machine … it wakes op mine fodder in de mawning…it tells yuh w’en yuh sh’d eat an’ w’en yuh have tuh go tuh sleep.  It shows yuh w’en, but I tooked it off.’  In the narrative, we hear how young David sees the clock ‘exposed, the brassy, geometric vitals ticked when prodded, whirred and jingled falteringly.’ Time is literally of the essence, and it can be experienced through science, mechanics and the new world, or through intuition and emotional connections.  As Davy grows, his understanding of time develops to match his understanding of English and of his place in the city.

‘Call it Sleep’ is rich and highly ambitious, a kind of metaphor itself for the struggles its characters face in working out where they belong.  The good news is that I know perfectly well where my copy belongs: on the bookshelf next to Philip Roth where it will serve as a good reminder of the literary tradition behind the very best contemporary New York fiction.

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5 Responses to If James Joyce had been brought up in a Manhattan Slum: ‘Call it Sleep’ by Henry Roth (1934)

  1. Sarah says:

    Oh my goodness, this sounds amazing! I’ve never heard of Henry Roth and had to google to see if he was related to Philip Roth, whose work I love (he’s not). I’ll definitely be getting a copy. I feel like I’m travelling vicariously through your blog posts at the moment – it’s fabulous fun! 🙂

    • New York really has been fantastic for books. Henry Roth is special though, definitely a top read. Now I’m going to have to find something by Joseph to complete my Roth collection!

  2. Stefanie says:

    Ok, you sold me on this! I’ve heard of it before but never had any idea what is is about. I love both Joyce and Woolf and your wonderful description of what reading the book is like has me adding it to my TBR list right now!

    • It really deserves to be better known. If you want more encouragement, it was also the first paperback ever to be reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review (according to the blurb on my own paperback)

  3. Pingback: It’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it. | Shoshi's Book Blog

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