Books by Henry Roth

Released: March 1, 1998

The powerful conclusion to an amazing series of autobiographical novels (From Bondage, 1996, etc.), written in old age and completed shortly before the author's death in 1995. As in the three previous installments, the story of the young manhood of Ira Stigman, Roth's identifiable alter ego, is told from two perspectives: as events occur, in and near East Harlem's Jewish neighborhood in the 1920s, and in retrospect (as italicized interludes), by the elderly Ira looking backward and holding "conversations" with his computer (mockingly nicknamed "Ecclesias"). The earlier year is 1927, and Ira, a 21-year-old student at CCNY, remains absorbed in a respectful and loving relationship with his literature teacher and mentor Edith Welles (obviously modeled on leftish intellectual Eda Lou Walton) and also racked with guilt over a past incestuous liaison with his sister Minnie and a continuing exploitation of his "easy" younger cousin Stella. Little happens in Requiem for Harlem. Edith reveals that she's pregnant by her married lover, and Ira dutifully tends to her during the trauma following her abortion. Stella confides that she's "four days overdue," but when a relieved Ira learns she's not pregnant after all, he takes shameful advantage of her again, in the balcony of a movie theater (in a remarkably tense and erotic scene). And Ira finds himself caught up in the abusive and painfully comic quarrels of his parents, Leah and Chaim, a pair of Olympian kvetchers whose furious incompatibility contrasts strikingly with Ira's yearning to lose himself in the elevated and consolatory pages of his beloved Milton. This brilliantly talky story concludes with Ira's escape from home, possessed by what he persuades himself is "a vibrant new vision . . . of liberation, of independence." An editorial endnote promises two more novels, different in style and spirit, that will carry Ira's story forward and will be published "eventually." Whatever more we're fated to learn of Ira Stigman and Henry Roth, in finished form or not, will be well worth waiting for. Read full book review >
FROM BONDAGE by Henry Roth
Released: June 24, 1996

The third volume in the late Roth's ongoing autobiographical cycle, Mercy of a Rude Stream, is very much of a piece with its predecessors—A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park (1994) and A Diving Rock on the Hudson (1995). It continues the story of Roth's alter ego, Ira Stigman, now seen wrestling with his artistic and sexual demons as he straggles toward manhood in 1920s Manhattan and also, some 60 years later, as the elderly Ira labors to make sense of missed opportunities and flawed life choices, carrying on an extended, fragmented "conversation" with his computer ("Ecclesias"). This latest novel fictionalizes Roth's longtime affair with NYU teacher and poet Eda Lou Walton (here: Edith Welles), and it's drenched in the kind of self-conscious literary talk that most writers indulge in, then dispense with, in their early work (though, to be fair, Roth does communicate effectively the beady excitement felt by young intellectuals sharing a contraband copy of Joyce's Ulysses, as well as the hopeful Ira's discovery, through reading Joyce, "that it was possible to commute the dross of the mundane and the sordid into literary treasure"). There are too many lengthy disquisitions on favored writers and writing, and—conversely—a plodding recounting of Ira's peregrinations from one unfulfilling day job to another. Still, Roth writes ferocious, flinty dialogue (the scenes between Ira and his younger sister, and former lover, Minnie are charged with an unforgettable admixture of erotic heat and guilty hatred) and pulls off some remarkable technical effects in balancing the young Ira's dreams of literary accomplishment against his aged self's resigned understanding that "performance with words was the only option open to him, the only tramway out of himself." It's odd, and sad, to realize that Roth, who died last October, may eventually be better remembered for this deeply flawed final work than for his one incontestable masterpiece: Call It Sleep (1934), the book of his youth. Read full book review >
Released: Feb. 1, 1995

The second volume of Henry Roth's long-awaited autobiographical cycle continues the saga of Ira Stigman, immigrant Jew and compulsive schlemiel. With Mercy of a Rude Stream (1994), Roth emerged from a literary hibernation of 60 years following his first novel, the 1934 classic, Call it Sleep. In his new book, he continues the story of Ira, a somewhat mopey adolescent who, at the outset of the latest work, is entering high school at the urging of his doting mother. By the time the book is over, he will have tried and abandoned a number of possible career paths, discovering at the end that he was born to be a writer. Along the way, he will engage in a lengthy incestuous affair with his sister and be drawn into a literary crowd. Roth tells this story through a multilayered narrative set in three time frames: Ira's life in the 1920s; the aging Ira's manuscript written in 1979; and the revisions to that work Ira makes in the present, often in spirited dialogue with his computer. Ira is a consummate outsider, the alienated Jew with a double burden — alienation from a Christian America and from his status as an immigrant Jew and apparent failure. Roth revisits this messy youth in densely layered and occasionally meandering prose, allowing himself indulgences like a ferocious diatribe denouncing Joyce's Leopold Bloom as a faux Jew. A Diving Rock is much more uneven than its immediate predecessor, starting slowly, almost fitfully, before bursting into full flower. It is a book of surprising moments glimpsed fleetingly — a vicious anti-Semitic outburst from baseball legend John McGraw, a near-rape in a storeroom basement, a keenly observed scene at a Greenwich Village poetry reading. Such scenes make this a book of great moments, but not quite a great book. Still, Roth is the last surviving voice of High Modernism, and even in a flawed work like this, it is a voice that should be heard. Read full book review >
Released: Jan. 26, 1994

Sixty years after the classic Call It Sleep, Roth, quite astoundingly, is back inside the consciousness of a Jewish immigrant boy in New York before WW 1—continuing, though with differences, the Joycean rodeo of consciousness that that first book began. Nine-year-old Ira Stigman—the boy-protagonist here—and his parents have just moved from the shtetl-like security of the Lower East Side to "white" Harlem. The bonds of culture are weaker uptown—few Jewish friends, no religious studies—and the insecurity is echoed by the larger world's threats, such as the war (Ira's uncle is drafted, sent off to fight in Europe with a great chorus of sidewalk lamentation—a fine scene that also reminds us how ancient a distaste unmodern Judaism has for soldiering). Ira, though, is more preoccupied with defending himself against Irish bully-boys and the slippery tactics of an upscale grocery store as it makes an arrangement with Prohibition; with fending off various pederastic moves (including one by his teacher) and with his own burgeoning sexuality (mortifyingly, unwillingly, come to focus upon his own mother). In a prose that is formal but warm, Roth tells Ira's tale in a shapely, controlled manner that benefits from the slight aloofness of memory trolling in the depths of very long ago. Interrupting all this are asides addressed to the author's computer ("Ecclesias"). But in these—though they are often touching, the whitened confessions of an old man and long-blocked writer—Roth consciously dilutes what spell he might have spun from Ira's story. A kind of double-entry bookkeeping, the contemporary musings of the octogenarian unavoidably call forth a pathos that the Ira-narrative wants to keep well away. And so the emotional temperature of the whole work falls out of whack—with spots too warm, spots too cold: never quite a steady climate. Still, Roth's return is a genuine event—and Call It Sleep devotees will find it unthinkable not to see what it's all about. Read full book review >