Henry Roth's Call It Sleep and the Genius of Saul Bellow


I loved Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep when I first read it in the 60’s, and now that the book is being reissued by Picador, I returned to it as if I were approaching a great novel, what Alfred Kazin calls the “most profound novel of Jewish life… by an American.” While I still loved parts of the book, rereading showed me how dated the novel is, the way Yiezerska’s Bread Givers or Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer is dated—and how trapped it is in a modernist dualism of interior beauty and worldly, plebian vulgarity. And as I thought about Roth’s strategies for exploring what critic Jules Chametzky calls “innerness," I became better aware of what the late Saul Bellow contributed to the American novel. Of course there’s room for both Bellow and Roth inside us, but Roth’s novel helps me see what Bellow has done for writers as Jews and Americans.

I was knocked out by many beautiful passages in Call It Sleep—passages describing immigrant life, life in the streets and tenements, passages exploring the boy David Schearl’s consciousness. We are shown the world phenomenologically; that is, we get to know the city only as it’s filtered through our protagonist’s awareness. David takes life inside; it becomes his life, his New York. Here, for instance, is David’s first glimpse of Luter, a man who pretends to be his father’s friend in order to get his father’s wife, David’s mother, into bed. At first sight, David doesn’t like Luter’s face:

It was not because it was particularly ugly or because it was scarred, but because one felt one’s own features trying to imitate it while one looked at it. His mouth so very short and the bow of his lips so very thick and arched that David actually felt himself waiting for it to relax. And the way his nostrils swelled up and out almost fatigued one and one hoped the deep dimples in his cheek would soon fill out.

The hyper-intensity of David's seeing hovers at the edge of fantasy, the surreal. David doesn’t walk out into a sunny day. Instead: “A dazzling breaker of sunlight burst over his head, swamped him in reeling blur of brilliance, and then receded.”

It’s because David is a child in almost constant terror that Roth’s strategies for revealing the child’s world are so rich. A kid who makes Stephen Dedalus look like a macho regular Joe, David is isolated, in conflict over his American (that is, mainstream-Christian) and Jewish identities. But “Identities” sounds so blah. The situation is so much more agonized. Filled with sexual guilt, sexual shame, physical fear, David distorts his world, and this distorted world is painful for the reader to experience.

The drama of Call It Sleep arises from the collision of David’s inner world and the city he distorts. The novel is built on misunderstood secrets. Its climax begins in a sensational scene in which David’s various lies and shames, arising from his tortured misunderstandings, come down on his head. Roth is a great dramatist of the tortured soul. It’s one way in which he’s much stronger than Bellow, who isn’t good at building dramatic plots.

But it’s Roth’s ways of stylizing innerness that I want to examine, because they reveal his strengths and limitations as well as Bellow’s innovations.

Here are Roth’s strategies of exploring David’s lens:

Limited indirect discourse. “How long he lay there he did not know. But little by little the anguish lifted...” We’re looking not at but through David—in third person. Yet the language is generally adult. I’m reminded of James’ Preface to What Maisie Knew. Speaking of his decision to go beyond the terms the child Maisie might use, James says, “Small children have many more perceptions than they have terms to translate them…. Maisie’s terms accordingly play their part… but our own commentary constantly attends and amplifies.” Joyce, in Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, revolutionizes indirect discourse. The style through which Stephen sees—that style changes as Stephen changes. But while Roth has learned indirect discourse and stream of consciousness from Joyce, he has applied it in a pretty traditional way.

Fragmented consciousness. Fragments of David’s own language jumble together, expressing his conflicts and confusion: “—Thought this—? No. Maybe went two. Then when he ran. Wasn’t looking and went two. Next one. That would be it. Find it now. Mama is waiting.” This stylization of mind comes straight out of Joyce, especially out of Ulysses, but it’s handled in a wooden way. Throughout Call It Sleep are these scattered arias of consciousness. They’re pretty corny and go on too long. They need a good editor. Their energy is in their elliptical nature—the gaps that the reader has to fill. But these gaps are quite obvious. This time through the novel I felt I was being told what to feel by a writer pretending to spill the contents of consciousness but really speaking through a puppet on his lap.

Street language and the language of the inner life. Roth handles dialect very well. Sometimes it’s a pain to get past the distorted spelling, but it can also be a pleasure. He “does” Italian-immigrant, Irish-immigrant, as well as Jewish-American street speech. It’s often funny, always vulgar. It’s set in contrast to David’s lyrical inner world in the same way as the crude speech of plebian Dubliners is set against Stephen’s inner life. Here’s Joyce’s Stephen seeing classmates clowning at the edge of the water:

An ecstasy of flight made radiant his eyes and wild his breath and tremulous and wild and radiant his windswept limbs.

—One! Two! . . . Look out!

—O, cripes, I’m drownded!

—One! Two! Three and away!

—Me next! Me next!

—One! . . . Uk!


His throat ached with a desire to cry aloud…

Here, at the climax of Call It Sleep, David’s consciousness—or, rather, unconscious inner life—is set against the crude street language of various ethnic groups:

Terrific rams of darkness collided; out of their shock space toppled into havoc. A thin scream wobbled through the spirals of oblivion, fell like a brand on water, his-s-s-s-s-ed—

                                                                        “Gaw blimey!”
                        “W’atsa da ma’”

The inner life is deep, contemplative, lyrical. It has dignity, unlike the language of the streets. Throughout the novel one of its signifiers is a Yiddish translated into high style. It’s this translated Yiddish that critics most remark on. When the characters speak in Yiddish, given us in an elegant English, they convey dignity, thoughtfulness, subtlety, grace.  Even the enraged, monstrous father speaks his rage with elegance. “Shudder when I speak to you,” he commands David. When Call It Sleep was first published, Roth was speaking to the assumption that immigrants were crude, vulgar, without depth. But it’s only in their assimilated costumes that they seem crude. David’s beautiful mother says, “Within this pale is my America, and if I ventured further I should be lost.” The language in this book, as Alfred Kazin puts it in the introduction, “conveys a seeking for a better world than this, for spiritual heights customary to people who regard themselves as living under the eye of God.”

The languages of the novel struggle against one another; crude street language clashes with a gracefully translated Yiddish as home language—inner world versus ugly, exciting streets, an English melted down into a stewpot of immigrant dialects—language of the Irish cops, the Italian and Jewish peddlers, the tough street kids from all immigrant groups. Kazin says, correctly, that the Yiddish mother and son speak together “is made to sound effortlessly noble, beautiful, expressive, almost liturgical by contrast with the guttural street English that surrounds David in the street.”

This drama of warring languages is the drama of the novel. But here’s the problem: what language, what culture, is really being valorized? Roth is apparently trying to show the richness of the inner lives of immigrants. The crudeness associated with their speech comes from the attempt to be American. Roth’s use of a folk quality, associated with Sholem Aleichem, I. L. Peretz, and even some of I. B. Singer, doesn’t convey the richness of the Jewish culture he wants to express. In Aunt Bertha there’s a lot of folk-Yiddishkeit, but Bertha is comic relief. The trap is this: beauty of soul is conveyed in high style, in elegant English. Kazin speaks about “splendid, almost too splendid, King James English.” Exactly! But that's a real problem. It’s an immigrant novel that can’t find soul in actual immigrant language. And Roth doesn’t invent a language of his own. He borrows from Joyce, he borrows from high culture.

All right, it’s too much to say that the poetry of the novel, attempting to valorize the Jewish soul, valorizes elitist modernist Anglo-American sensibility instead. But almost. It’s almost as if his stylistic strategies put Roth in the pocket of a T. S. Eliot, whose aesthetic contempt for the language of the streets is apparent. The sensitive artist against a crass modern world: it’s largely the solitary outsider, the artist-to-be, Roth values, not a community. We see this duality in Portrait and Ulysses, but Joyce, being a greater writer, maintains a brilliant ironic detachment from the vision.

Now we’re ready to see what Bellow accomplishes.

In one of his letters to another Roth—Philip Roth—recently published in The New Yorker, Bellow speaks of a problem. It’s a problem he shared with Henry Roth, a problem later Jewish-American writers didn’t face. Bellow speaks of his liberation in composing Augie March. Before Augie, he says, “I had written two very correct books…. I seem to have felt that I, as the child of Russian Jews, must establish my authority, my credentials, my fitness to write books in English. Somewhere in my Jewish and immigrant blood there were conspicuous traces of a doubt as to whether I had the right to practice the writer’s trade…. It wasn’t Fielding, it wasn’t Herman Melville who forbade me to write, it was our own WASP establishment…. I must say that these guys infuriated more than they intimidated me.”

When he came to Augie, “For the first time I felt that the language was mine to do with as I wished.” And he did. He created a sentence of his own in which the language of the streets and the language of the heart were not in conflict; they were one. He created a language able to integrate American looseness and Yiddishkeit with the seriousness of high modernism. He writes in another letter, “We the children of immigrants had lots of languages to speak and we spoke them with relish.” He’s referring to Yiddish, Russian, Hebrew, English. And he says, “You could not be excluded when the common language became your language.” I am an American, Chicago-born.

Bellow breaks through the trap by recognizing the trap as opportunity. Look what you can do if you get rid of the notion that these languages are at war. They’re actually in dialogue—actually capable of making love and birthing a new language. Just sample a few of Bellow’s rich sentences, from a 1979 story, “A Silver Dish”:

Between the shafts of his World’s Fair rickshaw he used to receive, pulling along (capable and stable) his religious experiences while he trotted. Maybe it was all a single experience repeated. He felt truth coming to him from the sun. he received a communication that was also light and warmth. It made him very remote from his horny Wisconsin passengers, those farmers whose whoops and whore-cries he could hardly hear when he was in one of his states. And again out of the flaming of the sun would come to him a secret certainty that the goal set for this earth was that it should be filled with goods, saturated with it.

Bellow’s new language, combining depth of soul and the energies of America, is cultural criticism as well as stylistic victory. It’s not just the immigrant boy discovering that he owns and can reinvent the language. It’s an attack on the sensibility of cultural modernism. Bellow’s Herzog writes to a childhood friend, now a cultural historian:

We mustn’t forget how quickly the visions of genius become the canned goods of the intellectuals. The canned sauerkraut of Spengler’s “Prussian Socialism,” the commonplaces of the Wasteland outlook, the cheap mental stimulants of Alienation, the cant and rant of pipsqueaks about Inauthenticity and Forlornness. I can’t accept this foolish dreariness…. It torments me to insanity that you should be so misled. A merely aesthetic critique of modern history! After the wars and mass killings. You are too intelligent for this. You inherited rich blood. Your father peddled apples.

You can understand why Bellow, a great Jewish writer, rejected being tagged a “Jewish” writer. He is declaring, I am an American writer and I own this Jewish-Walt Whitman-Chicago-spiritual language. After Bellow the trap is sprung, the duality is broken.Other writers, other ways. Malamud in his way, Philip Roth in his, Doctorow in his, Ozick in hers. I’m not arguing that without Bellow other Jewish-American writers would be trapped. The war between languages turns into a love affair as Jewish-American writers feel comfortable in America. Not “assimilated” but able to integrate cultures.

And yet it’s the war of languages that gives Roth’s Call It Sleep its peculiar intensity. It’s the terrible dis-comfort that makes us remember and re-read the novel. The novel moves toward a scene of near electrocution—something of a crucifixion, something of a fierce enlightenment out of Isaiah, and certainly a burning away of the guilt that permeates David’s consciousness. Purgation-illumination-redemption. It’s as if the warring forces meet in a great shock more terrible than David can handle. The conflict of forces in the novel, in language, in America, must have been terrible for Roth to hold in his hand. Rereading the novel I kept thinking: What this life, what this writing, must have cost Henry Roth. If this is a dated novel, it’s also one of great power and beauty.