Sunday, December 16, 2012

Call It Sleep (by Henry Roth)

Maybe not the Great American Novel, but certainly a great American novel. It's about the Jewish immigrant experience, which definitely qualifies as a great American theme. And it's just beautifully written.

Roth does amazing things with language. He makes the English spoken by the multiingual immigrants very broken and Brooklynese, but the at-home tongue of the protagonist's family, which is Yiddish, lyrical and fluid. It's the story of a young boy's coming of age. It's a very Oedipal family triangle, which is to say, he's very close to his mother and his father is tyrannical and unsympathetic.

(The preface suggests the novel is just like James Joyce because the main character is clearly destined to be an artist. I see zero textual evidence for this reading, but that doesn't mean Joyce isn't evoked in other ways, such as the use of stream-of-consciousness and the polyglot language.)

I actually haven't loved many of the Jewish-American writers on the Time 100 list; I don't love Phillip Roth, and Saul Bellow bores me to tears. But this novel--which is the only one Roth ever wrote, drawn from his own experience--I loved. 

Definitely a classic, definitely holds up, and very glad I read it.


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