Tuesday, April 27, 2021

“Kh-i-r-r-r-f! S-s-s-s” - Call It Sleep, a note or two


Call It Sleep, Henry Roth, 1934.  What a book.  One of the great novels in many categories – a list: immigrant novels, Jewish novels, childhood novels, New York novels, education novels, dialect novels.  It is also a genuine example of a “lost classic,” mostly ignored on publication but a bestseller – a big bestseller – in the 1960s, when there was, however unlikely it seems now, a mass audience for Modernist Jewish novels.

David, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, is five, and in Brooklyn, when the novel begins and eight, in the East Village, when it ends.  His father is a printer and then a milkman.  His mother only leaves the tenement apartment to buy groceries.  She is devoted to her sensitive son.  Her “overwrought, phobic, and dangerously imaginative little boy,” as Irving Howe described David in his 1964 review of the paperback.  The father, who has what we would now call “anger management” issues, often hates his son.  Call It Sleep is a Joycean novel in a number of ways, one of which is that it is A Portrait of the Artist as a Child, and another of which is that each long episode moves towards a stream-of-consciousness intensity, the last episode turning into this:

Poor little David, in search of the light of God, has suffered a terrible accident.  Everything in italics is his monologue, off in some other state, possibly near death; the dialogue is a chorus, mostly men from a nearby bar, in various dialects; “Kh-i-r-r-r-f! S-s-s-s” is the sound of a policeman resuscitating David.  It just takes a little work, is all I’m saying, to keep everything straight.  The content of the text, David’s thoughts especially, works through all of the thematic material developed in the previous four hundred pages.

I read Call It Sleep almost thirty years ago, and the real surprise to me was how little stream of consciousness and Joycean cacophony there was.  Much of the novel is plainer.  “Aunt Bertha would show his mother some day how to make a sponge-cake.”  I picked that randomly.  I didn’t take any notes, for some reason.  Aunt Bertha, fat, earthy, vital, what a great character.  The energy level rises whenever she is in the scene.  The rhetorical mode moves towards stream of consciousness as each episode intensifies and reaches its climax.  Five year-old David gets lost in Brooklyn, or, later, at cheder, has a genuine religious experience.  That sort of thing.  That’s when the consciousness begins to stream.

No, there was one other surprise.  I had not read enough D. H. Lawrence long ago; this time I could see how Lawrence had – influenced, I don’t know – freed Roth to write about his parents in a particular way.  I doubt Roth would have allowed the son to so openly fear the father, the father to so clearly hate the son, the mother to love them all so deeply, without Lawrence’s example.  I mean, maybe he would have, who knows.  Call It Sleep is also full of obscenities, all of the words that I thought were forbidden in American fiction of the time.  Sometimes they are hidden a bit by dialect, but they’re here.

D. G. Myers wrote about Call It Sleep, and took notes. He emphasizes the Jewish aspect of the father-son combat, the tradition of the Jewish stories.

The Yiddish is in standard English.  The English of the Yiddish-speakers is in dialect.  The English of the Poles and Italians and Irish is in other dialects.  The Hebrew is in Hebrew.  This is what I meant by saying it was a great dialect novel.  The cacophony is one of its themes.

When I read it again in thirty years maybe I’ll take some notes.

Tomorrow, more D. H. Lawrence, this time in Quebec.


  1. I've had the novel for many years, and you're making me want to actually read it. "The Hebrew is in Hebrew"!

  2. It is such an interesting language novel. Hana Wirth-Nesher's afterword is entirely about Roth's representation of language.

    I see that I forgot a case. The Polish - the Polish-Polish, spoken by David's mother and aunt - is not represented at all, because David doesn't understand it.