Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Through the Eyes of a Child

If I could remember the source that directed me to this book, I would definitely go back for more. Call It Sleep by Henry Roth is an extraordinary book on many levels. Roth came to the US in 1909 when he was three and lived in the slums on the Lower East Side. He attended City College of New York and published this novel in 1934. But that was a time when books were hard to sell and, despite critical acclaim, the book virtually disappeared. For reasons that I didn't explore, the paperback version was published in 1964 and sold millions of copies. It was the first paperback ever to be reviewed on the front page of the NY Times Book Review.

No surprise: the narrative is set in 1907 - 1909 on the Lower East Side. For 441 pages, we follow the fortunes and misfortunes of Albert and Genya Schearl and their son David. They are recently arrived Jewish immigrants. Albert is angry and brutal; Genya mild and loving. You wonder how they came to be wed - a secret revealed toward the end of the book. The narrator is 7-year-old David. Roth has done a masterful job of taking the reader inside David's head to view the world in all its terror, magic and mystery as seen by a young boy. Many passages read like a stream of consciousness moving, leaping in half completed phrases from one thought to another. If you have been the parent of a boy this age, you will know just how accurate this is. More than once I found myself smiling with recognition.

It's a wonder that any child survives the cruelties of his fellows and even of adults. In his efforts to fit in to his new country and to find friends, David has been hurt and disappointed so many times that his mantra becomes: don't trust, don't trust, don't trust. His only solace is from his mother (and hers from him).

I should pause here to say that one of the significant features of this book is the way in which Roth succeeds in portraying the many language variations in this population. Imagine trying to write the sounds of broken English with a New York accent. It is really quite funny - and fun - to decode the meaning. It is almost like translating a foreign language. And then, when David goes to Hebrew school, there really is a foreign language. A knowledge of Hebrew and Yiddish would definitely add another level of enjoyment to reading this book but there is more than enough to satisfy the non-Jewish reader. As David is introduced to some of the biblical stories, we see him struggle to understand the concept of God and angels. For any adult working with young children it is a caution to keep in mind how literally a child hears and interprets what we say. For a sensitive child with an over-active imagination, there can be dangerous consequences. For David, it came with the story of Isaiah. In seeking his own religious experience, in trying to find the "light", David risks great physical harm. Roth's language and technique in this episode are quite literally poetic.

For all its length, this is a book that can make the hours of a long flight fly by (no pun intended). And in the Afterword, there is a very interesting discussion of the difference between bilingualism and diglossia! Although Roth published other works much later in his life, this is his masterpiece. I am so glad that I found this book.

1 comment:

  1. I think this is the same book which I read some time ago and found remarkable. On reflection, I found many threads in which the child was a Christ figure, bringing a whole new layer of complexity to the story.

    I wished that I could recall the title so as to recommend it to the Book Club for reading. Glad you found it!