Friday, May 7, 2010

Post Mortem

Henry Roth is best known for his 1934 autobiographical novel “Call It Sleep” (see Dorothea's blog). Overlooked at the time of its initial publication, it was re-issued in 1964 to both popular and critical acclaim, admired as one of the great immigrant novels of the century. Roth, who had abandoned writing in the 1940s, went on to write four more novels before his death in 1995.

The raw material that was to become his final book, An American Type, was a 1900 page manuscript found in a stack at The New Yorker in 2005. Willing Davidson, then an assistant in the fiction department, read the manuscript and took on the task of paring, rearranging and shaping the material into a coherent whole.

The book's main character Ira, clearly a version of Roth himself, is a young Jewish writer in 1938 who has published a successful first novel and is struggling to write a second. During a summer stay at the artist colony Yaddo, he falls in love with a beautiful young blond pianist Roth calls M (Roth's wife of over fifty years was named Muriel Parker), abandons his domineering mentor and lover Edith, and sets off on a search for identity and maturity that takes him on a cross country odyssey and eventually back to Manhattan to marry M.

The book at times has a stitched-together feel, as episodes are strung together but are not quite connected, undoubtedly the result of Davidson's efforts to shape the disjointed manuscript into a cohesive story. But some of these episodes are so beautifully written that I can overlook this shortcoming. The description of Ira's stay at Yaddo is funny and touching, and the chapters on his bleak existence in LA seem to capture the gritty depression era authentically. Ira can at times be unlikeable, and he does too much navel-gazing for my tastes, but Roth's prose is powerful and often lyrical, and despite the difficulties that the Depression imposed on them, his characters remain optimistic and hopeful.

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