on 30 April 2008
I've never written an Amazon review before, but after seeing the poor single star given to one of my favourite books ever I felt almost obliged to do it. I read "Call it sleep" quite a while ago, at University, and I simply found it magic. The protagonist, his childhood in New York, his fears, his moment of revealing epiphany... It's everything still in my heart, even though, of course, the plot is fading in my mind. I read the book and I strongly recommended it to my close friends, the ones I knew could appreciate the intimate poetry of it.
on 21 May 2015
It is among the greatest American novels. Told through the consciousness of a young boy, the characters are first generation immigrants, European Jews who speak only Yiddish on arrival, but learning New York street patois and rubbing shoulders with the other immigrant nationalities are spiritually in the melting pot of American culture. It is strong stuff which will make you cry, and occasionally laugh. Much of the dialogue is cleverly done in English language which sounds foreign, like Yiddish or in dense street patois, which is occasionally impenetrable.
An unusual novel - a great start with the description of immigrants to the US, wonderfully vivid recall of life as a young immigrant, and sensitive portrayal of an "anxiously attached" young child - hesitant in facing the world and clingy. Not a new theme in literature - see the opening of Proust in which a young child tries to put off bedtime, or the first novel of William Maxwell, in the literature of the US. Proust probably shades it, but this is very good! (Though the central character can sometimes overdo his fear of the world - in that we can find this a bit tiresome as his nearest and dearest also do! - and we don't QUITE learn what parental behaviours have caused this response to the world on his part.) That's the main theme of the first part and returns as a theme of the fourth: in between there is deciperhing the back story of his mother, and the introduction to cheder (rather less than gripping for the reader who does not relate to the theme of becoming a Jew). Throughout: colloquial dialogue, heavily accented.
Overall: well worth reading!
on 7 July 2010
I came across this book when I became frustrated finding new books and scanned the list of best 100 books according to Time magazine..here I have found some wonderful new to me gems of North American Literature including All The Kings Men by Robert Penn Warren, A Death in the Family by James Agee and Their Eyes were Watching God by Zora Neale Huston. Call it Sleep started off well, it rated highly in comparison with other books describing the immigrant child's experience, conjuring up clear and sonetimes grotesque pictures of the child's pain and confusion...however towards the last third it started to lose me, it was repetetive and somehow the tension didn't seem convincing...the reunion of the family after a near tragic accident was unconvincing.
In a sense, it's sort of silly to try and write anything useful about a book so completely hyped by critics and carefully studied (cf. New Essays on Call it Sleep), but I'm going to anyway, because I didn't like it. Now, to be totally up front, I read it under a certain amount of duress. My book group picked it, and after the first ten pages I decided I wasn't going to read it and would miss the discussion for the first time in four years. However, it happened that at the exact same time, I started a research project in which I needed to learn about Manhattan in 1916. Since that's just a year or so after when this novel is set, I realized I could kill two birds with one stone -- and so I went ahead and read it.
In hindsight, I realize that I should have skipped the introduction by Alfred Kazin which appears in my edition. It gives away almost every significant plot point and plants far too much in the reader's head -- I cannot conceive of why it wasn't the afterword. Plussing as which, it's not a great essay, even a light skim of it will reveal at least one logical flaw and a total misreading of a scene from the book. So, skip the introduction until after you've read the story. And that story is basically the heavily autobiographical inner life of a emotionally damaged 8-year-old Jewish kid in a rapidly modernizing New York. Many like to laud this book as the best novel about the immigrant experience ever written. This seems rather a strange proposition, for while one of the central themes is certainly the boy's attempt to discover an identity in this brave new world, his circumstance is far from typical. First of all, the Jewish immigrant experience in New York is a very particular one, especially as it relates to cultural persecution in the old world and the notion of alienation and always being "the other". Trying to say the "New York Jewish immigrant experience" is representative of the "immigrant experience" in general is clearly ridiculous. Secondly, by their own choices and actions, the boy's family is almost completely cut off from their fellow immigrants, and are hardly representative. Indeed, it's almost refreshing to find a depiction of immigrants whose hardships are largely of their own making.
The boy protagonist is a particularly irksome guide to this world, as he is the ultimate mama's boy (although not without reason). One of the running menacing subplots is the question of whether or not his father is truly his biological father or not, and what exactly his mother got up to in the old country that led to her being married off to a brute of a man (elements apparently drawn from Roth's own childhood). The bulk of the book concerns the boy's horrendous struggle both to assimilate into the world around him and to decipher the spiritual world. The former is a reasonably well-told and familiar portrait of an outsider who just doesn't "get it". The latter fills the book with religious symbolism, which remained largely a mystery to me owing to my utter lack of religious education and knowledge. Clearly, readers with a strong understanding of Judaism and Christianity will certainly find plenty to chew on. The sexual realm is another running theme, and one that's treated with a great deal of angst, confusion, and negativity. This takes on an entirely different aspect if you read the book knowing that Roth, as his biographer so gently puts it, "indulged in incest" with his sister Rose (and a cousin) for several years during his early teen years. A less sugar-coated way of putting it is that he sexually abused and raped his little sister for several years... This is hardly incidental to the book, as his biographer writes: "Roth would ultimately recognize that incest was the engine that drove his composition." Roth's tortured soul comes through very clearly in his younger alter ego, and it's not a pretty sight.
The style and language used are certainly distinctive, and doubtless many find it invigorating and affecting -- I did not. Roth was rather famously influenced by Joyce, Eliot, and other modernists, and I just happen not to care for modernism. The stream of consciousness employed to depict the boy's inner terrors is effective in moderation, but each passage of it runs on far too long, almost to the point of parody. Similarly, much has been written about Roth's representation of Yiddish and the phonetic treatment of English in the book, but neither has aged particularly well. The stylistic flourishes, epithets, and distinctive syntax of Yiddish which Roth employs are difficult to read without simultaneously "hearing" them as farce or parody of the Mel Brooks variety. There are a great deal of detailed descriptive passages, which again, may appeal to those who appreciate the writer as still-life artist, but again, these struck no chord with me.
So, I freely admit that many of my reasons for not liking the book are personal, however I doubt I am alone in this (as indeed I wasn't in my book group). It simply did not resonate with me on any level, and I can't say I'm the richer for having read it. Others certainly will be though, especially those with an interest in Jewish-American literature or literature about New York.
on 21 September 2008
In the slum jungles of the city, an immigrant boy, David Schearl grows up. From foul, rat-infested cellars, up dark stairways to the airy freedom of New York tenement roofs, he overlooks his world. Through his eyes we see both ugliness and beauty