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Books: A stream worth navigating

REQUIEM FOR HARLEM by Henry Roth, Weidenfeld pounds 17.99
THE STORY BEHIND Henry Roth's novel- sequence, Mercy of a Rude Stream, brought to a close by this fourth volume, has already acquired mythological stature. Extraordinary in itself, the story is a metaphor for expectation, disappointment, perseverence; it's also referred to, time and again, in the sequence itself.

Born in 1906 in Austro-Hungarian Galitzia, taken to New York by his parents in 1909, Roth produced, when only 28, a remarkable fictional recreation of a Jewish childhood in the Brooklyn slums. Call It Sleep was Joycean in style, Freudian in thought. The discerning acclaimed it. But no successor appeared; with the years, both the literary world and Roth himself, engulfed now by the demands of a family, reluctantly acknowledged that the book was probably a "sport". And yet he knew that when he'd moved from Brooklyn to Harlem, creatively interesting experience had not ended; on the contrary, he'd had a turbulent adolescence and young manhood, forging for himself a tortuous route to sexual and intellectual identity.

Then in 1979, with his move to New Mexico, the block began to lift; slowly he started work on a vast, autobiographical roman fleuve. Roth didn't impose fictive order on his material, however, until after the death of his beloved wife, in 1990. Mercy of a Rude Stream follows a most original and stimulating narrative procedure. Roth returns to his earlier self, called Ira Stigman here in distinction to the David Schearl of Call It Sleep, and traces his life in Harlem up to the day of his leaving home. But he regularly punctuates his account with dialogues between himself and his word-processor, referred to as Ecclesias. In these we learn about his life subsequent to those tormented Harlem years; about his angst at his literary sterility and his complex, warring hopes for this work in progress; about his rediscovery of Judaism and feeling for Israel; much too about his grief at his wife's death and the profound love, during 50 years of marriage, which becomes a benign context for a survey of the often squalid events and entanglements of his youth.

Though these dialogues - set in a different typography from the narrative proper - are often fascinating (especially in his re-considerations of Joyce and his debt to him) and even moving (above all when concering "M", his wife), they are at times too prolix in style. Also Roth's egotism, compounded of self-loathing and a need for self-justification, can vitiate their capacity for clarification of the past. About his actual rendering of this, on the other hand, there can be no doubts.

Roth's command of his material, his ability to inhabit his protagonist while seeing round him, to sympathise with his predicament while appreciating his limitations of vision and character, and his fictive realisation of those with whom Ira has important relationships, are quite simply the achievements of a major novelist, of the compelled student of the mysteries of human nature.

Requiem for Harlem is the skilfully wrought conclusion to a highly conscious work of art, one telling, for the greater part of its length, a story of great emotional intensity in no way diminished by division into volumes. This story begins halfway through the second book, A Diving Rock on the Hudson, with the wonderfully rendered friendship between Ira and his classmate, Larry Gordon, a cultured, worldly, kindly boy. Larry proceeds to fall romantically in love with his college lecturer, Edith Welles, a woman at once pluckily nonconformist and neurasthenically vulnerable. Larry's charm - which comes across irresistibly - increasingly fails to disguise a fundamental conventionality, itself a form of weakness.

The development of Larry, in truth a failure to develop, is pursued in counterpoint to Ira's stubborn ability to come to terms with his early fetid sexual and emotional life, in which incestuous relations with sister and cousin symbolised the claustrophobia of his immigrant home. Ira, to his own surprise, can grow beyond his first world, as the more privileged Larry cannot, and almost malgre lui supplants his best friend in Edith's affections, and foresakes Harlem to live with her.

Neither in youth nor age does Stigman/Roth reveal himself as generous- spirited, yet in this magnificent sequence he performs the ultimate act of spiritual generosity, creating in Larry and Edith characters of such depth that one feels for them as much as for their tortured, courageous, imaginative friend and portrayer. Paradoxically, out of the super-urban New York of Roth's experience has come a work of atavastic address, where cultures cannot altogether suppress the body's needs and where spirit can triumph over even its crudest, most violent dictates.

'Call It Sleep' is published by Penguin at pounds 8.99. The first three volumes of the series are in paperback: 'Mercy of a Rude Stream I: A Star Shines Over Mt Morris Park', pounds 5.99; II: 'A Diving Rock on the Hudson', pounds 6.99; III: 'From Bondage', pounds 6.99; all Phoenix.