Born in 1906 in Galicia, an outpost of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Roth came three years later with his Yiddish-speaking parents to live among the tenements of New York's Lower East Side. His childhood was fraught with difficulty. Poor, inadequately educated, taunted and reviled, the young Roth longed to escape from all that contained him - cloying family ties, decaying neighbourhood, even Judaism itself ('Jewishness, it would be like leaving nothing,' murmurs Ira Stigman, the new novel's boy-hero).
That escape came at the age of 21 when, as a student at City College, he met the poet and academic Eda Lou Walton, 12 years his senior. Whisked into her Greenwich Village apartment, mingling with her elegant friends, such as Hart Crane and Margaret Mead, Roth began a slow sentimental education. Under Walton's clinical gaze, he devoured literature with an autodidact's fire and determination. And with her encouragement he laboured on what he hoped would become a great work.
That work, Call It Sleep, was published in 1934, and tells the story of a young Jewish immigrant, David Schearl, struggling to adapt to the brutal realities of a slum boyhood in New York. His father's dark, menacing presence forces him closer to his mother, for whom, bewilderingly, he experiences the first inchoate stirrings of sexual desire. It's a novel of power and raw emotion. And with its teasing modernist experiments and Joycean flourishes, the prose, rich in human detail, has a lovely immediacy. 'Whenever you read something authentic like that, it feeds your belief in the whole art,' Arthur Miller said of it.
But, as with so many 'great' novels, its virtues weren't instantly recognised; in many ways its history is as strange as Roth's own. After the initial gurgle of interest, the novel slipped out of print. It owed its flickering after-life to a community of stubborn enthusiasts, one of whom, Peter Mayer, then of Avon Books but now Penguin's group chairman, reissued it in 1964. Second time around, the novel was ecstatically received, selling more than a million copies; it was the first paperback to be reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review.
But Roth, prefiguring the behaviour of those other demanding absences of American fiction, J D Salinger and Thomas Pynchon, had by that time disappeared from view. There had been a faltering attempt at a second novel, eventually abandoned, about a former boxer whose hand is sliced off in a factory accident, and then . . . nothing. (It is hard now not to read that never-published work as a prescient commentary on his own failing powers.)
There were other disruptions, too. In 1938, in thrall to communism and in revolt against the easy glamour of his Manhattan lifestyle, Roth left Walton for the musician Muriel Parker, whom he married a year later (they remained together until her death in 1990). And so began the weary decades of internal exile in Boston and then Maine, teaching a little, working as a firefighter, a labourer and an assistant in a mental asylum, and then, in the Fifties, running a waterfowl farm, before settling in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he still lives. Reflecting on those squandered years of what he calls 'literary desolation', he says: 'They are a time of real regret. It wasn't that I didn't want to write: the yearning to do so never left me. It was just that I feared that I had all but dried up. But still, there was something that I wanted to say which kept gnawing away inside me and then, finally, when I was 73, I hit upon this autobiographical Freudian plot, which eventually became the new work. So great was my relief that it was like breaking down the walls of Jericho.'
He says that he began the sequence in a glorious frenzy of activity, 'desperately wondering whether my powers would stay with me or disappear again'. Mercifully, they stayed. Like the earlier novel, the first part of the sequence, Mercy of a Rude Stream, recounts the journey into maturity of a Jewish teenager growing up in New York in the early years of this century. At times it's closer to straight autobiography than fiction, especially when the rush and flow of the narrative is interrupted by an aged and fatigued Ira (an arthritic who also happens to have suffered a writer's block after producing an acclaimed novel). Slumped in front of his word processor, he comments retrospectively on the actions and motives of his younger self. Although Roth's prose has lost something of its former exuberance, the novel still radiates intensity. Ira's adventures - escaping from a dreadful paedophile, scrapping with scrawny Irish street boys - are exciting, and every detail is compellingly intimate.
'Life (is) all inclusion and confusion, and art . . . all discrimination and selection,' wrote Henry James in the preface to The Spoils of Poynton. It's an observation with which Roth has come to agree: 'When I couldn't write, it wasn't because I had no material: I had masses of fresh material which I wanted to write about,' he says, his voice little more than a gravelly whisper. 'And yet I was too frustrated to do it; I was overwhelmed and couldn't discriminate. There was simply too much, nothing would hold my attention.'
The sudden return of Roth's creative powers also roughly coincided, he says, with the rediscovery of his Jewishness. It was something he thought he had left behind for good when he first began mixing with the Greenwich Village sophisticates: 'I did really abandon my whole Jewish background,' he says, 'and I thought I could never return to it. But a key moment for me was the Six Day War in 1967, an event which filled me with great pride, even though as a communist I was asked to espouse the Arab cause. That event helped to reunite me with a whole people.'
'No reputation is more than snowfall; it vanishes,' the unhappy Delmore Schwartz once complained. And yet, as Roth's triumphant return has shown, if a reputation is based on a work of sufficient quality, then it need not always melt, like Schwartz's tear-stained snow, into nothingness - even after a silence of 60 years.
'Mercy of a Rude Stream' is published by Weidenfeld on 24 February at pounds 14.99
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