BOOK REVIEW / When the long sleep ends . . .: Hugo Barnacle on the novel that took Henry Roth more than half a century to write: Mercy of a Rude Stream: A Star Shines Over Mt Morris Park Henry Roth Weidenfeld & Nicholson pounds 14.99

HENRY ROTH published his first novel in 1934. This month he published his second. In between times he seems to have been variously a toolmaker, woodman, teacher, duck farmer and psychiatric nurse, while struggling with one of the most protracted known cases of writer's block in history.

Call It Sleep, his debut, was an autobiographical story set in the immigrant slums of New York, treating low life in a high literary style. It gained a little attention for a time, but when Roth became hopelessly bogged down with the follow-up, an overtly Communist tract which he had to abandon, he was soon forgotten. He married the musician Muriel Parker and had enough to do bringing up children and getting a living.

In the Sixties, Call It Sleep was paperbacked and, with some strong critical support and the cachet of a 'neglected masterpiece', it became a bestseller. Less well known in Britain than America, it remains a Penguin Modern Classic ( pounds 7.99) all the same. With a measure of recognition, a Frieda Lawrence grant, and an improved outlook, Roth eventually saw his way clear, in 1979, to embarking on the six-volume Mercy of a Rude Stream, whose first instalment has now reached print.

It is autobiography again, the story of a Roth-figure called Ira growing up in Harlem during and just after the Great War. Intercut are passages where Ira-Roth reflects on things in March 1985 as he transfers this very manuscript to floppy disk and holds gnomic imaginary conversations with his IBM PC, which he calls 'Ecclesias' for some reason.

Little Ira is disappointed when a boatload of his mother's family arrives from Hungary and proves to be, not the wise tribe he hoped for, but just a gaggle of bewildered immigrants who don't understand American ways. 'Grotesque greenhorns his imaginings had become,' says Roth. This inverted syntax is partly a Yiddish-intoEnglish mannerism, but also a rhetorical trick that recalls Roth's old high style and contrasts nicely with Ira's real motive for despising his new relations: they do not realise that, in America, a small nephew or grandson must be tipped generously, in good coin, at every visit.

When Ira walks by the lake in Mt Morris Park, we are told that 'a bosom of stone swelled up from the water, a granite bosom, surmounted by shrubs and trees that grew thicker and thicker until they met the sky at the top in a high, shady grove. The grove seemed to beckon, offering seclusion . . .' and so on for several plush, purple, old-fashioned lines. The phrasing is overdone again, but again the ironic effect is good: this is the mere municipal park turned into a grand landscape by a child's sense of scale.

Unfortunately Roth sets out to rival James Joyce. This is never a good idea. Ira often discusses Joyce with Ecclesias, explaining how he once admired the Dubliner no end but now sees he was too preoccupied with the 'sordid surface' of life. Yet Ira's tale is full of Joycean squalor: violent fathers, perverts lurking in bushes, kids comparing anatomies, grown-ups with dirty little secrets, poverty, abuse of authority, lots of literary material that the FBI would have seized and burned back when Roth was young and Joyce was in his prime.

Roth then goes head-to-head with Joyce by staging a great epiphany for Ira in the park, directly mimicking Stephen Dedalus's vision on the beach in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Where Stephen saw the wading girl, the 'dappled seaborne clouds' and the rising moon, Ira sees the evening star rise and thinks, 'How do you say it? Before the pale blue twilight left your eyes you had to say it . . A star shines over Mt Morris Park hill. And it's getting dark, and it's getting chill . . .' The passage is not too bad, but it is not too original either. Against Stephen's sudden insight into art and life, Ira only offers us a fond childhood memory of his own precociousness with words.

Tapping away at Ecclesias, the older Ira-Roth congratulates himself on marrying a well-born, educated lady while Joyce had to make do with 'a functional illiterate' for a wife. Well, now. Nora Joyce obtained better school marks than Ira, as it happens. She enjoyed trashy romances, true, but then so did Jane Austen. She did find Ulysses too difficult and frank to persevere with, but so did Bernard Shaw. A functional illiterate is someone who can't even read a government form or the destination on a bus.

One wonders if Roth's long obscurity hasn't made him bitter. Ira claims to be 'too imbued with literary irony to allow of self-pity', but he makes sure to tell us of his past humiliation at being always the last one picked for basketball, and of his present agonies of rheumatoid arthritis; of how the Irish kids used to call him a filthy Yid in Harlem, and of how everyone now picks on Israel, 'the scapegoat of the world'. He keeps confiding to Ecclesias about an unspecified childhood trauma that blighted his life, but he never comes to the point and describes it; or if he does, the point gets lost in the general confusion.

Halfway through, Ira has a very curious attack of bile. He recalls an old schoolmaster who was 'a flagrant fag. What were they called today? Deviants, fairies, gays? (A pox on 'em for besmirching such a pretty word as gay.)' Pretty perhaps, but archaic and precious, and losing currency for decades before homosexuals picked it up. A writer might be expected to know that, and to refrain from this tired old commonplace of phone-in bigotry. Worse still, wishing a plague on American gays in the mid-Eighties is not just superfluous but a triumph of ill-will over sense.

From this first volume it doesn't look as though Mercy of a Rude Stream will come near to bearing comparison with A Portrait. Already it looks more like Stephen Hero, the overblown first draft that Joyce pruned and trained to make the later, greater work. Joyce burned most of the manuscript, but gave the surviving portion to his patron, Harriet Weaver, with the note: 'And very bad it is too.' Roth has, or had, talent, but he indulges himself too much, and at nearly 90 he has produced a remarkably immature work.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice