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.