From Bondage

Some write for love, some for lucre, some for fame, others as a stay against oblivion. But shame is the engine that drives From Bondage, whose aging, arthritic narrator—like his author?—has been suffering from a “moral canker” for seven decades. Alone at the word processor he personifies as “Ecclesias,” eighty-nine-year-old Ira Stigman exorcises the sordid secrets of a legendary, decades-long writer’s block that he comes to attribute to incest and alienation.

If he had not been born, in Austro-Hungarian Galicia in 1906, Henry Roth might have been invented as a gloss on Moss Hart’s remark that American lives lack second acts. When Call It Sleep—the classic American novel of the immigration experience, presented through the eyes of David Schearl, a sensitive, traumatized little boy—became a surprise best- seller in 1964, exactly thirty years after its debut, Roth had long since abandoned literary ambitions. It was not until 1990 that he published a second novel, A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park, the first installment of a cycle called Mercy of a Rude Stream. A sequel, A Diving Rock on the Hudson, followed in 1995, when Roth was eighty-nine. From Bondage is the third of the novels to trace the sentimental education of Ira Stigman, though the book can be read independently, and compulsively. Three additional volumes, completing the series, await publication. Set in the 1920’s, volume 3 of Mercy of a Rude Stream is a Jewish-American Künstlerroman, a portrait of the thwarted artist as an anxious young man. Cross-cut with Ira’s experiences during the mid-1920’s, in his late teens and early twenties, and set in a different typescript are his current reflections as octogenarian author, alone with Ecclesias.

“This is a work of fiction,” announces the copyright page, disingenuously. “This novel is certainly not an autobiography, nor should it be taken as such.” Like The First Man, a book by Albert Camus not published until 1995 though he died in 1960, this first posthumous work by Roth, who died October 13, 1995, is a transparent nonfiction. Like the actual author, who was married to a musician named Muriel for more than fifty years, Ira Stigman has been widowed for five years from the woman he calls M. Their two sons, Herschel and Jess, sound much like Roth’s own offspring Hugh and Jeremy. Like Roth himself, Stigman raised waterfowl in Maine after his early first novel enjoyed only modest success in New York.

Stigman and Roth both resumed writing in New Mexico, but From Bondage is a memoir of the period when each lived with mismatched parents on East 119th Street in East Harlem while attending the City College of New York (CCNY). That college’s magazine The Lavender published “Impressions of a Plumber,” a promising story that nevertheless earned Roth and his fictional alter ego a “D.” Ira’s best friend Larry Gordon, like Roth’s buddy Lester Winter, is a dilettante who flits from poetry to sculpture to acting and becomes the lover of an English professor at New York University. Like her real-life prototype Edna Lou Walton, Edith Welles introduces the callow youths to intellectual celebrities such as Marcia Meede (Margaret Mead) and Louise Bogan (Louise Bogan). Not all names are changed to protect the innocent; though naïveté abounds, innocence vanished when the twenty-one-year-old Ira began vile, incestuous relations with his sister Minnie and his cousin Stella, ages eighteen and seventeen, respectively.

Ira, who shares a cottage with Edith and Larry during an exhilarating summer in Woodstock, New York, covets his buddy’s lover, though he fears that domestic lechery has rendered him unworthy of the older, more sophisticated Gentile. Although he expects Edith to tire of the shallow Larry, who suffers from premature ejaculation, he does not count on her involvement with other men, including Lewlyn Craddock, a sociology instructor and Anglican priest. Ira is both exhilarated and dismayed to find himself treated as a neutral confidant, a mere and mediocre undergraduate made privy to remarkable romantic triangulations: Edith, Larry, and Lewlyn; Lewlyn, Marcia, and Cecilia; Marcia, Lewlyn, and Robert.

Before Edith and Ira become lovers, Edith serves as the uncouth young Jew’s mentor, initiating him into the mysteries of James Joyce and T. S. Eliot, whose arcane texts he admires and then despises, for emotional sterility. Despite their dazzling stylistic...

(The entire section is 1865 words.)