Roth had one of the strangest careers of any well-known writer. His 1934 autobiographical novel Call It Sleep came to be recognized as an American classic, but he then suffered from writer’s block for nearly six decades. In old age, he began Mercy of a Rude Stream, but he did not want it published until after his death, as he believed that it contained too many sensitive revelations. After his wife died, Roth decided to publish one volume per year, as he thought that he had by then outlived everyone who mattered.
The novel can be read as autobiography, psychology, sociology, philosophy, or American history and as an example of both modernism and realism. Realistic fiction deals with ordinary events in the lives of ordinary people, but realism is no more “real” than romanticism; realism is an illusion produced by avoiding the sensational while emphasizing the mundane matters that make up most lives. Realism, however, can be dull and episodic. The highly literate Roth was influenced by such works as James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy (1932-1935), Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925), and Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose (1971). The most conspicuous influence is Marcel Proust’s masterpiece À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931), another multivolume autobiographical novel in which an elderly narrator struggles to recapture the past.
Most significant is the modernistic way Roth adds drama by bringing himself into the foreground as narrator. The drama revolves around whether he can continue writing about painful subjects while suffering physical pain and whether he can finish his masterpiece before he dies. He highlights this dramatic conflict by having his fictitious narrator converse with Ecclesias. Roth only barely managed to finish before he died, but he writes with a lifetime of accumulated wisdom, truly heroic candor, and the “high seriousness” Matthew Arnold, the influential nineteenth century English critic, identified as the distinguishing characteristic of all great writers.