Shifting Landscape

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

When CALL IT SLEEP appeared, critics hailed it as a remarkable achievement. Typical of the praise was F.T. Marsh’s review in BOOKS, which spoke of the novel’s “rare virtuosity, its sensitive realism, its sheer weight, its power.”

Yet for more than fifty years that first book was Roth’s last as well. He never finished his second novel, eventually burning the manuscript, and from 1940 to 1956 he published only one short article, which appeared in THE MAGAZINE FOR DUCKS AND GEESE. Now Mario Materassi has created Roth’s second book by bringing together everything he ever published, from a piece he wrote in freshman English at City College of New York in 1925 to a brilliant short story published in Italy in 1987. Accompanying each selection are excerpts from letters, conversations, and interviews that illuminate its origins and significance.

Even if Materassi had salvaged only Roth’s fiction, he would have made an important contribution to modern American literature, for Roth’s substantial talent transforms mundane experiences, such as working as a plumber’s helper or discovering that a long-sought library book has been claimed by another, into powerful stories. The surviving fragment of Roth’s other novel, reprinted here, tantalizes with its excellence.

Why, then, did Roth turn from literature to poultry? The nonfiction pieces in this collection reveal a man severed from his religious and political roots, a Jew lost in secular America, a dedicated Communist who could not debase his art to serve a cause. Significantly, while the volume covers a career of more than sixty years, more than half the pieces have appeared in the past decade, after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War of 1967 changed Roth’s “whole way of thinking” and, as Roth says, led to “a resurgence of my long dormant literary vocation.” In the essays, then, one sees a gradual recovery of self-identity, and in the fiction the fruits of that recovery.

Fifty-three years is a long time between books. One wishes, especially after reading this volume, that the interval had been shorter. Yet, as Materassi observes in his introduction, such regrets should not diminish one’s appreciation for the achievement preserved here, “the solid reality of a superb craftsmanship that deserves attentive, unprejudiced scrutiny.”