From Bondage

Katherine Whittamore reviews Henry Roth's novel "From Bondage".

Published June 17, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

"It was language, language, that could magically transmogrify the baseness of his days and ways into precious literature," writes the late Henry Roth, ". . . from pig iron to gold ingot." "From Bondage" is one of these ingots, panned out of the slurry of our century, and the third novel of the projected six-part epic "Mercy of a Rude Stream," the story of Roth's life as a Jewish immigrant in New York City and beyond. Roth's stand-in is City College boy Ira Stigman, who tries to escape from the stigma of his poverty, his parochialism and his sexual transgressions ("hideousities," as he calls his incestuous affairs with his sister and female cousin).

This painful and brilliant book elliptically details the events leading to Roth's affair with NYU English professor Eda Lou Walton (Edith, in the novel), who later became his mentor, supporting him so he could write "Call It Sleep," the seminal 1934 novel which later made Roth's name. Although Walton, and the world she represented, led him from bondage, the success of "Call It Sleep" was followed by five decades in which Roth published nothing, moving from Greenwich Village to Maine and New Mexico. After his beloved second wife's death, Roth, then in his 80s, wrote like a soul possessed. The pages of "From Bondage" seem to froth and chafe with hurry; this is a man unburdening himself before death, and there's no time to waste.

What's amazing is how modern the work is -- confessional, tormented, willing to plumb taboos -- yet how ingratiatingly antique Roth's prose can be ("Pop's mien bespoke his sympathy"). Ira puns ("I Kant," or "I Bid you AdJew") and says "Boyoboy" all the time, a sort of Saul Bellow meets St. Augustine. The book is mostly set in the '20s, and Roth delivers a bounty of great set pieces: awkward talks with his pious grandfather (the book has a glossary of Yiddish terms), the poet Louise Bogan's funeral, and what it was like to work in the massive IRT subway car barns, "the great emory grindstones truing the flange of a rusty car wheel, sending a comet's train of sparks into the gloom of the workshop, starch and ozone-laden." At its core, Roth's latest book is about the struggle of learning to love. "Love, the state he was barred from," as Roth puts it -- until he fought his way from bondage.

By Katherine Whittamore

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