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Book Reviews : A Neglected Writer Who Ran Out of Inspiration

December 08, 1987|ELAINE KENDALL

Shifting Landscape: A Composite, 1925-1987 by Henry Roth, with an introduction by Mario Materassi (Jewish Publication Society: $19.95; 301 pages)

This Roth is the writer whose novel, "Call It Sleep," was first published in 1934 and all but forgotten until its re-release in the early '60s, when it was hailed as a neglected masterpiece. After the initial appearance of that book, Roth dropped out of the literary world and moved to Maine where he worked at a variety of odd jobs; finally achieving a modicum of security as a poultry farmer.

Materassi, a professor of American literature in Florence, had translated "Call It Sleep,' and refusing to believe that so remarkable a novelist had abandoned writing entirely, persuaded Roth to retrieve every scrap, fragment and shred of prose the now 81-year-old author had produced in his lifetime.

By connecting these bits and pieces with interview and commentary, Materassi hoped to show "the continuity within the desolating discontinuity of the frustrated writer's existence, and the development that had taken place over all those barren years"--development of which Roth himself was largely unaware. Roth agreed to the project, convinced that Materassi would illuminate "the blight that befell a whole generation of writers who came of age in the '30s . . . the blight of the one-book syndrome, followed by creative decline, or even by creative desuetude."

An Excessive Zeal

Although "Shifting Landscape" succeeds in that laudable aim, Materassi's zeal often seems excessive. In addition to essays, diary notes, stories and segments of abandoned novels, he has included much that is trivial, mundane or so rudimentary that the effect of the whole is diminished. While an article that Roth wrote in 1954 for a poultry journal on salvaging useful material from junkyards represents his first published work in 20 years, and a term paper he produced in 1925 shows his nascent interest in fiction, neither these nor many of the random jottings and letters seem relevant to the larger purpose of the collection, but belong to the "Shakespeare's Laundry List" approach to scholarship.

There is a tremendous amount of redundancy in the interviews; Materassi opening with the same gambits on various occasions; Roth obliging with identical answers. Though he scarcely wrote at all during this five-decade fallow period, Roth was interviewed by other writers and commentators from time to time; the questioners almost always asking him to explain his long silence; the writer offering the only explanation he had ever found.

As a member of the Communist Party during the 1930s, Roth felt constrained to write according to the official party line, in a rigid mode of "social realism" alien to his private vision. Gradually and insidiously, that special vision was demolished. In a particularly poignant piece written in 1937, "Where My Sympathy Lies," his anguish and ambivalence are both excruciatingly clear.

Like most other artists and writers who had been seduced by visions of a more equitable world, Roth eventually became disillusioned with Communist dogma, but by then it was too late. His ability to generate ideas and to trust his own judgment had been destroyed.

Historical Factors

"To those of us who were committed to the Left, the Soviet Union was the cherished homeland; but that homeland had become an establishment which was interested in consolidating itself. In the Moscow trials the establishment was destroying the revolution, although at the time we were still loudly professing our allegiance . . . The scholar who some day will be making a formal study of the question will undoubtedly find other things to single out. One interesting facet he will have to investigate is the influence such historical factors exert on the artist. How do they get into the writer's bloodstream and affect his creative sensibility? How are his potentialities inhibited? The world around him after all remains largely intact, but something inside of him has changed."

Among the more substantial inclusions are a pair of nostalgic short stories published in the New Yorker; an assortment of candid and spontaneous reflections upon a visit to Israel, and the only existing section of a planned second novel, a chapter called "If We Had Bacon" and set in the Midwest. That book was to have been Roth's supreme proletarian work, the plot centering upon an illiterate hero who lost a hand in an industrial accident.

Personal Memoir

In addition to casual travel pieces, letters and reviews, "Shifting Landscapes" also contains a considerable amount of personal memoir in which Roth addresses himself to the predicament of a blocked and frustrated writer. Far more heartening is the evidence of Roth's continuing engagement with political, social and moral issues; his remarkable self-objectivity, and the wonderful vitality demonstrated even in the most fragmentary examples of his writing.

Though this miscellany could have benefitted from more rigorous editing, it's sure to be welcomed by students of American cultural history.

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