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CALL IT SLEEP by Henry Roth (Avon Books: $4.95)

January 10, 1988|Elena Brunet

One of the most extraordinary, if unheralded, classics of American literature, "Call It Sleep" was first published in 1934. Though hailed by contemporary critics, the novel virtually disappeared until 1956 when Leslie Fiedler and Alfred Kazin individually wrote passionate appraisals of it for a symposium on "the most neglected books of the past 25 years" in American Scholar.

"Call It Sleep" is the story of a family of Eastern Europeans who settle in Manhattan's Lower East Side, as told from the point of view of a 6-year-old boy. As such, it is perhaps the finest evocation of childhood, of a child's fears, the cadences of his thoughts. But the novel is also an extraordinary chronicle of the American immigrant experience in the tenements of New York.

The novel begins in 1907 with the arrival of David Schearl and his mother, Genya. His father, Albert, having arrived in the United States several years earlier, now arranges for their passage. Thus David's arrival in America coincides with the first time he has ever laid eyes on his father, and one of the novel's chief concerns is the relationship of father to son: the father's uncontrollable temper, his suspicions of his wife, his resentment of the child he does not even have the confidence to believe is his own. It is also the story of the relationship of husband to wife, the husband eager to acculturate himself to the new country; his wife sheltering in the comfort of kinfolk and the old ways.

FROM HEAVEN LAKE by Vikram Seth (Vintage Departures: $5.95)

The author of "The Golden Gate," a splendid novel in verse in the style and rhythms of Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin," has here published the diary of his overland trek from China's Heaven Lake to New Delhi. "From Heaven Lake" won the Thomas Cook Travel Award, but the book is by no means a conventional travelogue: Vikram Seth's successful journey was the product not of good planning but rather of his own good luck, inspiration and nerve and the good will of the Chinese people. Often hitchhiking and in the end on foot, he negotiates passage through roadways of Tibet rarely traveled by foreigners. As such Seth provides, in lyrical prose and occasional lapses into poetry, a vivid portrait of a forbidden region.

As the book begins, Seth, a native of India, is now a student at China's Nanjing University on his summer break. His verbal fluency in Chinese and his resourcefulness unexpectedly win him a travel pass to Tibet, and then an uncomfortable truck ride; he is one of three passengers crammed next to the driver in the truck's cab. Unfortunately, when he arrives in Lhasa (a city in central Tibet), Seth finds that the Chinese bureaucracy he has thus far evaded is now blocking his departure. Then, as arbitrarily as officials prevented him from leaving, so do the officials now grant his exit visa. And, as Seth leaves the region, he does so with gratitude for the warmth an outsider receives "from a people into whom a suspicion of foreigners has so long been instilled. . . ."

JERUSALEM, JERUSALEM A Memoir of War and Peace, Passion and Politics by Lesley Hazleton (Penguin Books: $7.95)

This is an eloquent, impassioned account of contemporary Israel. Lesley Hazleton, who was raised in Great Britain, first arrived in Jerusalem in 1966 at age 20 expecting to stay for two weeks; she stayed for 13 years. "Jerusalem, Jerusalem" is a memoir not only of recent Israeli history but also Hazleton's exploration of the social and political conditions that ultimately caused her own departure. Writing not as a disinterested journalist but out of a "deep love and concern" for her adopted country, Hazleton weaves memories and conversations with friends into a document that is highly personal but also invariably political.

Hazleton arrived in Jerusalem in the months before the Six-Day War. In fact it was the national euphoria that swept the country after its military victory that inspired her to stay on. But in the aftermath of that war and in the vast changes that followed--the occupation of the West Bank, the rise of Menachem Begin, the Sabra and Shatila massacre--her hopes would be profoundly disappointed. She witnessed the "seemingly inexorable process of change--from a secular, humanist, socialist society to a religious right-wing one." Arab and Israeli interests are incontrovertibly opposed, and as a political "dove" she found herself increasingly caught in the middle. Ultimately she left.

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