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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL

The Reinvention of an American Author : FROM BONDAGE by Henry Roth; St. Martin's $25.95, 397 pages

September 18, 1996|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"From Bondage" is the fictionalized memoir of the late and nearly legendary Henry Roth, an autobiographical novel that cracks and flashes with dangerous sexual passion and burning literary ambition in approximately equal measure.

At the same time, "From Bondage" is a monumental literary achievement whose significance begins with the fact it was written and published at all.

Roth tells the story of his life through his alter ego, Ira Stigman, and casts his real-life mentor and lover--poet and critic Eda Lou Walton--as the beguiling Edith Welles. Just as the 89-year-old Stigman confides his memories to his word processor, Roth uses the pages of "From Bondage" to conjure up his own tumultuous youth in the literary Bohemia of New York City in the '20s.

"How did his day begin?" Roth writes of both himself and his alter ego. "He sat there not so much trying to recollect as marveling at the amazing diversity of reflections and revelations that could occur, that the mind could generate in the course of a couple of hours--between arising from bed and sitting down before the word processor."

Roth, who died in 1995, is a remarkable man whose career was characterized by one obituary writer as "the most mysterious . . . in modern American letters"--and his posthumous novel illuminates Roth's troubled life and solves some of its darker mysteries.

Roth was 28 when his first book, "Call It Sleep," was published in 1934. The book seemed to augur the arrival of a great American novelist--a novelist who wrote about the underbelly of the Jewish immigrant experience. But Roth sent himself into an unexplained literary exile that lasted over 50 years, until 1986, when he published "Shifting Landscapes," a collection of old short pieces.

"Call It Sleep" was generally well-received, and Roth's editor encouraged him to follow up with a second book. But stinging notices in the leftist press seemed to send Roth, a Communist Party member, into a political and psychological writer's block that lasted until old age.

"Ira stopped writing," we read in "From Bondage." "The damned memories that college had branded on his mind, memories twined with his own folly, rashness, febrile sex as the New Masses reviewer, unwittingly euphemistic, called it--even now the damned past arrested its own recounting."

"From Bondage," then, is the result of Roth's reinvention of himself as a novelist, an extraordinary second start that restored him to a place of honor on the American literary scene. Despite his advanced age and physical infirmities, Roth's voice is sure and strong in these pages, sometimes passionate, sometimes comical, sometimes both.

"Ruined, ruined. Dumb. Sluggish. Shrinking. Sneaky. Abhorrent. Perverted, what else but perverted?" Roth writes. "He ravened, he lusted for the prohibited, the proscribed--Jesus, what would the heinous be like? The really heinous, like what? What was heinous? He couldn't imagine."

"From Bondage" is the third volume in an ambitious six-volume series titled "Mercy of a Rude Stream." Roth completed the series before his death, and saw the first two titles in print. St. Martin's Press has already announced the publication in 1997 of the fourth volume.

To be sure, "From Bondage" is something of a curiosity. Roth's novel is not only about the '20s and '30s--the book arrives almost miraculously as a kind of relic from that era. For that reason alone, and entirely aside from Roth's superb achievement as a memoirist and novelist, the book demands and deserves attention.

What's more, it is something of a miracle that St. Martin's Press has expressed its commitment to Roth's work. Nowadays, there is much hand-wringing in the industry about "literary fiction," a term used rather dismissively and even contemptuously by some. Any reader who cares about good and important writing ought to honor St. Martin's decision to publish "From Bondage" by buying a copy.

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