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Call it Sleep
CALL IT SLEEP, by Henry Roth
Often compared in its stylistic daring and power to the work of James Joyce, CALL IT SLEEP (1934) is the debut novel by Henry Roth, who had emigrated in childhood with his Jewish family from Galitzia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The autobiographically inspired tale, set early in the second decade of the 20th century, traces the experiences of a boy coming of age in the Jewish slums of New York City's Lower East Side. Young David Schearl's struggles, in particular with his embittered, often jobless father, echo those of the working-class immigrants among whom he matures. His own sexual awakening is both complicated and spurred by the realization that his beloved mother is involved in an affair of her own. As memorable as David's story is the language, or languages, with which it is told: the rich, rhythmic Yiddish of the home, translated into a poetic English evocative of the King James Bible; the youthful argot of the streets, coarser but with its own creative verve; and the narrative voice, which transmutes quotidian life into high art. For many years after the publication of CALL IT SLEEP, Roth was paralyzed by writer's block and haunted by his early, incestuous relationships with a sister and a cousin -- a history that was revealed only late in his life and no more than hinted at in his masterpiece. Roth would not complete another novel for almost six decades.

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