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Call It Sleep: A Novel Paperback – June 16, 2005

4.3 out of 5 stars 67 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

“One of the few genuinely distinguished novels written by a twentieth-century American.” ―Irving Howe, The New York Times Book Review

“Arguably the most distinguished work of fiction ever written about immigrant life...Surely the most lyrically authentic novel in American literature about a young boy's coming to consciousness.” ―Lis Harris, The New Yorker

“Roth has done for the East Side Jew what James T. Farrell is doing for the Chicago Irish in the Studs Lonigan trilogy.... When his characters are speaking pure Yiddish, Roth translates it into great beauty....The final chapters in the book have been compared to the Nighttown episodes of Joyce's Ulysses; the comparison is apt.” ―John Chamberlain, The New York Times

From the Inside Flap

"One of the few genuinely distinguished novels written by a twentieth-century American."---Irving Howe, The New York Times Book Review (front page)

When Henry Roth published his debut novel Call It Sleep in 1934, it was greeted with considerable critical acclaim, though, in those troubled times, lackluster sales. Only with its paperback publication thirty years later did this novel receive the recognition it deserves---and still enjoys. Having sold to date millions of copies worldwide, Call It Sleep is the magnificent story of David Schearl, the "dangerously imaginative" child coming of age in the slums of New York.

"Arguably the most distinguished work of fiction ever written about immigrant life...Surely the most lyrically authentic novel in American literature about a young boy's coming to consciousness "---Lis Harris, The New Yorker

"Roth has done for the East Side Jew what James T. Farrell is doing for the Chicago Irish in the Studs Lonigan trilogy.... When his characters are speaking pure Yiddish, Roth translates it into great beauty.... The final chapters in the book have been compared to the Nighttown episodes of Joyce's Ulysses; the comparison is apt."---John Chamberlain, The New York Times

"There has appeared in America no novel to rival the veracity of this childhood. It is as honest as Dreiser's Dawn, but far more sensitive and ably written. It is as brilliant as Joyce's Portrait of the Artist, but with a wider scope, a richer emotion, a deeper realism."---Alfred Hayes, author of All Thy Conquests

"For sheer virtuosity, Call It Sleep is hard to beat; no one has ever distilled such poetry and wit from the counterpoint between the maimed English and the subtle Yiddish of the immigrant. No one has reproduced so sensitively the terror of family life in the imagination of a child caught between two cultures."---Leslie A. Fiedler, author of The Life and Death of the Great American Novel

Henry Roth (1906--1995) was born in the Austro-Hungarian province of Galitzia. He probably landed on Ellis Island in 1909, and began his life in New York on the Lower East Side in the slums where Call It Sleep is set. He is the author as well of Shifting Landscapes, a collection of essays, and the Mercy of a Rude Stream tetralogy.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; Reprint edition (July 1, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312424124
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312424121
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (67 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #94,011 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
This, for me, captures the pure terror that often attends childhood, and the process of dealing with things you can't understand. It's also a brilliant evocation of the alienation of the Jewish experience-- you can't really compare it, as one of my fellow reviewers did, to the experiences of other ethnic groups. The Scherls are a family profoundly alienated from everyone else-- which serves to heighten the terror. This book is written in a stream-of-consciousness style that is really brilliant in that it is completely convincing and totally natural on the part of the author-- it never seems forced-- and in that it beautifully evokes the thought process of childhood. I read this when I was very young and it has stuck with me ever since-- it helped me to understand the feelings of my own childhood.
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Format: Paperback
Henry Roth wants to do two things well in this book: first, accurately describe the experience of being a child -- not a tough, bully-type child, but a shy kid with no friends. (I can relate.) Secondly, he wants to capture the language spoken by native New Yorkers and by immigrants to the city.

It might be best to explain the book's trick as "inside versus outside." Most of the time, we stand in a position of semi-omniscience, much like in Crime and Punishment: while the godlike narrator in Crime and Punishment could see inside Raskolnikov's head and no one else's, we are allowed into David Schearl's mind while he wanders terrified through the world. David understands perfectly well why he's so scared, and by the end so do we -- but we also understand why he can't explain his terror to anyone else. We are trapped in the child's head with him. It's been a very long time -- probably since I was David's age -- since I've remembered those feelings.

The language of New York's Jewish ghettoes in Call It Sleep also has an inside and an outside, and Roth's great trick is to pull us so deeply into that world that it's a slap on the face when we're back outside. The immigrants talk to one another in their native Yiddish, in which there's great poetry and biblical allusion (as well as more than a few "may your remaining days be dark"-type curses). We're steeped in that world. Only occasionally do the immigrants step outside and talk haltingly with, say, a local policeman. They are shy, awkward, and adrift. Roth is so ingenious in the delivery that we feel their shyness and awkwardness as though it were our own.

It's rare to find a book that is so committed to its characters. Roth has no ulterior motive.
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My hope was to read a novel that gave an accurate and detailed account of the world my grandparents lived in and I was not disappointed. As with the best historical fiction, I was able to gain a sense of not just the environment and setting, but its effect on the main characters, especially David, the main protagonist.

While the prose is often challenging and innovative, the book is a surprisingly easy and quick read that I could not put down. While I was often frustrated by David's inner dialogue, the author must be commended for attempting to convey the inner workings of a child's mind, how his thought process often chaotically bounced around from one thought to another. The author also uses language in a very unique and interesting fashion, namely the contrast between early 20th century New York slang, composed of so many different ethnic groups, to the authors "translation" of Eastern European Yiddish.

For anyone currently reading the novel, who might feel frustrated at a seeming lack of direction in the plot, my advice is to keep reading, as its themes of alienation, growing self-awareness, family, sexual awakening and assimilation become more apparent as the story progresses. And for those who have yet to read the book, I strongly recommend not reading the introduction until after you've finished the book, as it pretty much gives away almost everything that happens in the story and really should have been the Afterword. Regardless, it happens to be a well-written analysis of the novel and can even help the reader in his or her own thoughts and opinions of what is most definitely a classic of 20th century literature.
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Format: Paperback
I read this book many years ago, in college, and remember enjoying it thoroughy. I have recently heard it read (Recorded Books, Inc.) by the incomparable George Guidall, who seems to read books requiring Yiddish phrases/accents particularly well (try Stanley Elkin's "Mrs. Ted Bliss" for a hilarious and compassionate thrill).
I was not disappointed this second time around, having matured myself, both as a reader and a writer. One of the most striking aspects of the novel is Roth's obvious love of women; few novels by men present women in such a truly beloved light. David's aunt - something of a shrew, a harridan, and a slob - is nevertheless incredibly good-hearted - and alive! Now I want to know more about Henry Roth. Does anyone know if there is a biography of this great writer available? Also, I noticed that there is a book of essays about "Call It Sleep." I plan to get it.
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