Remembrance of Proust in Henry Roth's Mega-Novel

Article excerpt

A DIVING ROCK ON THE HUDSON A novel by Henry Roth 418 pages, St. Martin's Press, $23.95

ONE of the most remarkable things about this quite remarkable novel is a passage about a quarter of the way along in which the eightysomething-year-old Ira Stigman - Roth's autobiographical alter ego - attacks James Joyce's "Ulysses" for the "gall and ignorance" of Joyce's attempt to see the world from even a part-Jewish perspective.

It is a fit of rage that mirrors one that cost the teen-aged Ira a friendship that might have set his "nasty, muddled, contradictory, and confused" life on a different, saner course, and like the youthful fit, this fulmination against Joyce is followed by remorse and rueful admission of reality. Having "thrown off the spell of the arch-necromancer," Stigman/Roth is now "free again to return to his narrative, employing Joyce's method, many of Joyce's devices."

So this book, the second novel in a sequence of six, collectively called "Mercy of a Rude Stream" and already written but to be published in an annual series, acknowledges Joyce as its model and seeks in its obsession with sensual detail to capture the impact and urgency of Joyce at his best.

But it is quickly apparent that it is Proust, not Joyce, to whom Roth owes the sometimes numbing force of his self-analysis. "A Diving Rock . . ." and its predecessor, "A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park," are three-way and sometimes four-way conversations in which first drafts of a manuscript about the young Ira, written by a mature Ira, are considered and re-edited nearly a decade later by the aging Ira, in occasional colloquy with his computer, Ecclesias.

The result is a narrative so reflexive as to make the reader feel like an eavesdropper. Nothing but the utmost honesty will do in this painstaking recreation of a life characterized, in Ira's telling of it, by faithlessness, falsehood and depravity. The most telling instance, and one of the central motifs of this installment of the mega-novel, is the insertion in the final version of the blunt account of the incestuous relationship between Ira and his sister.

The sister was, we are told, not a character in the earlier drafts, and indeed, she does not appear in the family tree in the preface to either this novel or "A Star Shines . . ." Only on Page 141 of this novel, after the "abomination" has been revealed, are we given the diagram of the family of Ira Stigman with the name of his sister, Minnie, added.

It doesn't take long to see that Ira in his 80s is still capable of objectifying and exploiting others, for all of his self-conscious domestic sweetness toward his long-suffering wife; the character of Minnie is - at least through this novel - a flat and distant figure, described as often as not by the appearance of her genitals. …