Works of Realism Are Fossil Specimens Roth, Kennedy Write in Tradition of Hemingway

By Boyd, Reviewed Robert | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), September 8, 1996 | Go to article overview

Works of Realism Are Fossil Specimens Roth, Kennedy Write in Tradition of Hemingway


Boyd, Reviewed Robert, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


FROM BONDAGE

A novel by Henry Roth

432 pages, St. Martin's Press, $25.95 THE FLAMING CORSAGE A novel by William Kennedy 209 pages, Viking, $23.95 ***** THESE TWO time-haunted novels, each an installment of a larger work, share not only a common approach to structure, but a common - and richly significant - niche in the iconography of the modern novel. They are tangible evidence of the power of fiction, superb specimens of realism in the great tradition of Henry James, Hemingway, and Bellow; but by the same token they are living fossils, survivors in a strange and increasingly hostile environment. Henry Roth's "From Bondage" is the third novel in what was intended to be an eight-part series, begun when the author was in his 70s, recounting in fictional form, though often in brutally graphic detail, his remarkable life story. The series, called "Mercy of a Rude Stream," was more than half completed when Roth died last autumn; a fourth volume will appear in 1997. It is not clear whether or in what form the remaining material will be published. Like its two predecessors, "From Bondage" is a layered, episodic work. The narrative swings freely back and forth between the 1920s, the 1970s, and the 1990s, as Roth's fictional alter ego, Ira Stigman, recalls the beginnings of his love affair with a woman who introduced him to the world of writers and art. The impulsive charm and naivete of the youthful Ira are recounted within two contexts. The first is the point of view of the elderly Ira, long married to another woman, with whom he has developed a relationship that has depths beyond anything the youth could have conceived. The second context is set by the editorial intrusions of the even older Ira, now widowed, crippled by arthritis, and engaged in a life-and-death struggle with his material, striving to get it down honestly. Aside from the polished and often erudite voice in which it is told, the power of Roth's story derives from his heroic determination not to waffle or to conceal, but to write what happened as completely as he can, trusting that such revelations can be both aesthetically pleasing and ethically significant. Roth's editorializing reminds the reader exactly how risky and how daunting such business is, and if the novel, once finished, slips into the pool of memory with hardly any splash at all, that is after all the way a daring high-dive is supposed to end. …

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