I just picked up the December 15, 2005 issue of the NYRB, which is so fat (it’s a Holiday Issue) that I still haven’t finished it, and continued with Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Last Minstrel, a review of a biography of the novelist Henry Roth, whose famous Call It Sleep I own but have not read. I just reached the following passage, which discusses what I think a brilliant decision about representing immigrant speech:
With even bolder ingenuity, in order to confound further any facile assumptions about which culture is the “mainstream” for the novel’s troubled people, the young Roth had the original idea of representing the Schearls’ Yiddish speech not as it sounds to the American reader (awkward, halting, foreign), but as it sounds to the speaker: natural, even idealized—a pure English that is often poetic (“The sweet chill has dulled,” the mother tells her son. “Lips for me… must always be cool as the water that wet them”), and never less than beautifully proper (“Love, marriage, whatever one calls it, does that to one, makes one uncertain, wary. One wants to appear better than one is”). Even the awful father speaks in the cadences of one of the Prophets: “She’s jesting with the angel of death!” he snarls at one point, threatening his wife’s rebellious sister…
It is only when Roth’s characters speak English that we’re made brutally aware of how awkwardly “foreign” they still in fact are, how helpless they are in this new world. Confronted with an Irish policeman after her son has got lost, this same eloquent mother is reduced to a stiff, mechanical stutter: “Herr—Mister. Ve—er—ve go?”
Listening to these different registers of speech, it is hard for readers not to feel that Roth’s Yiddish-speakers are also the “last minstrels” of their particular linguistic music, and it is only too clear that a profound emotion moved Roth as a young writer to commemorate them.
And now, of course, I want to read the book.