Nonino International Prize 1987

Henry Roth

An American between twenty-four and twenty-eight year of his youth wrote an autobiography of his childhood between six and eight. Published with great success in 1934, and published again in all languages after the Second World War, it is a unique work in the history of literature. It is the “scientific reconstruction – poetic recalling of those two years in which the child grows, and from the darkness of an almost animal instinct discovers the detailed reality of existence until he reaches the bright dawn of reason.

The son of Jewish farmers, born in Austria in 1906, David with his mother reaches his father who had migrated to New York two years earlier. But in New York the ancient European civilization, rural, Jewish, of a poor family, of a small apartment full of memories and regret, clashes and gets stuck with the new American civilization, metropolitan, cosmopolitan, multi-religious, of a poor quarter, exalting, tragic, comic: terrible violence: sweet and inebriating  freedom.

How could, young Henry Roth, remember his childhood twenty years later? Well, call it a dream. Call it Sleep.

This is why Roth’s unique poetry is also scientific: he manages to remember not only the facts, but, together, with microscopic precision, the sensation with which child David had recorded them.

We cannot be astonished if Roth after this book has written nothing more or if, rather, he has not published anything but a few short pages, scattered in a silence that has been going on since 1934. Who has read Call it Sleep carefully knows that it is a complete and exhaustive. Roth has emptied his huge sack. Quoting the Bible: “And after the seventh day he took a rest”.

We cannot even be astonished as Call it Sleep has been selected for the prize of the rural civilization. As long as the mankind feeds on plants and animals the rural civilization will be in the forefront among all the problems of the world. And this is not only an image of the moment when it was written and of twenty year before, but it is the present and prophetic symbol of our condition now and tomorrow, everywhere in the world. It happens and keeps on happening, for all of us human beings something very similar to what happened to young David between six and eight years of his first life.