David never said anything to anyone of what he had discovered, not even to his mother – it was all too terrifying, too unreal to share with someone else. He brooded about it till it entered his sleep, till he no longer could tell where his father was flesh and where dream. Who would believe him if he said, I saw my father lift a hammer; he was standing on a high roof of darkness, and below him were faces uplifted, so many, they stretched like white cobbles to the end of the world; who would believe him? He dared not.*
I wasn’t much more than a boy when I first read Call It Sleep. My identification with David Schearl was total. The book has stayed with me for all of my adult life, always, in my mind, the most perfect and fully realized artistic expression of the terror of childhood, for a boy terrorized by his own father. I sided completely with David; what he felt, I had felt. I have now read the book a second time, and this time I found myself meditating on David’s father, Albert Schearl.
Call It Sleep, first published in 1934, tells the story of David Schearl and his parents, Albert and Genya, Austrian Jewish immigrants to the Lower East Side of New York in the first decade of the 20th century. But for me its larger story of a boy afraid of his father transcends the boundaries of any ethnic group, nationality or time. David is a sensitive boy, thoughtful, imaginative and very observant. He clings to his loving mother, “the one upright pillar” of his ruins. [p 387] Of his father there was sometimes shelter in his aloofness, “but never foothold.” [p 274] Like the orphan Jean Genet, who had to think in order to survive, David has to be a master reader of the expressions, body language and moods of his father, as well as use all of his wits to avoid the powerful and paranoid man’s violent outbursts. But the very tools he mastered to survive his father allow him to penetrate his mother’s secrets as well, and he becomes an unwitting agent of family confrontations over old country secrets. In the end, truths are exposed, and David’s deepest solace can only be found in what he may as well call “sleep”, the fall into unconsciousness of an utterly exhausted mind, the falling away of light and truth and all.
Roth’s portrait of Albert Schearl is ruthless. From the first we are on guard against this man. He’s hostile, paranoid and volatile. We see him meet his wife and son on Ellis Island, seeming to be embarrassed by them, mocking his son’s clothes and tossing the boy’s hat into the harbor. Later he’ll deny that the boy is his own blood. The threat of physical violence looms around every corner. Anything can set Albert off. He goes from job to job, burning bridges. He’s powerful as a bull, the grinding of his teeth like the grating of boulders. It’s his paranoia that brings the suspicious glances he so despises, yet he is unable to control himself. Only Genya has any affection for him. Does she know something the others don’t? Or is it just her nature to nurture and love?
Seeing this monster in action the reader might well ask what makes a man this way. In particular, whence comes this irrational loathing of being watched? Albert can’t seem to escape the feeling that everyone is judging him with their eyes, and these judgments aren’t good. We’re given a few clues here and there, a few vague suggestions that something went wrong in the old country, but nothing that can help us understand. For David, the man is a force of nature. There is no escape, only the attempt to duck and cover. And one of his father’s most terrifying aspects is his gaze—a gaze that burns like a laser, that seeks out and destroys any possibility of self-assurance. This is a gaze that will make a boy insecure about his words, actions and very thoughts. It even has the potential, later, to make a young man paranoid in the wider world. Could this be an example of a familial cycle? I got a clue one summer afternoon, together with my father and his father. Was Albert so tortured by his father? We don’t know. But we suspect, tender and trembling as David is, that he will escape the cycle. There is such power in this boy’s mind.
When I first read Call It Sleep, so complete was my identification with David Schearl that the monster Albert was no more than the hated other, an object of revulsion to be escaped and then rejected. I hadn’t yet forgiven my father, hadn’t yet reached that decisive point when destruction or forgiveness were the only choices. But now I am a man, my father is dead, and he can no longer hurt me, except in my sleep. And so I find myself thinking about Albert. Poor, suffering Albert. Yes. Only a man in extreme pain can become such a brute. Completely oblivious the first time around, this time I saw the final drama of the novel as a complete picture. It is revealed that in the old country Albert had had a difficult relationship with his father. They had quarreled, and one day, after a violent argument, during which Albert’s father had struck him, a peasant “watching from afar” [p 390] claimed that Albert had stood by while a bull gored his father to death. Believing the story, Albert’s mother spread it around, and Albert found himself condemned by the community. He left the country for America and found himself among city folk speaking a strange tongue, far and forever away from the fields and cattle he had loved.
Does this justify Albert’s behavior? No. And neither do we know if Albert could really have saved his father, or whether he really did stand by and watch the man who had caused him so much torment being killed. But at least it’s a clue to understanding, and I’ll take all the clues I can get.
* p 28 All quotations from Picador paperback edition