A controversy has broken out in the German state of Baden-Württemberg over what many high-school students see as the disproportionate difficulty of the English portion of an important standardized test. Among the questions that provoked exasperation was a sentence from the American Jewish novelist Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep. Paul Berman comments on the irony of the situation:
Call It Sleep is a novel about a little boy growing up on Avenue D and a few other addresses on the Lower East Side a century ago. But it is also a novel about language, the crude and the elegant. When the characters speak crudely, they are speaking an English that, being immigrants, they have not entirely mastered. When they speak with spectacular elegance, we are meant to hear the language that is theirs, which is Yiddish, the language of poetry. And hints of this appear in the narrator’s tone. The passage [from the exam] is not supposed to sound like modern English, or even like archaic English. It is Yiddish poetry, rendered into English.
How could the Germans be expected to know that? How could anyone be expected to know? That kind of double-English—an ostensible English, which is really a Yiddish—scarcely exists anymore. Henry Roth was a master of it; and so was Saul Bellow. But it is gone. And here are the German students being asked to parse a supremely ornate evocation, in English, of the language that, in 1934, was already under a death sentence. And the students are complaining, and their complaint looks reasonable.
Who will understand that, even so, something in their complaint, or perhaps in the exam, is grotesque? Who will understand that, if Henry Roth has become incomprehensible, it is not because his English is sometimes difficult?