ALBUQUERQUE -- The paparazzi were waiting when 81-year-old Henry Roth flew from Albuquerque to Percoto to accept Italy's literary award, the Premio Nonio. The reception somewhat overwhelmed the writer, who is notoriously publicity-shy, and his wife, composer Muriel Roth. Reporters had even staked out the Roths' hotel.

Roth's reputation might be obscure in the United States, but every newspaper and magazine in Italy wantedcoverage of the author of "Chiamalo Sonno" -- "Call It Sleep" -- a 1934 autobiographical novel about an Austrian-Jewish immigrant boy. And the Italians appreciated the personal renaissance of a man who had grappled with writer's block for 40 years.

Roth's doctor had warned him the trip last winter would be too much of a strain, and he was right -- an exhausted Roth wound up recovering in an Italian hospital. But by the time he reached Italy, Roth had achieved a breakthrough -- he was writing again full time. He has resumed work on an 800-page sequel to "Call It Sleep." And Mario Materassi, the Italian translator of "Call It Sleep," was editing Roth's few scattered magazine pieces, correspondence and recently tape-recorded reminiscences for a new anthology. "Shifting Landscape" will be published next month by the Jewish Publication Society of Philadelphia.

A two-inch-thick sheaf of clippings recorded the Italian visit. All were in celebration of Henry Roth, the man who treasures anonymity.

Tenyears ago, Henry Roth swore that he was finished giving interviews. He stuck by that decision for a decade. But earlier this month, in his mobile home in Albuquerque, he consented to discuss his life and literature.

"Oh, sure. Ask an old man about himself, and you've got an inexhaustible source of reminiscence," he says.

He was still bemused by his popularity among Italians.

"It's peculiar," Roth says with a laugh. "I really don't know why. Something fascinated them, I suppose, about this old guy going at age 81 to Percoto, the distillery where they make Nonino grappa. Grappa is a wicked form of brandy. It tastes a little bit like you're swallowing a coping saw.

"There must be something of a Mediterranean feeling, or the fact that they took tens of thousands of us {Jews} slaves after Jerusalem was taken by Titus, and we helped build the Colosseum. So there must have been some intermarriage.

"I always did get along well with Italians, in Harlem too. They and I didn't know the language, whereas the Irish did, which gave them a hell of an advantage."

The Roths' home is in one of two trailer parks that border the cottonwood trees of the Rio Grande bosque behind a transmission shop and a carwash just north of what used to be Route 66 in the middle of Albuquerque. Every morning, he goes to work on the sequel, punching away with fingers hobbled by arthritis on a computer crippled by glitches.

A Baldwin piano sits with baby grand gemutlich in the Roths' living room; an old Chevy Nova sags in the carport. The Roths have lived here since 1968, after Henry spent a summer as a fellow at the D.H. Lawrence Ranch near Taos, N.M. Delighted by the high desert climate, the Roths forsook the brutal winters of their home in Maine.

Henry Roth held court in his dinette. He wore sneakers and used a cane to maneuver slowly to a chair. His hair was a corona of wispy white. He still speaks with a savvy East Side rasp, something like the old Mercury Theater actor Everett Sloane. He often referred to himself modestly in a detached, third-person way as "this guy."

"The one thing I value more than anything else," says Roth, "is just plain anonymity. There's nothing more precious than anonymity, in my opinion, because anonymity means privacy. So far I've succeeded in retaining it."

A big selling point of the trailer court, apparently, was its peace and obscurity. "Who cares about this guy here, you know? When I put on an old sombrero, an old felt hat, and walk out on, what's that, Manhattan Avenue? I'm just another Chicano. Sometimes kids speak to me in Spanish. I know just enough so I can pretend a little, or I don't say anything, which is even better."

The desert across the Rio Grande to the west reminds Muriel Roth of Israel. More significant to Henry Roth is that he now lives in a Southwest city just off the intersection of New York Avenue and Manhattan Place. It was coincidence, Roth said, that he wound up at this address. "And both of them are dead ends," he noted with a chuckle.

There are critics and readers who thought Henry Roth had hit a dead end and disappeared forever at age 27 after the publication of "Call It Sleep." The story -- rife with Freudian dream imagery and sexual symbolism -- centered on David Schearl, a sensitive Jewish boy terrorized by his tyrannical father and non-Jews. It was greeted with acclaim. Following its appearance, Roth submitted part of a new novel to editor Maxwell Perkins of Scribners, then baffled publishing circles by dropping out of sight.

What happened was that Roth had followed other young New York intellectuals into the Communist Party. He had tried to write a proletarian novel along the lines of what he thought was Marxist social realism. Halfway through the book about a German American blue-collar worker named Dan Loem, Roth realized he was confused about what he actually believed in, and he gave up the project.

In 1938, Roth left his Greenwich Village lover, Eda Lou Walton, a poet and professor 12 years his senior, for Muriel Parker, a composer and daughter of a Baptist preacher. Roth met Parker, who had studied with music theorist Nadia Boulanger and composer Roger Sessions, at the Yaddo artists colony in Saratoga Springs. By 1940, Roth had published a couple of stories in The New Yorker, but suffered a nervous breakdown and became paralyzed by a formidable writer's block.

In 1946, the couple moved to Maine, where they raised their two sons. Turning to manual labor, Roth worked for paper and canning companies, then as a psychiatric aide and finally as a waterfowl farmer. "I was a processor of ducks and geese, to be euphemistic about it," Roth explained. "I cut their throats."

Meanwhile, Roth had disappeared into an agonizing diaspora of the soul. "It's a joke. I was so divorced from being a literary guy that I not only destroyed journals and a lot of my writing, but I no longer had any interest in 'Call It Sleep,' " Roth recalls.

He also had turned his back on the Orthodox Judaism of his childhood while "navel gazing," as he puts it, in search of lost identity, ethnic continuity and his hamstrung talent. He did not snap out of his spiritual funk until 1967, after the Six-Day War. Somehow, that gave Roth a renewed sense of his heritage and gifts as a writer. Meanwhile, literary help had been coming to Roth's rescue. In 1956, Leslie Fiedler and Alfred Kazin published articles in The American Scholar magazine extolling "Call It Sleep" as a neglected masterpiece.

Four years later, an enterprising critic named Harold U. Ribalow materialized at Roth's farm. Warning that "Call It Sleep" was about to lapse into public domain, Ribalow offered, for a finder's fee, to line Roth up with a new publisher.

Avon published its hugely successful paperback of "Call It Sleep" in 1964. Inspired by the response, Roth began publishing occasional pieces in The New Yorker and Atlantic. In 1973, independent New York publisher Bill Targ talked Roth into writing a reminiscence about his adolescent job as a movie projectionist's helper, for a limited-edition book. "I'm just sorry it was so small," said Roth about the four-page "tome" he produced for Targ. "He wanted more, but I couldn't dig out any more. I can remember the indecisiveness and uncertainty and the feeling that I needed someone there as an audience. It was very strange finally breaking down that decades-long block."

Roth says he is pleased with the upcoming anthology.

"{'Shifting Landscape'} was Materassi's idea. He wanted to get all these pieces together. The short stories are what I thought he wanted ... But when he told me what he had in mind was anything that was printed, and interconnecting it with letters and interviews, then I began to see that what he was going to do was show the development of the individual who thought he was completely stagnant. And he was anything but, of course."

Since the '30s, Roth has moderated his leftist politics, but still believes that socialism, though "no longer one of those great flaming ideals," is inevitable in the United States. Roth says he quit the Communist Party years ago, but that, like many of his peers, he simply dropped out rather than handing in a formal resignation.

The McCarthy era, says Roth, was "a tough time, especially for a guy living in the country alone, more or less, in Maine. Muriel was teaching school. She would look in the rear-view mirror and see a couple guys in snap-brim hats following her."

Though he returned to Judaism, Roth has remained an atheist.

"I imagine it had to do with the break from the East Side and Judaism, and the unconscious or conscious adjustment of the child to his new environment and his friends who were largely Irish and Christian. Since he couldn't go that route, whatever other influences there were finally led him to dispense with religious belief altogether.

"I think at age 14 I announced to my mother that I was an atheist. My mom wasn't very religious. My father went through the motions, but he didn't convince me that he was a particularly pious guy.

"It's hard to separate {God} from the rest of it. But the point about Judaism is that it does have this profound ethical structure that you can certainly agree with, quite apart from whether you have that final sanction in the Almighty. I think you can agree on strictly existential grounds that it's a decent way to live."

Roth says he was surprised, and distressed, that Pope John Paul II granted an audience to Kurt Waldheim, the president of Roth's native Austria and a former Nazi officer.

"I felt," says Roth, "it was kind of a gratuitous insult, not an insult, a gratuitous offense to Jews, especially since there's pretty good evidence that Waldheim was active in the Holocaust, in the destruction of Jews. So I felt, why go to the trouble, why go to those lengths, but the pope did. I could see his point, too. Waldheim's a head of state."

But Roth also says, "The sinner has to repent, and Waldheim has done nothing but deny. So it's a little different. Repentance moves me tremendously. Ezra Pound, for example, was tremendously anti-Semitic, and somewhere around '65 he called in representatives from the magazine Epocha and told them he was all wrong. That must have been terrible to go through, after such commitment. He said he regretted every word he ever wrote. That really brings up my sympathies ...

"{T.S.} Eliot is another example of a guy who denies what he was. I mean, he's an example of somebody who is evasive. I think he complained to one of the bishops, 'why do they charge me with anti-Semitism.' Well, my God ... What did he say about, 'the money in furs, the rats are underneath the piles, there's Jews underneath the rats,' and so on. I suppose that just meant capitalism to him.

"It was the fashion in the '20s. Certainly there's scarcely a writer, not even excluding Joyce, who was not anti-Semitic. To tell the truth, you know I, in my ... alienation from my own folk, was considerably anti-Semitic also. I mean, I found much that I detested and disliked about Jews and their single-minded pursuit of success. There is in this whole business of being in exile an inevitable formative force on people that makes them fantastically acquisitive in their insecurity and makes them -- because they're not allowed in normal channels of society -- find the interstices, like money lending. Who likes a moneylender?"

According to Roth's vision of the future, the Diaspora, especially in the United States, will eventually be assimilated, leaving only Israel.

"That's my guess. It's not the guess, perhaps, of the majority of Jews today. But with the Jewish birth rate and Jewish assimilation and intermarriage, of which I am an example, I'm sure that given time -- and one has to look over centuries -- that the Jew in his dispersion is bound to, if not disappear, approach extinction as a limit."

Roth is not sure where he fits into the literary tradition.

"Do you remember that movie -- the title was probably the best part of it -- '{The Adventures of} Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Younger Brother'? Well, I thought for a while the only tradition I belonged to was one you might label 'James Joyce's Jewish-but-Not-Smarter Younger Brother.' "

Roth split spiritually with the great Irish novelist when he decided to follow "an entirely different direction, the direction of my people," and concentrate more on Judaic substance than on technical virtuosity. But Joyce still looms in Roth's creative imagination as "the master."

"With Joyce, there is a continual quarrel," he says. "I reflect on Joyce almost every day. And I think the reason is Joyce's influence on me came at a time when I really didn't realize what was happening. I read Joyce when I was something like 19. I think Joyce to a kid like me was like a superspider to a fly. He caught you in his web and you were lost, because he had such enormous virtuosity, such dazzling control of language. There's nobody like him certainly in this century and probably nobody has his combination of erudition and language. You'd have to go back to Milton.

"But there's another side. It's only after the appearance of 'Finnegans Wake' that you realize that Joyce's monstrous ego was such that he was not satisfied until he made himself an object of worship. He becomes the immovable mover, which is nothing but God himself, right? Joyce doesn't have readers. He has votaries. The way they go through this cultic performance year after year after year means that they're not talking about a novelist. They're talking about a cult thing.

"That's one quarrel. The other quarrel is Joyce's Jew, Leopold Bloom {the central character of 'Ulysses'}. He's not Jewish. That's all there is to it. He's a nominal Jew ... And you say to yourself, where in this whole stream of consciousness does a matzo ever occur to the guy, or Passover or the flight from Egypt or anxiety? Nor does he have memory. That's one of the most striking features about Judaism, memory -- what they've been through, what you've been through. Bloom is ... Joyce in his whimsical mood, being relaxed, humorous, witty."

A novel, according to Roth, should be holistic and give readers the idea of what it was like to be alive during a certain period. It should follow its own course, rather than be superimposed on a set form, as Joyce prescribed his "Ulysses" according to Homer's "Odyssey."

"One of the great things that happens in art is to show a change that takes place in your character as a result of their experiences," he says. "If Joyce really wanted a change -- if I had done 'Ulysses' -- Bloom would have left for Palestine; and Stephen {Dedalus} would have stayed in Ireland to help with the struggle for freedom."

Roth said he used to read the books of his contemporaries, but has not kept up with younger novelists such as Philip Roth.

"I'm as bad as Joyce in my self-enclosure. I have an obsessive problem of breaking through to a new personality that can function as a writer. So I don't read. The only thing of his I ever looked at was 'Portnoy's Complaint.' "

Like the burning coal in the mouth of the prophet Isaiah, the "sleep" of "Call It Sleep" refers to a violent cleansing of the soul rather than being a metaphor for death as in, say, Raymond Chandler's "The Big Sleep." The thought of death, however, is never far from octogenarian Roth's mind.

"As a matter of fact, I look forward to it. It's almost entirely Muriel that keeps me alive and wants me to stay alive. But as far as my own feelings are concerned, I've had enough. I don't feel that I really realized my potential; and how could I with 40 to 50 years of a block? But that, too, was part of the whole, and I feel I've had as much of life as I want. I remember Muriel's father saying he had had enough steak, enough chicken, enough fish, but never enough lobster. Well, I've had enough lobster.

"I've given my body to medical science, if they want it. There won't be a hell of a lot of it left."

During part of the conversation, Muriel Roth -- tall, slim and angular at age 79 -- stood behind her seated husband in a Victorian portrait pose.

"It's almost 50 years," she said of her marriage to Roth.

"It may be old hat to say that love can refashion a guy," Roth mused. "But it's so true. When she practices or tries something new on the piano, it's a kind of reassuring thing. I know she's there and it's an expression that acts as a kind of a bond between us."

"Mercy of a Rude Stream," Roth's new novel, takes up where "Call It Sleep" left off. The boy, David Schearl, is now "an entirely different, nasty little bastard," as Roth describes him. David's mama and Aunt Bertha have been combined into a new mother. Dan Loem, of Roth's aborted 1930s social realist tale, returns -- after losing his hand and sense of humor in a suspicious industrial accident -- as the family despot.

Roth says he has completed a section of the work that could be printed alone. He was temporarily sidetracked, however, when his personal computer program began jamming indented lines together and fouling up his dialogue. "If it didn't have a bug in it, I could really tear 'em apart. I would be further advanced than I am," Roth lamented. "I've had to learn another program. It's really quite a task for a man 81 years old to have to go through that."

He also says, "Of course, having an obsessive desire to master a new program, among other things, makes you forget your arthritis."

Roth is not looking forward to an onslaught of publicity when "Shifting Landscape" appears. A literary lion in American culture, however, has to face the two-backed beast of success and celebrity.

"That's why I guess I try to avoid publicity," he says, navigating painfully to the trailer door. "But sooner or later, especially with the appearance of a new book, I knew it was bound to come. What I do from now on out, I don't know. I want to know when I have to disappear."

Bob Groves is a staff writer for Impact magazine of the Albuquerque Journal.