JOSEPH ROTH AND “THE INCOMPREHENSIBLE CAPRICES OF WORLD HISTORY”June 29, 2008 at 3:26 am | Posted in Books, Globalization, History | Leave a comment
The Collected Shorter Fiction of
by Joseph Roth (Author)
Michael Hofmann (Translator)
As you read the “Collected Shorter Fiction of Joseph Roth”, you’ll marvel at his language – his remarkable talent for using simple words to evoke pictures and feelings deep in your mind. Consider, for instance, “…the perfumed lilac breathed, the blackbirds sang, the month of May came giggling out of the undergrowth…” from `The Honors Student’, the very first story in his collection. Or, “The woodpeckers were already hammering at the trees. It rained a lot…” his opening sentences from `Strawberries’ – another touching tale. And, like me, you’ll discover the world of Joseph Roth, thanks largely to Michael Hofmann’s translation.
There are seventeen stories in this collection, all of them wonderfully entertaining. A few of them are long enough to be novellas, but that’s a bonus. Roth writes about small towns, men living in the past, women compelled to wasting their years, and childhoods cut short by necessity. His characters are so real that you’ll feel you might have known some of them, sometime in your life. Each story is a touch melancholic, sometimes even tragic. But his words seem to live on forever.
What you’ll also find running through Roth’s stories is an obsession with the past, or at least, a preoccupation with maintaining status quo. Perhaps, it’s a reflection of his own inability in accepting the changes in his life: World War I, the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the rise of nationalism and Nazi Germany.
A point he clearly laments in `The Bust of the Emperor’: “They are no longer content to be divided into peoples, no! – it seems they’re hell-bent on belonging to different nations. Nationalism – get this, Solomon?! – Not even monkeys could have come up with that one.”
But melancholy and his obsession with the past are not the only elements that drive these stories. Roth weaves in humour too. Take for instance this description from `Barbara’: “He patted Barbara’s cheeks, and it felt to her like five little piglets scrabbling over her face.” Or, this passage in `The Triumph of Beauty’: “She fell to her knees and kissed my friend’s toe-caps. He couldn’t fight her off. She slapped him as well. Then, she collapsed on the floor, lifeless as a doll. It wasn’t possible to lift her up. She seemed to be welded to the carpet.”
Joseph Roth’s words are wonderfully simple, his descriptions vivid, and his stories, entertaining. A touch melancholic perhaps, but a delightful collection.
It is quite a puzzle that the author of such works as The Radetzky March, Job and Rebellion remains largely unknown to so many English-speaking readers – and even those well acquainted with modern European literature, and the likes of Thomas Mann. Several wonderful translators – not least of them, the poet Michael Hoffman – are helping to correct this sorry situation. Hoffman’s rendition of The Collected Shorter Fiction of Joseph Roth is the latest service in a great cause, as it shows Roth also had a gift for short fiction. With his characteristic lyricism, and precise depiction of conflicted, and all-too-human characters, Roth creates several more memorable stories. Anyone familiar with Roth’s work might recognize the haunting Stationmaster Fallmerayer, as this is perhaps the best known work in this collection. Certainly they will recognize Stationmaster as vintage Roth, once read, as it is redolent of the writer’s unique ability to capture the simple tragedy of simple lives, sensitively, but without sentimentality. The same can be said of The Bust of the Emperor, which contains echoes of the novel The Emperor’s Tomb. A particular favourite of mine was Barbara, the responsible mother, “Didn’t the name sound like hard labor”, who knows responsibility to her son, but perhaps not to herself. How many writers, Chekhov aside, can distil with such poignancy a character’s whole emotional life in a mere eight brief pages?
“The incomprehensible caprices of world history.”
The Bust of the Emperor” (1935) belongs squarely to Roth’s ultraconservative phase. Set in Galicia immediately after the World War, it concerns the quixotic Count Franz Xaver Morstin, who, despite the fact that his homeland now belongs to Poland, keeps a bust of Emperor Franz Joseph in front of his residence and goes around in the uniform of an Austrian cavalry officer. The story is told by an unnamed narrator who takes it as his task to commemorate this obscure, low-key protest against the course of history.
The narrator wastes no time in giving us his opinion of modern times. In the course of the nineteenth century, he observes caustically, it was discovered that “every individual had to be a member of a particular race or nation”:
All those people who had never been anything other than Austrians…began, in compliance with the “order of the day,” to call themselves part of the Polish, the Czech, the Ukrainian, the German, the Romanian, the Slovenian, the Croatian “nation.”
Roth clearly laments ethno-nationalism in `The Bust of the Emperor’:
“They are no longer content to be divided into peoples, no! – it seems they’re hell-bent on belonging to different nations. Nationalism – get this, Solomon?! – Not even monkeys could have come up with that one.”
Among the few who continued to regard themselves as “beyond nationality” was Count Morstin.
Before the war the count used to have some kind of social role as mediator between the local people and the state bureaucracy. Now he is without power or influence. Yet the villagers—Jews, Poles, Ruthenians—continue to respect him. These folk are to be commended, advises the narrator, for resisting “the incomprehensible caprices of world history.” “The wide world is not so very different from the little village of Lopatyny as the leaders and the demagogues would have us believe,” he adds darkly.
Commanded by the new Polish authorities to remove the bust of the Emperor, Morstin supervises its solemn burial. Then he retires to the south of France to live out his days and write his memoirs. “My former home, the monarchy,…was a large house with many doors and many rooms for many different kinds of people,” he writes. “This house has been divided, broken up, ruined. I have no business with what is there now. I am used to living in a house, not in cabins.”
Nostalgia for a lost past and anxiety about a homeless future are at the heart of the mature work of the Austrian novelist Joseph Roth. “My most unforgettable experience was the war and the end of my fatherland, the only one that I have ever had: the Austro-Hungarian monarchy,” he wrote in 1932. “I loved this fatherland,” he continued in a foreword to The Radetzky March. “It permitted me to be a patriot and a citizen of the world at the same time, among all the Austrian peoples also a German. I loved the virtues and merits of this fatherland, and today, when it is dead and gone, I even love its flaws and weaknesses.” The Radetzky March is the great poem of elegy to Habsburg Austria, composed by a subject from an outlying imperial territory; a great German novel by a writer with barely a toehold in the German community of letters.
Moses Joseph Roth was born in 1894 in Brody, a middle-sized city a few miles from the Russian border in the imperial crownland of Galicia. Galicia had become part of the Austrian Empire in 1772, when Poland was dismembered; it was a poor region densely populated with Ukrainians (known in Austria as Ruthenians), Poles, and Jews. Brody itself had been a center of the Haskala, the Jewish Enlightenment. In the 1890s, two thirds of its people were Jewish.
Three Novellas: THE LEGEND OF THE
HOLY DRINKER, FALLMERAYER THE
STATIONMASTER AND THE BUST OF
(Works of Joseph Roth)
by Joseph Roth (Author)
Paperback: 112 pages
Publisher: Overlook TP (October 28, 2003)