- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 10, 2002

Unlike the modern writers thought to be his literary equals namely, James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Thomas Mann, about whom hefty, exhaustive biographies have been written awfully little is known about the life of the Jewish novelist Joseph Roth. He was born in 1894 in Galicia, the former crownland of the Hapsburg Empire. He served with the Austro-Hungarian army, then, upon the collapse of the empire, began working as a journalist. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, he left Germany for Paris, and spent the rest of his short, impoverished, and isolated existence as an emigre intellectual opposing the Nazi regime. He died a lonely alcoholic, in Paris, in 1939.
Roth wrote 13 novels, but he was also a superb artist on a smaller scale. And so, we are fortunate indeed now to have his collected short stories in English. Reading these works chronologically, one can trace the development of Roth's art, from his early tales, ironic and dark, to a more expansive story such as "April," an irresistible narrative that pulses and breathes with the everyday realism of Middle European life and that shows Roth reaching for a more refined and lyrical style, to the final four long stories, masterpieces each one of them, examples of the highest kind of 20th-century European fiction.
Of the early stories, the first two "The Honors Student" and "Barbara" are the best: short, ironic character studies describing in their pages the whole arc of two very different lives. The honors student is one Anton Wanzl, an automaton of a man whose only desire is to succeed in life at the expense of those around him, but whose every energy is devoted to the suppression of his own humanity. Anton betrays the woman who loves him, but it is the title character who is betrayed in "Barbara," a story about how the expectations of one's life can be bitterly undermined by its realities. Barbara, saint-like and simple, sacrifices her whole life, and the man she loves, for the sake of her cold and ungrateful son.
To be sure, tragic things happen in these stories; characters are killed, others are betrayed. But Roth's detached style often keeps the reader at arm's length; Roth is not quite ready, it would seem, to delve into authentic human tragedy. This detachment is in part the result, I think, of the nonchalant manner in which the writer kills certain characters off: in a quick stroke or two, painlessly, dispassionately. "He bought a ticket, sailed to America, played in cinemas and nightclubs, became a dissipated genius, and finally died of hunger on the street" is how Roth describes the demise of Anton Wanzl's romantic rival, Hans Pauli.
Similarly, Barbara's brutish carpenter husband dies thus: "He seemed to have an oaken constitution … One day in his workshop, a heavy beam hit him on the head, and killed him on the spot." Some might even find something slightly comical in that description.
If these early stories together with the very Russian "Career," the experimental "Sick People" and "The Cartel," a noirish caricature of a lurid and grotesque America do not convey the same emotional depth of the later work, they do reveal Roth's gift for employing metaphor, symbol, and imagery to illuminate the psychologies of his characters. This skill can lead to a line as telling and nuanced as this one from "Barbara": "[She] had to be terribly careful not to break anything, because then her aunt's green eyes would come rolling up like great waves breaking icily over her blushing face."
By the time Roth composed the wistful and melancholy "April" (1925), about a man who arrives in a small rural town and stays for a month, something had changed in his writing: He had become a mature and brilliant artist. In "April," we find a new kind of realism. The deaths of Hans Pauli or Barbara's husband, told with ironic detachment, may not elicit any sympathy from the reader, but there is something poignant and unmistakably authentic about the postman in "April" who consumes alcohol "only twice a year: on his birthday, which was 15 April, and on the day of the death of his son, who had committed suicide in the big city."
The first-person narrator of "April" is an outsider in a place whose inhabitants are true creatures of the earth, as subject to the cyclical rhythms of the natural world as are the crickets and mayflies and fields of wheat. And though the narrator feels general contempt for the town's women (even to some extent for the blond barmaid Anna, with whom he begins an affair), he appreciates their earthiness, sees them as part of the wider world from which he feels alienated. Take this passage, one of Roth's most lyrical:
"Only when I saw [the women] wandering out into the fields on gilt-framed spring evenings, one pair after another, did they move me. They were there to renew the world. They grew and then they loved and then they gave birth. They began their maternal work in the springtime, and ended it years later. I saw them swarming out into the woods, like mayflies, intoxicated and delirious, harmless and eager to fulfill God's instruction."
As I have said, the volume's final four stories "Stationmaster Fallmerayer," "The Triumph of Beauty," "The Bust of the Emperor," and "The Leviathan" along with "April," are nearly perfect, enduring works of art. They resonate with the great themes that Roth explored in much of his fiction: the devastating effects of war, disillusionment, ambition, the desire for the unattainable, the condition of the Jews, and, perhaps most important, nationalism.
Though Roth's departure from Germany might seem the most dramatic event of his short life, the events leading up to World War I were even more earth-shattering. The decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, the subject of arguably his greatest novel, "The Radetzky March," left Roth rootless, a kind of fugitive; perhaps he resembled in some small way the protagonist of "The Bust of the Emperor," a man who refuses to accept the Dual Monarchy's collapse and clings obstinately to symbols of the old regime.
Among other things, the complicated nature of home is explored in the story: When a region's political circumstances change, when nationalistic fervor explodes among Slovenes and Czechs and Croats and Poles, all of whom were once simply Austrians, what becomes of a person whose steadfast allegiance remains with the past? How does he feel about the altered landscape of his home?
Roth once wrote that when it came to the conflict between an individual and the state, "the old and eternal truth [holds] that the individual is always defeated in the end." Like an archetype, the defeated individual haunts nearly every one of Roth's short stories. He is Adam Fallmerayer, the ordinary stationmaster who foolishly believes that his love for an exotic countess can help him transcend the banality and predictability of his life.
He is Doctor Skovronnek's friend in "The Triumph of Beauty," defeated by his love for an unfaithful woman. And at first he seems to be Nissen Piczenik, the Jewish coral merchant in "The Leviathan," the symbolic, allegorical, intensely moving story that closes the volume.
Piczenik, who longs only for the sea, loses his livelihood when a new merchant arrives in a nearby town peddling cheaper, fake corals, and tempts Piczenik into betraying himself. And though our hero's fate is ultimately tragic he drowns in the sea en route to a new life in Canada we can read the story's ending as the fulfillment of his deepest desire, a desire for death, of which the Great Sea is a metaphor, a yearning to escape the hard realm of the terrestrial and enter into the vastness and beauty of the eternal and otherworldly sea, the domain of his beloved and lustrous red corals.
The story is, in this sense, the one prominent work in this major collection that does not end with the defeat of an individual. But it does suggest, with characteristic bleakness, that only in death can an individual truly be free. Roth's art in these stories is nothing if not pessimistic.

Sudip Bose is associate editor of Preservation magazine.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide