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Joseph Roth is best known for his masterful novel, `The Radetzky March,` a powerful and evocative picture of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy's final days as witnessed by one of its loyal, aristocratic scions, Franz Von Trotta. Written in sparse, journalistic prose, `The Radetzky March` nevertheless draws the reader into the colorful, many-tongued conglomerate of the Hapsburg Empire. While such a simple and monochromatic style might have failed a lesser craftsman, Roth brings the places and people of Mitteleuropa to life with his sweeping and Tolstoyian portraits.
`Collected Stories of Joseph Roth` falls far short of the standard set by `The Radetzsky March.` Compiled from Roth`s lesser-known pieces, this collection of stories, with a few exceptions, is disappointing. While slugging through one uninspired and undeveloped story after another, one feels that esteemed translator, Michael Hoffman, was picking from the bottom of the barrel when putting together this collection.
The main problem with these stories is their sketchy and unfinished quality. Sketches like, `The place I want to tell you about...,`or `This morning a letter arrived...,` throw the reader into unexplained situations with characters skeletal at best. In `The Cartel,` Roth experiments with territory out of the realm of his experience. A tale of elopement, `The Cartel` takes place in the United States, a world distinctly foreign to Roth's continental sensibilities. The Anglo-American characters stumble around and never convince. In `Youth,` Roth attempts an autobiographical sketch in the manner of Joyce's `Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.` While candid and charming in parts, with only eight spartan pages, `Youth` gives only a vague taste of what Roth's childhood might have been like.
A few of these stories do manage to reach completion. The collection's first story, `The Honors Student,` is one such example. In this psychological profile, narrator Roth tracks the painstaking, meticulous ways of the diligent gymnasium student, Anton Wackl. Singularly devoted to his studies, Anton earns the contempt of his fellow students and the esteem of his teachers. Anton's one-sided scholar's life soon devolves as he reaches adulthood. The harmless pedant grows into an immature and malicious adult who controls and manipulates his human relationships with the same passion he exhibited in his studies.
In `Career,` Roth expounds on one of his central themes: the importance of loyalty, in particular, loyalty to one's social betters: headmasters, bosses, generals, aristocrats or Franz Joseph himself (Roth was a fervent monarchist and supporter of the Old Regime). Fastidious accountant Gabriel Stieglecker plies his trade at various established finance houses until one day he is offered a significant pay raise by a newly arrived firm. Stieglecker is forced to choose between his loyalties and his ambitions. For Roth, the commercial and moral free-for-all of 1920`s Central Europe was abhorrent and Stieglecker`s painful moral dilemma mirrors Roth's own: to embrace the modern, self-seeking Europe or stand steadfast beside a value system doomed to oblivion.
Roth's longer stories fare much better in this collection. `Stationmaster Fallmerayer` is a well-crafted story of doomed romance. This stark love story between a lowly Austrian stationmaster and an aristocratic Russian countess opens with the lovers meeting during a horrific train accident. Yet, as the relationship progresses, the story gradually weakens. Stationmaster Fallmerayer and Countess Walewska enjoy an unfettered and happy courtship and subsequent marriage until one day, her husband (long thought missing in the Great War) shows up at their doorstep. While the ensuing ménage could have been developed into an intense crescendo, Roth simply ends the tale with Fallmerayer`s abrupt and unexplained disappearance. Plausible yes, but even this turn of events could have been fleshed out more. Such halting and arbitrary endings are all too common in many of these stories giving them a hurried quality.
`Collected Stories` does contain two fine pieces: `The Bust of the Emperor` and `Leviathan.` `The Bust of the Emperor` is Roth at his best, describing the final days of the Hapsburg Empire as seen through the eyes of one of its unflagging and doomed supporters. Count Franz Xaver Morstin is a `true Austrian` according to Roth, one loyal to a supranational `Austro-Hungarian` identity rather than to a narrow, ethnic, `tribal` heritage. Count Morstin is loyal to the Emperor and Empire alone rather than to his mixed Polish-Italian ancestry. Moreover, Morstin exhibits another quintessential Rothian value in that he treats those beneath him with a sense of noblesse oblige. Morstin is beloved on his Galician estates for exactly this: taking care of his underlings` needs. He intercedes when local boys are impressed into military service, keeps the taxes low, distributes money to the beggars, protects the Jewish merchants, mediates in all disputes and is one giant `godfather` to those under his patronage.
Yet, for Roth, Morstin`s most endearing and most `Austrian` trait is his loyalty to the Emperor, Franz Joseph, even when Emperor and Empire exist no more. Homeless and adrift, Morstin wanders post-Great War Europe horrified at the changes that have upended the old world and its values of loyalty and constancy in the face of crisis. Returning to his Galician lands which now belong to the new nation-state of Poland, Morstin neither accepts nor adapts to his new `homeland.` Dressed in his Austrian cavalry uniform, he travels his estates as if the Monarchy still existed. Moreover, in front of his manor house stands a bust of his beloved emperor. The count continues with this untenable delusion until the outside world finally intrudes and forces him to finally bury the past.
In `Bust of the Emperor` as in `Radetzsky March,` Roth brings to life a moribund Europe and those unfortunate souls trapped in its dying. Yet, with `Bust of the Emperor,` Roth interjects more of his personal insights than he did in `Radetzsky March.` Not only is Count Morstin Roth`s exemplar of true nobility, he is also a mouthpiece for the author as well. According to Morstin (Roth), nationalism is the disease that terminally weakened the body Hapsburg. Morstin longs for the days when,"...people in Tarnapol, Sarajevo, or Prague were all `Austrians` rather than part of the Ukrainian, Bosnian or Czech `nations.`" With an allusion to Hitler, Roth claims that nationalism found its most fervent adherents among those considered failures under the Empire's social hierarchy "...artistic painters insufficiently talented, disgruntled schoolteachers...all those who pressed fatuous claims to unlimited status within bourgeois society."
If the `Collected Stories' has one standout, then `Leviathan` would be it. It is the story of Nissen Piczenik who makes his livelihood selling tropical corals to the local peasant women in his forgotten corner of the Hapsburg Empire. Uneducated and devoid of skill save that of picking the finest crimson corals, Nissen is the most esteemed figure in his dusty, backwoods hometown. For him, corals are far more than decoration; with their blood-red color, they represent the purity of life itself. Yet, when a new peddler arrives in town with cheaper, artificial corals, Nissen is forced into a critical dilemma: join forces with his competitor or stay loyal to his beloved corals and thus suffer the inevitable consequences.
Nissen is the `Collected Stories` subtlest and most developed character, a virile, vital flesh and blood personage no doubt drawn from Roth's rural childhood. With considerable acumen, Roth exposes the myriad of conflicting forces that drive Nissen to his tragic end. Ignorant of the world outside his hometown, Nissen hungers for new experience, especially that of the sea, where he believes a giant `leviathan` sea monster guards the coral beds. Like Count Morstin, Nissen clutches to a dying world. Realizing that his corals, symbols of a purer, simpler world, are endangered by the artificial arrivals, Nissen refuses to compromise and thereby seals his fate.
Like his creations Morstin and Nissen, Roth was prisoner to a place and time whose day had long since passed. He refused to compromise with the crass and sinister world that had replaced his beloved Hapsburg Empire. As such, Joseph Roth was uniquely placed to pen the final days of a dying empire and the homeless children it begot. This is the Joseph Roth of `The Radetzsky March` and the better stories of this collection. And it is for these he should be remembered.
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R. Russell Bittner
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That citation from the novella “The Leviathan” could easily stand as a banner to this entire collection, both literally and metaphorically.
To say that I was bewildered by the time I’d finished the first eight stories in this collection by Joseph Roth is putting it mildly. While I didn’t exactly question whether the man could actually write clear and cogent prose, I began to think the translator, Michael Hofmann, had done him a disservice — not in his translation, but in exposing these pieces to an English-speaking public. I wondered: might they have something Kafkaesque in the original German that was simply untranslatable?
By way of example, I give you this snippet (on p. 86) from his story “April”:
“My friend Abel yearned for New York.
“Abel was a painter and caricaturist. Even before he could hold a pencil, he was already a caricaturist. He had a low opinion of beauty and he loved crippledom and distortion. He couldn’t draw a straight line.
“Abel had a low opinion of women. What men love in a woman is the perfection they think they see in her. Abel, though, had no use for perfection.
“He himself was ugly, so that women fell in love with him. Women suppose that male ugliness hides perfection or greatness.
“Once, he was able to travel to New York. On the boat he saw, for the first time in his life, a beautiful woman.
“When he reached port, the beautiful woman vanished from his sight. He took the next ship back to Europe.”
I read on, however — and am glad I did. When I entered his first novella-length story (even if not listed as a novella) in this collection, “The Blind Mirror,” I was pleasantly surprised to see that my initial misgivings were simply too hastily formed. Roth needed time and space to work out a story, and the following paragraph on p. 109 is a fair demonstration of his solid authorial skills:
“Night is full of feeling and surprise: out of the blue, longings come to us, when the distant whistle of a locomotive catches in the window, when a cat slinks along the pavement opposite hungry for love, and disappears into a basement window where the tom waits. There is a big starry sky above us, too remote to be kind, too beautiful not to harbor a God. There are the little things close at hand and there is a remote eternity, and some relation between them that escapes our understanding. Maybe we would understand it, if love were to visit us; love relates the stars and the slinking cat, the lonesome whistle and the vastness of the heavens.”
How this novella eventually plays out is, of course, another story – but whether well, badly or indifferently is for you, a potential reader, to decide, and not for me to say.
“Stationmaster Fallmerayer” (also not listed as a novella, even if of novella-length) is, alone, worth the ‘price’ of reading Roth’s entire opus.
The final three pieces in the collection, all of which are listed as novellas, demonstrate Roth’s immense skill as a story-teller and sometimes stylist. “The Triumph of Beauty” is as good a depiction of ‘the age of hysteria’ as any you’re ever likely to read. “The Bust of the Emperor” is an excellent — if somewhat sentimental — portrait of the passing of an era (following WWI and the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). And the final contribution, “The Leviathan,” is about the slow corruption and quick end — sometimes clumsy and off-kilter in the telling — of a simple man in the early days of the Soviet Union. It shares with Roth’s other stories the prevailing theme of an old world order collapsing and succumbing to a new.
Take heart (and a stiff drink) before sitting down with THE COLLECTED STORIES OF JOSEPH ROTH. They’re not everyman’s cup of tea — not by a long shot — but I dare say your time and keen attention will be amply rewarded.