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Rashi, Commentaries on the Pentateuch. Selected and Translated by Chaim Pearl (Anglais) Relié – 1970
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It is a glorious collection. Buy it, read it, keep it by your side for future reference.
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.