Joseph Roth



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Joseph Roth (Austria, 1894)

"Die Flucht ohne Ende/ Flight Without End" (1927)

synopsis forthcoming

"Rechts und Links/ Right and Left" (1929) is the story of three tormented geniuses: a child prodigy who becomes a boring ineffectual middle-class employee, a deranged fascist who becomes a journalist, and a cynical mysterious sinister lelf-made businessman who saves both from poverty for his own perverted purposes but then abandons them and his entire fortune in order to live a more interesting life. The latter is the most interesting of the three. This short novel could have been a Buddenbrook sort of book if only Roth had made the plot a bit more interesting. As it is, it is impressive mostly for the descriptions of places and people, which is really Roth's forte.

Paul is a 12-year-old child when his father becomes rich. Paul is already famous as a prodigy child who paints, composes music and writes. His father is a womanizer who supports a circus acrobat and eventually dies in the arms of another young lover. By then Paul is in England, enjoying a leisurely life Excited by the world war, he enrolls in the cavalry, but then becomes a pacifist writing pamphlets under a fake name. An old enemy called Nikita finds out the truth and threatens him. Nikita wounds him and then disappears. Paul enlists for the front, now eager to see real battle. He gets wounded and then catches pneumonia, so he is spared most of the war. He is secretely happy that England won the war because he still loves England. Meanwhile his mother is unhappy with the other son, Theodor, who is neither working nor studying. After one of their heated arguments, Theodor steals the tin box in which she keeps her savings. He is happy to make his mother suffer. Theodor has become a Nazist. When Paul returns, the two have a strong argument and decide that they cannot live under the same roof. Their brother-in-law, the cavalry captain Robert, married to their sister Lina, also comes home. Paul is determined to take seriously his obligations as the heir to his father's banking business. Business is easy: Paul works about two hours a day. But the economy is imploding and Paul realizes it too late. He is almost 30 and realizes that his classmates have made more progress than he did. His brother has to flee and hide after his fellow Nazi commits a crime for which both are wanted. Theodor begs Paul for money. Paul refuses, but a Latvian-born business partner, Brandeis, steps in a gifts the money to Theodor. Brandeis offers a business deal to Paul but Paul feels that there is something illegal about it and hesitates until it's too late. Paul's mother saves cash in a suitcase, not realizing that inflation is making that money worthless. Paul witnesses how good Brandeis is at manipulating people's psychology when he obtains a visa from an officer by simply hinting that he could cause that officer some trouble.

A flashback narrates how Brandeis, a Russian German, emerged from a poor family (his father was a discriminated Jew) and the chaos of Russia (he fought in both the war against Japan and the first world war). After the Communist revolution, he fled Russia and became a successful businessman in the Balkans. He fell in love with a teenage member of a cabaret show, Lydia, and Paul meets him when Brandeis is highly regarded in the business community, married to a woman who is whispered to be a beautiful Russian princess (in reality, the same Lydia who used to live with a ruined cabaret actor). Paul, who has to downgrade his apartment, regrets that he didn't accept Brandeis' offer of investment. Paul's fortune is to meet and seduce Irmgard, the niece of Germany's richest industrialist. Paul, how is basically ruined, needs a job before he can stand in front of her uncle. He swallows his pride and asks Brandeis for a job. Upon hearing whom Paul is going to propose, Brandeis gladly gifts him an executive job, clearly scheming to create an alliance with the rich family. Irmgard, who made money by hard work, actually despises Brandeis, who made money by speculating on inflation. Meanwhile, and amnesty allows Theodor to return to Germany from his Hungarian exile. He is still arrogant and anti-Semitic, offended that his mother is renting his room to pay the bills. Theodor decides to attend his brother's wedding and Paul coldly accepts to help him financially. Paul introduces Theodor to Brandeis who finds him a job as a right-wing journalist in a Jewish democratic newspaper that Brandeis himself secretely owns.

Paul is bored with his job. Brandeis doesn't let him do anything of any relevance. Paul is also bored with his dull wife. Lydia, at the same time, is unhappy with the mysterious Brandeis, who is as inscrutable to her as to everybody else. Brandeis keeps her prisoner in their house, but one day asks Paul to entertain her. Brandeis is away, and Paul's wife is away. Paul feels attracted to the young Lydia especially when he learns that she is no princess, just a former cabaret performer; but Lydia feels insulted. Paul is suspicious of Brandeis, who travels abroad once a month for an unknown destination in the Balkans. Paul throws a party, in theory to welcome a French pacifist but in reality hoping to see Lydia again. A lot of intellectuals show up, including his brother, but not Lydia. Paul shamelessly confronts Brandeis about his lust for Lydia but Lydia has left to rejoin her cabaret troupe, and Brandeis himself, in search of new challenges, has decided to leave town and to start a new life. Paul goes back to his routine. His wife is pregnant. Brandeis is never seen again.

"Radetskymarsch/ Radetsky March" (1932) is a comic and epic novel about three generations of a noble family, and at the same time a melancholy chronicle of decline and fall and annihilation of a noble family that parallels the decline and fall of the Austrian empire. The novel has many lyrical passages that border on poetry.

The founder of the noble family Trotta was the commander of a platoon who in the battle of Solferino (1859) saved the life of the emperor. To thank him, the emperor made him a baron. His father had been a sergeant and was now retired to a farmer's life. He corresponded regularly with his years, but visited only once in five years. He married his colonel's niece and had a son. One day, reading his son's primer, discovered that his heroic act at the battle of Solferino was misrepresented and became furious, especially the fact that he is depicted as a cavalry officer when in fact he was a humble foot soldier. He complained and appealed to the emperor in person that the error be corrected, but nobody listened to him. He resigned and retired to farming life, just like his father, and eventually his heroic episode was removed from all books. He saw his father again only at his funeral, and took his son Franz with him. When his wife died, he sent Franz to boarding school, determined to make him study law. A friend of Franz, a capable painter, came to visit during the summer holidays and painted a portrait of the father, the baron. The father died after the son graduated and was appointed a district administrator in the Moravian town of W. The local military band is conducted by Nechwal and always begins its performances with the Radetsky March. Franz sends his own son Carl Joseph to cavalry school. The teenage Carl Joseph comes home for the summer holidays and is seduced by the much older wife of sergeant Slama, a man who reports to his father, and begins a secret love affair with her. Carl Joseph is curious about his grandfather, the hero of Solferino and frequently stares at the portrait. Thanks to being the grandson of the hero, he is soon promoted to lieutenant, a fact that makes his stern father finally proud of him. On a visit home, Carl Joseph learns that his lover, Kathi Slama, has died in childbirth, and Carl Joseph feels responsible for her death. Apparently unaware of the love affair, his father charges him with visiting the sergeant during a trip to the capital. They also meet Franz's old friend Moser, now a poor painter who takes money from Franz. Franz calls him his only friend and tells Carl Joseph that Moser is the one who painted the portrait of the hero. Franz also wants his son to pay a visit to uncle Stransky, whom Franz has not seen in 19 years. Stransky has a limping son, Alexander.
Carl Joseph visits sergeant Slama as instructed by his father to offer their condolences and Slama, extremely courteous, gives him a package: it's all the love letters written by him to his wife Kathi. Not only that: Slama was told by Carl Joseph's father to do so. Hence Carl Joseph's father, the stern state official, wanted Carl Joseph to suffer the embarrassing situation. At home the father simply asks the son if Slama delivered the letters (just to make sure he did). Later, when the sergeant comes dutifully to report the day's activity to the father, the sergeant simply states that he has nothing to report.
Carl Joseph joins his regiment and becomes good friend with the military doctor, Max Demant, whose grandfather was a Jewish innkeeper and whose father was very poor. The soldiers live a quiet life. There has been no war in a generation and nobody is afraid of his life. Carl Joseph joins his comrades in their escapades, typically at the brothel run by madame Horvath. Taittinger is the most active in planning their dissolute life. Max Demant has no children and he is married to the beautiful Eva, who is not happy about their marriage and doesn't love him. Now Max's eyesight is deteriorating to the point that he plans to leave the army, and it is not even clear what they will live on. Eva's father has been helping them financially. Her own father warns Max that Eva is not happy. Eva's father instill in Max the doubt that Eva is cheating on him with his best friend Carl Joseph. Carl Joseph flatly denies it but their friendship is harmed. One night Max and Eva have an argument at the opera, and Max leaves early. Eva walks home alone late at night and Carl Joseph feels compelled to escort her. An official who likes to gossip, Tattenbach, insinuates that Carl Joseph and Eva are lovers. Max has no choice, under their code of honor, than to challenge Tattenbach to a duel. Informed, Carl Joseph feels guilty that he unwillingly caused the trouble and knows that Max most likely will be killed. He looks for Max and finds him drunk in a lower-class pub, a pub forbidden to officials like Carl Joseph. They spend the last hours together, good friends again, as Max faces the probability that he will soon be dead. Later Carl Joseph is informed that Max and Tattenbach killed each other in the duel. Carl Joseph is transferred from that cavalry regiment to a less prestigious infantry regiment and takes his orderly Onufri with him. Before leaving, he receives Max's last gifts: a sabre and a watch.
The new regiment is located near the border with Russia. It takes 17 hours by train to reach the small town. The border region is a region of weird traders who trade in anything, from Chinese human hair to prostitutes. Many traders are Jews. The empire is at peace and the soldiers forgot what war is like, but the traders of this region sense that war is coming because they are often employed as spies by one side or the other. Most of Carl Joseph's soldiers are from Germany. The main attraction is the parties thrown by the Polish count Chojnicki, a 40-year-old bachelor who spends most of the year with the jetset in lively locations like the French riviera, gambling in casinos. He is a delegate to the Austrian parliament but doesn't take it seriously. He is pessimistic about the future of the empire, has no faith in the politicians and despises the various nationalities of the Austrian empire, including his own. Another ominous event is the death of the old servant Jacques, Franz's loyal butler who had already served the hero of Solferino. Franz too is disturbed by political events, notably the independence movements that threaten to break up the Austrian empire. A loyal subject of the emperor, district commissioner Franz looks down on dissidents.
When Franz visits Carl Joseph, he is offered a room in Chojnicki's palace and Chojnicki illustrates to them his alchemical experiments through which he tries to make gold. Franz is shocked to hear the cynical but realistic Chojnicki talk of the Austrian empire as a declining empire, the emperor's authority eroded by both nationalism and atheism. Chojnicki admits that they are living in the age of electricity and chemistry, not of alchemy, and this seems an allegory for the whole aristocracy of the empire. Franz returns home demoralized and ready to retire.
Carl Joseph's best friend in the faraway garrison town is a captain, Wagner. An adventurer named Kapturak, a former Russian slave trader who had to flee Russia and abandon his family for fear of being deported to Siberia, opens a casino in the hotel's town. The officers gamble and drink, while the workers are exploited in the nearby factory. The workers finally get organized and stage the first strike that the region has ever seen. At the same time, Wagner loses all his money at the roulette and at cards. Carl Joseph eventually falls into the same temptation and loses too. He has to sell his horse to the only possible buyer, Chojnicki. And Chojnicki is so shocked to see the young lieutenant miserable that he organizes a trip for Carl Joseph in the company of an attractive and loose woman, Valerie or Valli, married to a rich industrialist who, afflicted by a periodic illness, spent most of his time in a sanatorium. Chojnicki knows that she has love affairs with younger man and basically offers her to Carl Joseph. She, 42 years old, easily seduces Carl Joseph during their vacation in Vienna, where she also introduces to the aristocratic circle around the emperor. Leaving a casino where he won a large sum, Carl Joseph runs into Moser, the painter and best friend of his father, who is as poor as ever. Moser initially doesn't recognize Carl Joseph but then invites him to visit.
However, Carl Joseph has to return to his garrison because the workers are organizing a demonstration and his regiment is in charge of breaking up the rally. Sensing trouble, Chojnicki leaves for one of his vacations, taking with him Valli. The demonstration turns violent despite Carl Joseph's attempts to avoid a bloodshed, and a bloodshed does happen. Carl Joseph himself is hospitalized for wounds at his head. Carl Joseph is determined to quit the army. His father reads about the riot in the newspapers and learns that some politicians blame Carl Joseph for the carnage. Luckily, the matter reaches the desk of the emperor, who is reminded that Carl Joseph is the grandson of the soldier who saved his life. While he is at the hospital, Carl Joseph is asked by his friend Wagner to sign a bond for yet another debt that Wagner accumulated with Kapturak. Wagner later kills himself, leaving Carl Joseph with the problem of the debt to pay.
The emperor is getting old and feels that death is approaching. Nonetheless, he insists on attending the military exercises on the eastern frontier, and, introduced to Carl Joseph, he tells him that he remembers the hero of Solferino who saved his life. He doesn't know that Carl Joseph has completely lost any desire to serve in the army.
Meanwhile Carl Joseph's father, the district commissioner, is having his own crisis. He cannot find a servant worthy of replacing Jacques and he hates the housekeeper. For the first time in his life he forgets to go to work and forgets to go to mass on sundays. And he forgets to give the usual charity money to his poor friend Moser. He enjoys the company of his old acquaitance the bandleader Nechwal and one day he meets Nechwal's son, who is also in the army. The young man tells the district commissioner that he wants a different career and is convinced that the empire is about to disintegrate into separate nations. The district commissioner's new friend is Skovronnek, a doctor. They play chess almost every day. One day the district commissioner receives a letter from his son Carl Joseph: Carl Joseph wants to leave the army. The father doesn't know what to reply and asks the doctor for advice. The doctor is not surprised that an army officer wants to quit, given the low morale of the troops, who know that war would mean the end of the empire. The doctor offers to find a job for Carl Joseph in the railways, a rather humiliating change for the grandson of the hero of Solferino. But the district commissioner follows the doctor's advice.
Valli keeps sending telegrams to Carl Joseph, trying to lure him to Vienna. Wagner is replaced by Jedlicek, a much less disciplined captain, who is happy to protect Carl Joseph when he travels incognito to Vienna wearing civilians clothes. The love affair is expensive: Carl Joseph has accumulated a huge debt to Kapturak and to the hotel where he stays. One day Jedlicek is arrested on suspicion of espionage. Kapturak then demands that Carl Joseph pays back his debt. A drunk Carl Joseph almost kills Kapturak who gives him only seven days to pay. His loyal orderly Onufri overhears that he has no money, travels to his home town, digs up some gold that he has been hiding in his field, and offers it to Carl Joseph. But army regulations forbig officers to accept money from orderlies and Carl Joseph refuses. Instead he writes a letter to his father confessing the truth. His father decides that saving the honor of the family is important but he too has used most of the money that he inherited: he has always let people think that he had more money than he actually has. He asks the richest person in his district, Winternigg, for a loan but the rich man declines. His good friend Skovronnek offers his savings, but it wouldn't be enough anyway. The district commissioner, son of the hero of Solferino, decides to ask the emperor in person, and so he travels to Vienna and obtains a meeting with the emperor, and the emperor gracefully accepts to take care of Carl Joseph's death. The emperor is old and frail, and Carl Joseph's father is not much younger. The two old men look like aging brothers. Informed that his debt has been paid, Carl Joseph convinces himself that his father is rich. In reality, the authorities expelled Kapturak from the country, and even shut down the hotel's casino. Carl Joseph is already planning to leave the army and move to Vienna with Valli when the news reaches the frontier garrison that the heir to the throne has been assassinated in Serbia. Carl Joseph asks to be discharged and his father sees his as a desertion, coming just when the emperor has suffered such an offense. Carl Joseph also learns from his father that it was the emperor that settled his debt. Carl Joseph starts working for Chojnicki, who also provides him with a little house in the woods. One day Carl Joseph meets Onufri, who has deserted the army. Carl Joseph's civilian life lasts only a few days: soon he and Chojnicki are called back to the army because war has been declared. Morale in the army is very low. The Russians have invaded Austrian territory. The Austrian army is successful only in executing people who sympathize with the enemy (like ethnic Ukrainians and Orthodox priests) and spies and traitors. One day his troops are thirsty and Carl Joseph volunteers to go and get water with two buckets. He is killed by a Russian bullet. His father is informed by a letter, and he keeps reading it over and over, day after day. One day he is summoned by Valli, now a nurse in a sanatorium, because one of the patients, Chojnicki (gone mad after witnessing the atrocities of war) wants to share a secret with him. The district commissioner travels to the sanatorium, learns from Valli that she was his son's lover (and the likely cause of his debt problems) and learns from Chojnicki that the emperor is dying. For the first time in many years Franz the district commissioner also visits his estranged brother Stransky. The emperor is indeed dying. A crowd has assembled outside the palace, and Franz joins the crowd. Franz returns home but dies the day after. His friend Skovronnek plays chess by himself.

"Hiob/ Job" (1930) is a calm poetic parable of a man who loses his god and then finds it again, but the plot is a bit too plain so that we hardly sympathyze with his tragedies and hardly rejoyce at his good luck. The book is best at describing ordinary actions. There is also humor when it derides Jewish traditional thinking like when the parents hope that their children develop some physical problem so that they can avoid the military draft.

Mendel is a humble religious teacher who helps Jewish children memorize the Bible. His income is very modest. His wife Deborah struggles to make ends meet, with three children to feed. Then she gets pregnant again with a fourth child: Menuchim. This child is born a crippled idiot. A doctor would like to try a cure on him but Mendel, who has reluctantly agreed to get vaccinated against his religious beliefs, opposes any human intervention: let God decide if Menuchim will heal. Deborah travels to a famous rabbi and elbows her way to his door among a crowd of cripples who are all hoping in a miracle. The rabbi tells her not to worry, that the child will eventually heal and will become strong. The child, however, grows up to be a cripple and an idiot. He can only say one word, "mama". His siblings (Jonas, Shemariah and Miriam) hate the little monster so much that they even try to drown him, but he survives. Deborah, already stressed by her husband's failure as a businessman, suspects that Menuchim is paying the price for something that Miriam did when she was pregnant of Menuchim: Miriam entered a Christian church. The other two boys grow up healthy. And that is a problem because Russia has mandatory military draft. Both teenagers are accepted in the army and Deborah almost goes mad, fearing that they will be sent to war. She has been saving a little money over the years and decides to spend it all to ask for help from a greedy relative, Kapturak. The money is not enough to save both children from conscription, but Jonas doesn't want to avoid it at all. He is excited to join the Russian army, and even moves out of the paternal house to work in a stable. Mendel feels that he has lost another son, after the one who is an incurable idiot.

Shemariah is taken to the border by Kapturak while Jonas is stationed at a distant post. Much later a man, Mac, comes to visit the family and brings a letter from Shemariah, now known as Sam. He emigrated to the USA with his wife Vega and wants them to follow him. He has started a business with this Mac. Meanwhile, Mendel discovers that his daughter Miriam is seeing secretely a soldier. She is the one eager to follow "Sam" to America, and her sexual behavior motivates Mendel to accept the son's offer. But the parents agree that the idiot Menuchim cannot move to the USA. They make arrangements with the same man who helped Shemariah emigrate and leave both the house and Menuchim to a young married couple. Deborah is torn because she remembers that the rabbi commanded her never to abandon Menuchim. Miriam cynically sleeps one more time with one of the several soldiers of the nearby barrack, Ivan, knowing that she'll never see him again. Miriam is bitterly hostile to her father, whom she views as a failed man, and tells her mother Deborah that she doesn't want to end up like her.

Life in America is good. Sam makes money with his friend and business partner Mac. Sam and his wife raise their child. Miriam dates Mac, who is not a Jew, but at least he is better than the Russian soldiers. They live in a neighborhood that has more Jews than their Russian hometown. But Deborah and Mendel never forgot that they left behind two sons, Menuchim and Jonas. They are happy when finally they receive a letter that talks about Menuchim improving and Jonas being well. Mendel becomes nostalgic and depressed, preparing for his own death, sure that Miriam and Mac only wait for his death to get married. One day Mac offers to travel to Russia and fetch Menuchim, but just then war erupts in Europe. Instead of reuniting with one son, the parents now fear that one (Jonas) will die in war and one (Menuchim) will burn alive in the house. When the USA enters the war, both Sam and Mac volunteer to join the army. Mac comes back with the news that Sam has died. Deborah dies of heartbreak. Miriam goes mad and has to be interned in an asylum. There are no news about Jonas and Menuchim, most likely both dead. Mendel is now completely alone. He refuses the charity offered by Sam's wife and advises her to marry the good Mac, which she does. Mendel begins to hate his god. He still believes that his god exists, but now believes that that god is infinite evil. His friends the Skovronneks take him into their house but he now refuses to pray with them. He becomes indifferent to world events and doesn't rejoice when the war ends. He becomes obsessed with returning to his village, which is now no longer Russia but Poland, and find Menuchim if he is still alive or at least find his grave. Mendel breaks into his old apartment, now inhabited by another family, and finds the place where Deborah was hiding her money. It is not enough but he plans to save more until he can buy his way to Poland. One day a stranger shows up, claiming to be related to Deborah's family. His name is Alexis and he is the conductor of a famous orchestra. He tells Mendel and his friends that he escaped the war because he was hospitalized for an infermity and at the hospital suddenly realized that he had a musical talent. After the war this talent brought him recognition and prosperity. Alexis has purchased Mendel's old house and wants to pay Mendel. Alexis also brings the news that Jonas was last heard fighting for the "whites" in the Russian revolution. Then he reveals that he is Menuchim, healed and raised by a good doctor. Menuchim is married and has children, and is going to take Mendel back with him to Poland. Suddenly Mendel sees a bright future ahead, surrounded by his son and his grandchildren, and Menuchim pledges to look for a doctor who can cure Miriam and to keep searching for Jonas.

"Die Kapuzinergruft" (1938)

synopsis forthcoming

"De Geschichte von der 1002 Nacht" (1939)

synopsis forthcoming

"Die Legende vom heiligen Trinker/ The Legend of the Holy Drinker" (1939) is a brief novella, an apologue about a God who seems to help a despicable man enjoy life instead of paying his debt. The main value of the novella is the style, a singsong-kind of rhythmic writing that evokes medieval folk poems.

A gentleman who has decided to live in poverty like the many homeless people of Paris gifts the homeless Andreas some money. Andreas, shocked by the amount, is reluctant to accept. The gentleman asks him to simply gift two hundred francs to the church of St Therese, the saint who touched the heart of the gentleman. Andreas is well intentioned but is also a drunkard and spends some of the money at the bar. Another gentleman offers him an easy job. It's another miracle, but Andreas meets his old love Caroline: Andreas was a immigrant miner from Poland who rented a room at her house, fell in love with her, killed the husband who wanted to kill her, and spent two years in prison for the murder. He buys a wallet for his money and finds a one thousand franc banknote in it, another miracle, and he meets his old friend Kanjak, now a famous football player, who gifts him a suit and rents a room for him so that he can bath. Andreas meets a young beautiful girl and she steals some of the money after they sleep together. Every time something happens that keeps him from walking into the church during a mass to pay his debt of 200 francs. This time he meets his old friend Wojtech, who borrows money and then takes him to a whorehouse. Andreas is broke again but again he meets the gentleman who has made the vow of poverty. The gentleman hands him the same money again and makes the same request again: pay the debt to St Therese. Andreas spends it all and by the time it is sunday he doesn't have any money. A cop, however, hands him a wallet thinking that Andreas lost it, and there is money in it: another miracle. He meets a little girl whose name is Therese. She thinks he is a molester and gives him some money to get rid of him. Just then Andreas has a heart attack and is taken to the nearby church of St Therese where he can finally pay his debt before dying.
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