Joseph Roth



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Joseph Roth (Austria, 1894)

"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.

"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 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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