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Whistling on the Tracks

The Prophetic Vision of Joseph Roth

THE TALE OF THE 1002SND NIGHT. \o7 By Joseph Roth. Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann (St. Martin's: 266 pp., $23.95)\f7 ; FLIGHT WITHOUT END. \o7 By Joseph Roth. Translated from the German by David LeVay (Overlook Press: 144 pp., $12.95)\f7 ; THE EMPEROR'S TOMB. \o7 By Joseph Roth. Translated from the German by John Hoare (Overlook Press: 158 pp., $12.95 paper)\f7 ; THE SILENT PROPHET. \o7 By Joseph Roth. Translated from the German by David LeVay (Overlook Press: 220 pp., $11.95 paper)\f7 ; THE RADETZKY MARCH. \o7 By Joseph Roth. Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel (Overlook Press: 332 pp., $14.95)\f7 ; RIGHT AND LEFT AND THE LEGEND OF THE HOLY DRINKER. \o7 By Joseph Roth. Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann (Overlook Press: 292 pp., $13.95)\f7 ; THE SPIDER'S WEB AND ZIPPER AND HIS FATHER. \o7 By Joseph Roth. Translated from the German by John Hoare (Overlook Press: 246 pp., $11.95)\f7 ; JOB: The Story of a Simple Man. \o7 By Joseph Roth. Translated from the German by Dorothy Thompson (Overlook Press: 238 pp., $13.95)\f7

November 15, 1998|MELVIN JULES BUKIET | Melvin Jules Bukiet is the author of the novel "After" and the forthcoming "Signs and Wonders." He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College

At Gundel's, arguably the best restaurant in Eastern Europe, one of the specialties of the house is simply called "His Majesty's Favorite Soup" as if there's no need to explain what that soup contains. Visiting Budapest a few months ago, ignorant, curious and hungry but wary, I asked about the ingredients and bore the waiter's disdain. It's a creamy potato soup with slivers of beef tongue, a hearty bowl that Franz Joseph, the last emperor of Austria-Hungary's Dual Monarchy, relished as his world collapsed.

But while Franz Joseph apparently enjoyed a peasant's palate in his gilded palace, many of his subjects, including the Jewish writer Joseph Roth, were drawn to the more extravagant aspects of Vienna's court. Though empty of any moral core, the grand fin de siecle aristocracy represented their last hope for a comprehensible universe as outside events careened out of control. Roth, born in 1894, came of age during World War I and died a few months before World War II began (the exact date, like much in his life, is in doubt). Nonetheless he left a legacy of a dozen or so short novels that bring his era, complete with its verities and anxieties, vividly back. Roth's last published work, "The Tale of the 1002nd Night," has just been issued in English for the first time by St. Martin's, while most of his other fiction was republished during the 1980s by Overlook Press in a massive undertaking of cultural and historical fidelity. Together they bring to light one of the most important and unjustly lesser-known writers of the century.

Almost all of Roth's novels take place among the minor echelons of Mitteleuropean society. In "The Radetzky March," his most fully realized work, we follow several generations of a family ennobled after infantryman Joseph Trotta saves the emperor's life during a battle against French troops in 1859. From that moment on, the newly minted Von Trottas enjoy the monarch's special favor, even if they're not precisely sure what to do with it. The son of the "hero of Solferino" becomes a stiff local bureaucrat, while the grandson, Carl Joseph, enlists in the military.

This last Von Trotta is stationed at the border between the empire and Russia, where he and his peers fritter away their hours gambling and romancing until a silly incident leads to a tragic duel. As Roth describes it, "the lieutenant saw all the somber events of his life fitting together in a somber mosaic as if manipulated by some powerful, hateful, invisible wire puller who was intent on destroying him." Of course, that wire puller is manipulating more than Carl; that wire puller's got the whole world in his hands. The pathetic thing is that nobody knows it. Alas, "their ears were not sharp enough to catch the whirring gears of the great hidden mills that were already grinding out the Great War." Steeped in a dying tradition, these functionaries of the crown catch only the title song that plays at crucial moments throughout the novel like a dirge prior to a funeral.

"The Radetzky March" is, loosely, continued in "The Emperor's Tomb," whose protagonist is a non-titled cousin of the Von Trottas. This cross-pollination between books is a technique Roth uses frequently. Jadlowker, a tavern-keeper; Chojnicki, a cynical nobleman; and Efrussi, a banker who seems reincarnated from a jeweler with the same name in another story, pop up in several other novels, along with the emblematic strains of the march. As Balzac does in "The Human Comedy," Roth creates a literary universe larger than the sum of its parts. His writing, like Balzac's, is bluntly straightforward, occasionally rising to heights of lyricism in sentences like these in "The Emperor's Tomb": "The crickets sang inexhaustibly, and inexhaustibly sang the frogs. A great peace reigned in the world, the austere peace of autumn." Mostly however, Roth relies for his effects on his own, and our, ironic foreknowledge of what awaits his characters.

Roth often sets novels at pivotal historical moments. For example, "The Silent Prophet" parallels the career of Leon Trotsky in its story of Friedrich Kargan, a young radical with "the conviction that one must annihilate a rotten world." Kargan meets a Stalin-like figure called Savelli who has "the temperament of a crocodile in [a] drought." These characters' idealism is doomed and, worse, such absolute idealism contains the seeds of its own destruction.

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