Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The wandering Jew

What I Saw: Reports From Berlin, 1920-1933, Joseph Roth, Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann, W.W. Norton: 228 pp., $23.95

March 02, 2003|Anthony Heilbut | Anthony Heilbut is the author of several books, including "Thomas Mann: Eros and Literature," "Exiled in Paradise" and "The Gospel Sound." The Library of Congress recently named "Precious Lord," a gospel album he produced, as one of the first 50 entries in its national registry of American sound recordings.

The hottest literary evening of a frigid New York winter took place recently at the city's Goethe House. It was a salute to Joseph Roth and a confirmation that he is now recognized as one of the 20th century's great writers. It was not always thus for this author, a Galician Jew who became the Hapsburg monarchy's most symphonic troubadour, a blazing radical, "der rote Roth," who venerated the piety of shtetl Jews and peasant Catholics, the highest paid journalist in Berlin's golden 1920s, who died when he was 45 in Paris an impoverished alcoholic with barely a rumpled suit to his name.

But thanks greatly to Michael Hofmann's luminous translations, which capture the incomparable verve and energy of Roth's supremely musical prose, many of Roth's novels, stories and essays are now available in English. The response has been stunning: Nadine Gordimer, for example, finds him an even more comprehensive novelist than Thomas Mann, with a greater range of inquiry and tone, and she may be right. Roth composes the most pleasing prose imaginable, but he can also trouble your mind and break your heart. Unlike any other great European modernist -- Proust, Kafka, Mann, Musil -- he can write with equivalent authority about high culture and low, country and city, dumb smart boys and preternaturally wise fools.

Because his best-known novels, particularly his masterpiece "The Radetzky March," celebrate a bygone era, Roth is sometimes called -- though respectfully -- a 19th century author, willfully non-modernist. Actually, he is definitively modern since he writes always from the current moment's perspective, while saturating that moment with a past terminated barely a second ago and a future that promises further cycles of loss: "[E]very new development constitutes a mysterious circle, in which the beginning and end touch and become identical." He describes this aesthetic stance as "the hard and proud melancholy of a solitary who wanders on the fringes of pleasures, follies and sorrows."

Roth's greatest strength is his prose, a uniquely modern idiom. Its secret is the application to "minutiae" of "the dialectical intelligence of the Jews." Where he differs from his great contemporary Rilke -- and Hofmann is splendid in finding parallels -- is in his recoil from that greatest of Rilkean dangers, a diaphanous whimsy. (Similarly, he can outdo Brecht, as he distinguishes two whores, "Bavarian Annie" and "Silesian Annie," without acquiring Brecht's worst trait, the hectoring snarl.) The constant joy of a Roth reader is his ceaselessly inventive power of description, enlivened always by that dialectical intelligence. He is the prose equivalent of a great jazz improviser, finding new resources in the familiar. Dickens seemed to require a defenseless child to set his pen on fire, Mann a troubled relationship between two men. Many things stimulate Roth, but he is most transcendent when something -- inanimate objects not excluded -- allows him to distill vast implications in a pithy formulation. A small detail is all he needs: "the diminutive of the parts is more important than the monumentality of the whole."

His rhetorical triumph, for which he frequently congratulated himself, was to be simultaneously breezy and profound; his ambition was to describe things better than anyone before or after by concentrating a universe of implications in the most abbreviated of commentary. At times, his rat-a-tat lyricism can remind you of a stand-up comedian on an inspired roll. But it can also achieve a biblical eloquence, as when he hears in the grunts and half-sentences of the poor "the sorrow of an entire world" and sees in "a silently bent head ... the misery of all time" or views a line of mourners "slowly being pushed along by silence."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|