I discovered Joseph Roth via a friend from long ago and far away. This friend urged me to read Joseph Roth’s magnificent novel of the Napoleonic wars, The Radetzky March. From the first line, I was mesmerized and read it straight through on a long spring day and night. I found a few other works by Roth, and while I found them all interesting and enjoyable, none quite reached the soaring heights of Radetzky. I recently came across The Collected Stories of Joseph Roth, and I have found the seeds and the imagination which led to his masterpiece.
Joseph Roth was born in Galicia and he died at the young age of 44 in Paris on May 27, 1939. He served in the Austro-Hungarian army for a couple of years. In 1918, he returned to Vienna where he began writing for left-wing papers. In 1920 he moved to Berlin, and in 1923 began a distinguished career with the Frankfurter Zeitung. When WWII broke out he moved to the south of France. At his death, an invitation from the American PEN Club – which had brought many writers to the states – was found among his papers. His themes of the simple man, Judaism, Austria-Hungary, and alcohol dominate his fiction. Some of his stories and novellas are considered by some critics to reach “literary perfection.” I cannot disagree.
The Collected Stories of Joseph Roth contains a selection of short stories – some undated, some incomplete – and three novellas. The stories were translated by Michael Hofmann, who also contributed an Introduction. In the Intro, he discussed the stories and added some background to Roth’s life. Joseph Brodsky stated in a blurb, “There is a poem on every page of Joseph Roth.” I never looked at his works that way, but as I traveled through the stories, I began to see what Brodsky meant. Roth does have an impressive way with words. I am going to have to try harder to acquire more of Roth’s works.
My favorite from the collection is a story from 1916, “The Honor Student.” Roth writes, “Anton, the son of the postman Andreas Wanzl, was the oddest child you ever saw. His thin, pale little face, with its sharply etched features, emphasized by a grave beak of a nose, was surmounted by an extremely sparse tuft of white blond hair. A lofty brow lorded it over a practically nonexistent pair of eyebrows, below which two pale blue deep-set eyes peered earnestly and precociously into the world. A certain stubbornness showed in the narrow, bloodless lips, clamped tight. A fine, regular chin brought the ensemble to an unexpectedly imposing finale. The head was perched on a scrawny neck; the whole body was thin and frail. Altogether incongruous on such a frame were the powerful read hands that looked as though they had been glued on at the delicate wrists. Anton Wanzl was always neatly dressed and in clean clothes” (17). His style of detailed descriptions of his characters reminds me of Chekhov -- the preeminent master of the short story in my opinion.
He also has a talent for locale of his stories. In a brief story, “The Grand House Opposite,” he writes: “I found a small hotel that was only different from any of those I had patronized hitherto by virtue of the fact that it was in a wealthy suburb. My neighbors were rich people fallen on hard times, unwilling to leave the proximity of money because they evidently believed that, that way, when their fortunes finally changed, they would have less time and trouble. In the same way, a dog one has put out will stay close to the door by which it was made to leave. Opposite my small, narrow window was a large broad mansion. Its brown gate was shut, and in the middle of it was a golden knob that caught and intensified and reflected the light” (134-35).
Start with Roth’s The Radetzky March, and then move to The Collected Stories and you will find a wonderful world in the 19th and early 20th centuries.