Tag Archives: Joseph Roth

Pessimism’s Cynosure

He no longer slept. His days were filled with aimless haste. In the evenings he would consider his pointless activity.
-Joseph Roth, The Spider’s Web (60)

DSCI0022In The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa there is a line that stuck itself in my memory: I’m not a pessimist, I’m sad. The German author, Joseph Roth on the other hand, at least based on the books I have read of his, is very much a pessimist. And never was pessimism so thoroughly justified as in the novella The Spider’s Web.

Theodore let them into the courtyard. Once in, they started shouting. They pushed against the walls, window panes tinkled pathetically. (49)

I found that sentence arresting. Here is one of the pinnacle moments of the story, when Theodore enjoys his act of “heroism” that his career publicly rests upon, and the window panes tinkle pathetically. The fragility of his persona, the silliness of ambition, and the depressing disgust of confronting such an odious man as Theodore is so completely expressed in those four words- it quite awes me.

He must not think too long. Reflection weakens decision. There is no time. (62)

I couldn’t help comparing Theodore to other contemptible men of literature while reading this book. Like Dosoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, Theodore is smart, but not so smart as to risk the reflection and contemplative philosophizing that is central to Crime and Punishment as well as to Raskolnikov’s final redemption. Yet, he is smarter and more power-hungry than Gorky’s protagonist in Life of a Useless Man, which makes him a lot scarier. The chilling combination of the historical time period of Germany, in the upward climb of Nazism, with a half-clever, ambitious sociopath is disturbing. The political atmosphere simply makes a riper ground for sprouting the ubiquitous depravity of human beings- speaking pessimistically, of course.

There are evenings, thought Theodore, when people must perforce be good, as if under a spell. (68)

Published in 1923, between wars, this book is a frightening bit of divination of the answer to- not so much:why, but, what?- what is the thought process of the truly hateful?

Roth creates the story with the rhythm and punctuation of the segments of a spider’s web. The sentences are short, concise, and well organized. The spider unthinkingly weaves his web, forgetting how vulnerable he really is, forgetting that there are one thousand and one more spiders ready to build on top of his stupid web at a moment’s opportunity. But Theodore won’t, can’t really, think about it. There’s no time.

Horribly awake, he saw all the events of the night before. He fought against them in vain. He tried to erase them. They simply had not taken place. He began to think of all sorts of unrelated matters. He conjugated a Greek verb. (13)

In this novel of betrayal, even one’s own mind is suspect.

Expressive Intervals

“There are joys which long to be ours. God sends ten thousands truths, which come about us like birds seeking inlet; but we are shut up to them, and so they bring us nothing, but sit and sing awhile upon the roof, and then fly away.”
Henry Ward Beecher

Ten thousand truths. The depth, expressed by such a large number, indicates the author’s exasperation with our disturbingly persistent deafness to joys that could be.

I love the subtle quality that quantities bring to a sentence or idea. We are inundated with integers every day, and have become quite adept at using the universal language to mean something more. We normally adhere so strictly to multiples of five that, for instance, if a girl were to ask a boy to meet her at 12:01 he may think one of two things: she is unstable, or, German.
Who know’s maybe he would find it endearing, why meet at noon when you could meet at 12:01? A synchronicity would be required to pull it off, but I digress…

My son Augustus had to make a booklet at school for Mother’s day. On the first page he drew an approximate likeness of me and on the lined paper opposite wrote:
“You are more beautiful than 51 Mona Lisas.” I suppose from his 9 year old perspective 50 is the largest number he could concretely conceptualize, but I was fascinated that he added one.

“Augie, why fifty one?” I asked him.
“It’s more than fifty.”
“Why Mona Lisa?”
“She’s the most beautiful lady.”
“Do you think so?”
“I don’t know what she looks like! Isn’t she though? That’s what everyone says.”

I think Augie is on to something. It’s not Area 50, no, it’s Area 51, in other words: mystery. One more does say something significant.  It suggests a possibility of endlessness. The title, One Thousand and One Nights is imbued with a feeling of time just a bit unbound. In contrast, Joseph Roth’s The Tale of the 1002nd Night has a tone of somber finality. 101 is the number assigned to all beginner classes at college, 101 tells you that you are beginning an education that, if you do it right, never actually ends. It’s more. The powerful inertia of zero has been broken- the possible is possible.

Ready to Read

“For money does not always keep its value, unlike mankind, whose value is always the same, everything and nothing.”
José Saramago Baltasar and Blimunda

I came to the last paragraph late at night. I shut the the book and wept, opened the book again, reread the last paragraph, closed it, held it my hands for a moment and went straight to bed. I fell into a deep sweet sleep.
There are some books that move you to remember the time in your life when you didn’t even ask the question, “is it all just bullshit?” never mind the time when you answered it. Baltasar and Blimunda is such a book. It is kindness, innovation, mystery and love captured in a story of the Portuguese Royal Court, peasants and priests. A wonderful book.

I had previously read The Radetzky Waltz which was also a very good book: the pace and expression of monotony in the repressed and fading lives of the multi-generational Von Trotta family within the fading Austro-Hungarian Empire. Told with tenderness and written with humor – like  Zweig, Roth has a sophisticated understanding of the humor and sense of the absurdity that touches all aspects of life (see They Shoot Readers Don’t They?). But Baltasar and Blimunda touched me deeper.
Sometimes it is hard to know whether one is ready to start another book. Almost like drinking a gulp of water too soon after enjoying the lingering flavor of  something delicious in your mouth. But I was working today and so brought along A Visit From the Goon Squad. I was assigned to a boy who was actually absent. I had to go to his classes and take notes and write down his homework assignments. As it turned out I spent half the day in teacher’s room because “he” had gym or was reviewing for a quiz (Spanish), or watching the film Powers of Ten (science), so the teachers told me I didn’t have to stay as there were no notes to take.

I felt a little rejected because I didn’t have anywhere to go and also I wouldn’t have minded sitting in a Spanish class or watching a science film, although I have already seen Powers of Ten, (a Charles and Ray Eames film that is very cool, a few years ago my daughter and I got a little obsessed and watched a whole series of their short films).

Powers of Ten

The point is, I ended up having a lot of time to read. I am half way into the book now. Maybe it was the atmosphere of where I was reading, but I left work flat out exhausted from sitting on my ass all day in a windowless room reading a good but depressing book.

I don’t read as much modern literature as I do classic or period works, maybe the emptiness and sadness of our current world is a tad too in my face for me to seek it out in novels. Or maybe it is only because I was too recently affected by Baltasar and Blimunda: swept away in a feeling of something lovely and good in the world (which is of course just as sad then as now, and likewise probably just as good and beautiful now as then). But the gratuitous crassness of a lot of modern fiction often leaves me feeling icky.

I can’t decide if it enhances or disturbs (maybe both) the story by  reading it in an atmosphere where the sentences on the page are interspersed with bits and pieces of the conversations that surround me: “bread bowls of chili,” “fire killed the whole family,” “calories.” “going to the gym,” ” one more whopper” “the weather!” ” ice cream cake because that’s what I want.” Sometimes it all fits too perfectly. I thought I was worn out for the day, but I took a walk and the silly puffiness of the clouds cheered me up. I’m ready for the next 100 pages. Bring it on.

They Shoot Readers, Don’t They?

I was trying to work out what to read next as I came to the excellent end of Scarlet and Black (Stendhal). A friend of mine and her husband had just read A Visit From the Goon Squad and recommended it. I went to the online library catalogue to see if they had it. They did, but it was out and there was already a hold on it. I  put myself in the queue figuring I would have it in a few weeks. I started surfing around looking for more immediate prospects, and landed on an interview with the author Lars Iyer.

I was interested enough to look for his book Spurious, but no library in the state had it. I found it on Amazon and as the shipping cost more than the used copy, I purchased it. I figured I’d have it in a week or so. In the interview Iyer mentioned a scathing review of Stephan Zweig’s writing (and his rather strange desire to be critiqued in a similar meme). This past fall I had read some of  Zwieg’s books: The Royal Game and other short stories, Beware of Pity, Journey Into The Past, so I clicked on the link to the London Review of Books to see what it said. Scathing is a kind word for the complete evisceration of Zweig and his work. It was so intense it drew my attention away from the victim toward the denouncer. Who is this guy and what is his problem? I had quite enjoyed Zweig’s books. He was very unfavorably compared to his contemporaries, one of which was Joseph Roth. I had read Roth before I fell in with Zweig, and although I liked The 1002nd Night, I moved on to other authors.

Here in this anti-Zweig diatribe was a fevered insistance that Roth was obviously a genius but why he even bothered to be friends with the horrible writer Zweig was beyond the comprehension of the reviewer. Well, it was quite enough to put one off writing altogether. Life is painful enough without  having to endure such withering ad hominem attacks. Luckily Zweig is dead, so I needn’t worry on his account.  However, I was curious to revisit Roth now.  There was a copy of The Radetzky March at a nearby library, so I went to get it:

As I pick it off the shelf, having my choice of two copies (I choose the hard cover with no picture and a handy ribbon to mark one’s place), my eye snags on the “S” section. José Saramago. Damn it. I had forgot that I really wanted to read another one of his books (I had read The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis this past summer and really loved it), and there right in front of me is a very pretty copy of Baltasar and Blimunda. No, I tell myself, no no no, you have enough to read. But my hand picks it up anyway and then my feet just start to walk toward the circulation desk. I stop myself in the middle of the room and contemplate the weight of the pages in my hand. Oh all right, just move: you look ridiculous frozen on the middle of the floor.  I check them both out.

The next day I got an email from the library, The Goon Squad book is in. That was quick. When I got to the library I was surprised to see that there are actually two books waiting for me. I pick up the very hefty 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. When did I request that? I search my memory. I had just read a short story of his in The New Yorker, and I do remember that I then thought about his book The Savage Detectives, which I liked; I even recalled the memory of thinking about a good review I had read of 2666, but I had absolutely no memory of actually requesting it.

I searched my mind and there was nothing there. I really am a ghost in my machine, and as it turns out, my machine, like all others I use, runs its own programs mysteriously deleting and eating bits of information. Where do they go? Surely they must be on the hard drive, somewhere, but they are un-retrievable.
When I request a book I feel almost contractually bound to read it. It would be rude not to as the library has so kindly pulled it for me. So I brought them back to my abode and made a large pile on my desk – the due dates shout out at me. The next day Spurious came in the mail.