Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Children of the Borderland: Conrad and His Secret Sharer Joseph Roth

Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Children of the Borderland: Conrad and His Secret Sharer Joseph Roth

Article excerpt

Now I was born and belong nowhere. It's a strange and terrible thing, and I seem to myself like a dream, without roots and without purpose, with no beginning and no end, coming and going and not knowing whither or why. It's the same with my compatriots too.

Joseph Roth, "This Morning a Letter Arrived" (Collected Short Stories 2002: 167)

A TOWERING STATUE of Conrad Korzeniowski once stood in the Ukrainian town of Brody, about 200 miles from Conrad's birthplace, Berdichev. No pedestal there has yet been graced with a likeness of Brody's own native son, renowned author Joseph Roth. Roth's signature novel The Radetzky March (1932), much of its setting an anonymous frontier garrison town in Austrian Galicia modelled on Brody, was inspired by Johann Strauss the Elder's masterwork. Composed in 1848, the revolution year preceding Strauss's death, the "Radetzky March" enjoyed the status of a near anthem during the Austro-Hungarian Empire's halcyon years. Outliving its creator, the eponymous hero Colonel Count Joseph Radetzky or von Radetz (17661858), and the Habsburg monarchy, its rousing chords became the empire's rollicking requiem; all that remained to round out the obsequies was the wistfully elegiac prose of Roth's Radetzky March as epitaph and obituary eulogizing an empire.

Since the triumph of Polonia Restituía at Versailles in 1919, a Roth Denkmal at Brody would, of course, have been officially unthinkable; not only was he still living, but he was also an Austrian, body and soul. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was no more, and Brody became Polish once again. By honouring and staking a claim on the great Polish author, a Conrad statue would celebrate his reborn mother nation, even if he was an expatriate writing in English. Yet, both the Russian Pole Conrad and the Austrian Jew Roth were children of the same borderland, fellow expatriates. Viewed in tandem their lives and art manifest paradigm facets of the complex identity to be found on old Poland's eastern frontier.

Remarkable congruences of similarity and opposition are to be found in the two writers. Roth wrote in German and latterly in French, the only fluency he had in common with Conrad; and it was only in the 1980s and 1990s that the bulk of his work became accessible in translation. His reputation thus remains obscure in English-language academe.1 He has been, like Conrad, "a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth." These words from Conrad's "Secret Sharer" (Twixt Land and Sea, 118) are echoed in the tragically self-defining subtitle and in the epitaph to Roth's Tarabas - "a guest on earth" (272).

Roth was born in 1894, two decades after Conrad left Poland and a year before the 38-year-old Conrad's first novel Almayer's Tolly was published; he was just thirty years old in 1924, when Conrad died. They never met, and Conrad may not even have known about Roth. However, Roth was an avid reader of Conrad (Fothergill 2006: 131); and their contrasting yet complementary early borderland experiences shaped them. Their lives and works reveal a common literary psyche of alienation common to a host of others who collectively may be termed borderland writers.

Western scholars have uncritically accepted the patriotically wishful view that Polish Romantics commonly associate with Conrad's "spatiality" (Karl 1979: 11, 19): his identity as a Pole from a mystical ethnic monolith stripped of its political existence, an eternal stranger in his adopted Britain, adrift on a fathomless existential ocean. However, Roth and other writers from the borderland show us that life in Russian and Austrian Ukraine for a polyglot motley of Poles, Austrians, Germans, Orthodox Russians, Uniate Ruthenians, and Hassidic Jews bred a sense of exile within the homeland itself. So Roth was not just an Austrian Jewish Pole, and Conrad was not just a Russian Catholic Pole. They shared a regional identity, defined by the paradox of its absence.

Both authors' Heimaten in partitioned Poland were predominantly Jewish, with a minority of Poles and Ruthenians. …

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