Magazine article The Spectator

The Man with Qualities

Magazine article The Spectator

The Man with Qualities

Article excerpt

RIGHT AND LEFT

by Joseph Roth,

translated by Michael Hofmann

Granta, L6.99, pp. 240

THE STRING OF PEARLS

by Joseph Roth,

translated by Michael Hofmann

Granta, L6.99, pp. 272

Those of us who happily discovered Flight Without End and then impatiently tracked down every other book that Joseph Roth had written, becoming as we thought a superior and perceptive group, can now admit to our club, for a very modest paperback fee, readers of Right and Left and The String of Pearls, and they should be many.

The first book was written in and about the chaotic Berlin of 1929, and the second, set in 19th-century Vienna, just before Roth's death in 1939. How I envy the initiates! To enter this world for the first time is to mine an exciting seam of literary gold. I read The String of Pearls in the Cafe de Tournon in Paris, where I go every morning for my coffee and tartine, and to commune with the ghost of that chronicler of exile. He sat there, the dispossessed genius, the wandering Jew, a piece of flotsam on the floodtide of Nazi filth, born in Galicia and ending up in Paris after fleeing Berlin, the Holy Drinker imbibing without restraint and writing without effort, endlessly pouring in the narcotic alcohol to deaden the isolation and endlessly pouring out the words that evoke in us a nostalgia for events and a life we never even knew.

Although Roth sat there under his big black cloud, he allowed brilliant inner shafts to break through and spotlight unforgettable characters, each one a fragment of his imaginative self, this man of multiple and contradictory facets who, as he put it in Right and Left, is overwhelmed by strange forces . . . reaching a frontier beyond which lay a wide terrain, unknown and unexplored, accessible to no thought and no imagining.

He reinvented a fictional past, injecting a sad mix of the components of Musil, Lowry, Beckett, Joyce, Kafka and other displaced minds, but in a way altogether original. He sat there hearing always the Radetzky March beating him back to an ideal world not that he belonged to that world of lieutenants of dragoons, captains of horse, people of noble origins, subjects of His Royal and Imperial Apostolic Majesty, Franz Joseph of the Austro-Hungarian empire. …

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