Reconsidering Roth (Joseph, Not Phil)

on Saturday, April 30, 2011
German Literature was the great bludge subject of my undergraduate degree. Firstly, it wasn't taught in German, which is fortunate given that I speak barely a word of it (aside from schizer, but that's more from allusions in South Park to types of Teutonic porn). Secondly, it had the coolest, funniest lecturer, whose translation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is still the unrivalled standard in his homeland and who once entertained us with an hilariously mocking rendition of the Bavarian thigh-slap dance. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, I had already read half the books, including my all-time favourite novel, Franz Kafka's The Trial. The subject was, as I saw it, a chance for me to boast to a German native of my personal connection to my hero, even if years later it would prove to have been a load of hokum. But beyond the brilliance of Brecht, Borchert and Boll, despite the discovery of another all-time favourite, Heinrich Mann's The Man of Straw, German Lit was not a complete winner. There were a few dreary moments, not the least of which was Joseph Roth's unbearably drab supposed masterpiece The Radetzky March. Yeah, it was grand. It was sweeping. But most of all it was dull. I swore that I would never waste my time with Roth's treacly nostalgia for the Austro-Hungarian Empire again.

Then, recently, a strange thing started happening. People whose opinions I respected, and whose tastes have always been quite similar to my own, began extolling the virtues of the tragic imp. I had lumped him in with the verbose vomiters of the German old-school but, according to his ever-growing cheer squad, he was much more closely linked to the Walsers and Kafkas of this world. I was shocked. Nowhere in The Radetzky March did I see signs of malevolent, hidden forces crushing the average man. At no point was my mind, to use the vernacular, fucked. I did a quick search and was pleased to find that the majority of Roth's novels - and there were a lot of them (is there something about the name that makes an author so prolific?) - are short and so I figured it couldn't hurt to give him another try. Scanning a few blurbs, the one that seemed to have the instant appeal was Rebellion.

The novel starts off with a crippled organ grinder... A crippled organ grinder? Yes!!! This is already my sort of book. And it just keeps getting better. Returned from the first World War, where his leg was blown off, Andreas Pum is a hopeless beggar until he marries a fat, wealthy aristocrat (yeah, in German lit they are always fat) and gets a taste of the high life. All is going swimmingly for about ten pages until he is mistaken for a fake, wrongly considered the aggressor in the resultant altercation, decks a cop, and is thrown into jail. Through no fault of his own, the life of this simpleton-come-good turns to crap. And then he dies. Perfect!

Roth is cold and brutal about the societal winds of indifference that might just as well blow us over as lift us up. Rebellion is a cynical little gem, spiteful and pithy but kept in check by a true master. It has single-handedly changed my opinion of Roth and caused me to order almost his entire catalogue. Which makes me wonder whether I have to revisit some of the other German Lit disappointments - Fontane, Christa Wolff, some others I have chosen to forget. Perhaps it is wrong to base one's opinion of an author on a single work, even if it is held out to be their masterpiece. And now there is a deeper, burning question simmering in the backgound... Must I read another Dan Brown?


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