The String of Pearls 
by Joseph Roth, translated by Michael Hofmann.
Granta, 224 pp., £12.99, May 1998, 1 86207 087 3
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With Joseph Roth, you begin – and end – with the prose. The great delight of this Austrian novelist, who wrote in the Twenties and Thirties, lies in his strange, nimble, curling sentences, which are always skewing into the most unexpected metaphors. It is rare to find luminous powers of realism and narrative clarity so finely combined with a high poetic temperature. Joseph Brodsky said that there is a poem on every page of Roth, and certainly, Roth’s almost nervous fondness for metaphor recalls the image-blessed, image-sick prose of another poet, Osip Mandelstam, sooner than any novelist.

Like Mandelstam’s, Roth’s details and images are often not primarily visual, in the usual Flaubertian sense. He isn’t especially interested in describing the exact colour shade of a man’s moustache, and then likening it, say, to rolled filaments of copper (though he is perfectly capable of writing this way). Instead, he comes at his images from behind, or sideways, like someone boarding a ship, and then climbs towards something at once magical and a little abstract. In The Emperor’s Tomb (1938), he pictures a businessman talking about his prospects in the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the First World War: ‘As he spoke he stroked both sides of his mutton-chop whiskers as if he wished to caress simultaneously both halves of the monarchy.’

This level of magical abstraction can be found in all of Roth’s novels, from the earliest, The Spider’s Web (1923), to his last published work, The String of Pearls (which was published in 1939, but probably written in 1936-37). The Spider’s Web is a generally rather crude and flat book, but Roth’s next novel, Hotel Savoy (1924), suggests the power of the more mature writer. It tells the story of Gabriel Dan, who has spent three years in a Siberian POW camp and who has ended up in an unnamed Eastern European town, as a resident of the enormous Hotel Savoy, which is full of the refugees of war – Poles, Germans, Russians, Serbians and Croats. This early book already shows a deep command of simile and metaphor. ‘My room – one of the cheapest – is on the sixth floor, number 703. I like the number – I am superstitious about them – for the zero in the middle is like a lady flanked by two gentlemen, one older and one younger.’ Dickens, and more acutely Gogol, may have influenced Roth, but probably the strongest impression was made by Viennese journalism, in particular the practice and perfection of the feuilleton, or short literary article. Feuilletons were brief sketches, sometimes arguments but often exquisite descriptive snatches. Karl Kraus was an earlier master of the form; in the Twenties, when Roth started writing them, Alfred Polgar was the most celebrated exponent. Walter Benjamin called Polgar ‘the German master of the small form’. In 1935, writing in honour of Polgar’s 60th birthday, Roth said that he considered himself Polgar’s pupil: ‘He polishes the ordinary until it becomes extraordinary ... I have learned this verbal carefulness from him.’

The brevity of the feuilleton put every sentence under pressure, packing it with twice the usual energy. Polgar, in one of his pieces, describes a man’s cane in very Rothian style: ‘A small walking-stick made out of rhinoceros hide danced between his fingers. It was a woolly light-yellow in colour and looked like a pole of thickened honey.’ These articles – Benjamin’s essays are stylistic cousins – often proceed in a pretty shuffle, as if each sentence were a new beginning. They have an air of discontinuity while often being, in fact, neatly interlocking webs of images. The writing is essentially aphoristic, even when not obviously so, because each sentence attains the status of aphorism. Kraus described the aphorism as both half the truth and one and a half times the truth, and this might also stand as a description of metaphor, certainly of metaphor as it appears in Roth’s work, where the similes are both magically untrue and magically more than true.

Roth, in effect, novelised the techniques of the feuilleton, producing fictions that behave as if they are always about to end, and which therefore always include one more superb phrase before the deferred closure. His books are highly patterned, but each sentence is a discrete explosion. There is, for example, the disagreeable Lord von Winternigg in Roth’s greatest novel, The Radetzky March (1932), who rides through the garrison town in his barouche: ‘small, ancient and pitiful, a little yellow oldster with a tiny wizened face in a huge yellow blanket ... he drove through the brimming summer like a wretched bit of winter.’ Or, from the same novel, this passing scene-setter: ‘It was getting dark. The evening fell vehemently into the street.’ Or again, from the same novel, the description of the peasant Onufrij, and his effort to write his name: ‘The beads of sweat grew on his low brow like transparent crystal boils ... These boils ran, ran down like tears wept by Onufrij’s brain.’ And from The Emperor’s Tomb: ‘All little stations in all little provincial towns looked alike throughout the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. Small and painted yellow, they were like cats lying in the snow in winter and in the sun in summer.’ Or: ‘The lonely lantern which stood before it reminded one of an orphan vainly trying to smile through its tears.’ From Flight without End (1927): ‘It was an icy night, so cold that at first I thought even a shout must freeze the instant it was uttered, and so never reach the person called.’ Or: ‘The lady’s smoothly shaved legs lay side by side like two similarly clad sisters, both in silk sheaths.’ Or: the waiters ‘moved about like gardeners; when they poured coffee and milk into the cups, it was as if they were watering white flower-beds. Trees and kiosks stood on the kerbs, almost as if the trees were selling newspapers.’ From Right and Left (1929): ‘In the gloaming, only the silver birches in the little wood opposite would shimmer, standing amongst the other trees like slips of days amongst ancient nights.’

Joseph Roth was born in 1894 on the rim of the Habsburg Empire in Brody, Austrian Galicia, which is now part of Ukraine. (He may well be related to the great American Modernist, Henry Roth, the author of Call It Sleep, who was born in Galicia in 1907, and who emigrated to America a year later. In Joseph Roth’s most obviously Jewish novel, Job, published in 1930, a family of Russian Jews do indeed emigrate to New York, though Joseph Roth never visited the States.) Paul Bernheim, the hero of Right and Left, ‘had the novelist’s gift of telling lies’, and it seems that Roth had it too. Until David Bronsen established the facts in his German-language biography (an English translation is in progress), the record of Roth’s life was an evocative smudge, a rumour worthy of the shadowy border town in which he was born – a town about which, in different versions, he writes repeatedly in his fiction.

Brody had a sizeable Jewish population, but it appears that in later life Roth would conceal his Jewishness, claiming that his father, a businessman from Galicia called Nachum, had been an Austrian government official, and even, on one occasion, a Polish count. Such fantasies may have had their origin in Viennese anti-semitism, or more likely in Roth’s conservative romanticism, and his almost naive love of the Austro-Hungarian military. It was no doubt easier to invent a fictitious father once the real one had disappeared: while Joseph was still a boy, Nachum went mad and was locked away in a German asylum. As readers are bound to notice, Roth’s fiction is painfully concerned with the relationship of son and father, with absent or useless fathers and damaged, aimless sons. The rawest treatment of this theme is in Zipper and His Father (1928), the portrait of a young man, Arnold Zipper, who is spiritually ruined by his service on the front during the First World War, and by his father’s thoughtless support for that war. At the end of the book, a sickly intellectual, Eduard, blames Arnold’s problems on his father. ‘All our fathers are responsible for our bad luck. Our fathers belong to the generation that made the war.’ Eduard lays the blame for the ‘indifference, melancholy, indecision, weakness, and lack of critical faculty in Arnold’s nature’ at his father’s feet.

The Radetzky March is Roth’s deepest consideration of fathers and sons. The novel’s formal beauty flows from its dynastic current, which irrigates the very structure of the book. We begin with Captain Joseph Trotta, who inadvertently saved the young Emperor Franz Joseph’s life at the Battle of Solferino in 1859. Thanks to this, the Captain is ennobled and the doomed, quixotic Trotta line established, each generation less heroic, but more absurdly quixotic, than its predecessor. Baron Trotta’s son, Franz, is only a dutiful district captain in a garrison town in Austrian Silesia; but Franz’s son, Lieutenant Carl Joseph Trotta, who is the novel’s real protagonist, is more spectacularly unhappy – first in the Cavalry, from which he discharges himself, and then in the Infantry, where he dies a foolish death during the First World War.

Hanging like a golden cloud over Lieutenant Trotta’s head is the reputation of his grandfather, the ‘Hero of Solferino’. Young Trotta can never match this heroism, not least because it was accidental; part of his affliction is precisely that he strives to emulate a quality that was, originally, not the product of striving. Roth beautifully expands this into a larger celebration and critique of the Austro-Hungarian Empire: Lieutenant Trotta comes to represent an entire generation of enfeebled young men, living off the recessive heroism of an earlier imperial age, and unable to achieve by force of will what was once achieved by instinct. What remains changeless, however, is the Emperor Franz Joseph himself, who ascended to the throne in 1848, and reigned until his death in 1916. The Emperor is the omnipresent yet absent father of all the Empire’s inhabitants; in a sense, he is both father and grandfather to Lieutenant Trotta, because his long reign has spanned the generations. The Emperor, of course, is the true hero of Solferino, under whose heroic reputation Trotta lives and fails. Whenever Trotta sees, in a café, the standard portrait of the Emperor ‘in the sparkling white uniform’, it merges in his memory with an old family portrait of his grandfather. The Trotta and Habsburg dynasties are one, a conflation which, characteristically, Roth both idealises and mocks.

History marked Joseph Roth’s life at least twice, viciously. First came the assassination of the Emperor’s nephew Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914. This, followed by Franz Joseph’s death in 1916, started the unravelling of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In at least half of Roth’s 13 novels comes the inevitable, sabre-like sentence, or a version of it, cutting the narrative in two: ‘One Sunday, a hot summer’s day, the Crown Prince was shot in Sarajevo.’ Then there was the Anschluss. The news of the German occupation in 1938 precipitated a collapse of morale in Roth, who was exiled in Paris at the time, and drinking heavily. He died 14 months later, in May 1939. Nevertheless, he was able to make the Anschluss the dramatic epilogue of The Emperor’s Tomb, which is a kind of sequel to The Radetzky March, extending the story of the Trotta family (via a cousin of Lieutenant Carl Joseph) from 1914 to 1938.

So Roth lived through light and then twilight and then darkness, seeing his beloved Empire mutate into a neglected and unmonarchical Austria and finally disappear into Hitler’s pouch. The Empire was already on the verge of dissolution when Roth became a student at the University of Vienna in the summer of 1914. Though at first a pacifist, he joined up in 1916 and a year later was sent to the Galician front. He returned from the war with tales of capture by the Russians and a forced march across Siberia, a history he awards Franz Tunda in Flight without End and Gabriel Dan in Hotel Savoy. But he probably never even saw combat, serving instead in the Army’s press office. During the next ten years, living on and off in Berlin, he wrote the novels which would make him unpopular with the Nazis: in particular Flight without End, which tells the story of a man who returns from the war and grows steadily more disenchanted with the confident rise of German ‘culture’; and Right and Left, which logs the growth of Fascism in Germany during the Twenties.

Roth fled to Paris in 1933, a year after The Radetzky March had made him celebrated. There, he marinated himself in drink and in the impossibility of his romantic nostalgia. His solution to the advance of the Nazis seems to have been a proposal to restore the Habsburg monarchy. He ‘renounced’ his Jewishness in 1935, calling himself a Catholic. With Alfred Polgar, he formed the League for Intellectual Austria. And amid the disruption (in 1937, the Hotel Foyot, where he had felt at home, was demolished), and the near-alcoholism, while political realities were coarsely lungeing at him, he wrote the delightful, almost perfect little tale of the old Habsburg monarchy, The String of Pearls (in German, The Story of the 1002nd Night).

Like The Radetzky March, The String of Pearls is a remarkably efficient epic. Roth uses an apparently delicate, fable-like narrative to lift the heavy weights of realism, gradually increasing the load so that, by the end of the book, all layers of imperial society have been included in the tale; its gifted translator, Michael Hofmann (who has done more than any other living translator to bring us Joseph Roth in English), nicely calls it ‘a fairy story that has swallowed a novel’. The fable begins with an official visit to Vienna, sometime in the late 19th century, by the Shah of Persia. At a lavish ball, the Shah spots a beautiful Viennese noblewoman and requests her company for the night. A diplomatic incident is averted only when Captain Baron Taittinger, currently on secondment to the Court, proposes that another woman be substituted for the favoured lady. This other woman, who resembles the aristocrat, is a former shopgirl, now working as a prostitute, called Mizzi Schinagl. Baron Taittinger knows of Mizzi because he has been conducting an exploitative gentleman’s dalliance with her; they have a son, whom Taittinger has completely ignored.

The Shah has his night with Mizzi, and rewards her with a fabulously expensive string of pearls. These pearls are a symbol of the novel’s action: the book is threaded along this string. The Shah’s gift shadows both Mizzi and Baron Taittinger for the rest of the story. Mizzi sells the pearls, becomes involved in a dubious investment and ends up in prison. The Baron, who is forced to acknowledge the existence of his son, and forced to visit Mizzi in prison, is blackmailed by a journalist who comes to hear of the story. The news of Mizzi and the illegitimate child leaks out and the Baron is released from the Cavalry. At the same time, his estate is revealed to be collapsing, and he hurries to visit it. Until now, this idle and limited child of imperial privilege has never thought of anyone or anything beyond his own narrow circle.

Roth is always attracted to failure and disgrace, especially when the Empire can in some way be seen to be the gilded engine of decline, and The String of Pearls becomes, almost helplessly, a portrait of Baron Taittinger’s wounded purpose once he has lost the refuge of the Army. Now a civilian, he again spends time with Mizzi, who has been released from prison, and tries to help her by buying shares in a waxwork show at the Prater, the fairground in Vienna. But when the Baron’s application to join the Infantry is rejected (and Roth means us to register the fall from Cavalry to Infantry for a man of Taittinger’s rank), he shoots himself. A colleague memorialises him thus: ‘I think he lost his way in life. It happens. A man can lose his way!’

The String of Pearls is alive with the jewelled formulae of Empire: the Shah’s official visit, the ball, the imperial councillors and secret policemen, the rigid, worldly Baron Taittinger, the bordello where Mizzi Schinagl and her colleagues service the Empire’s top caste, the Baron’s seedy estate in the border region. Hofmann rightly notes in his introduction how many different textures can be found in a Roth novel, or even on a Roth page: ‘the caricatures of Grosz, the semi-abstract gorgeousness of Klimt, and the freewheeling, home-made, modern inventions of Paul Klee’. To which I would only add the streaming, ruddy fullness of Ilya Repin, the Repin of those famous large canvases of soldiers eating and laughing. Which means, in novelistic terms (more or less): Tolstoy. Roth’s novels are infatuated with the glamour of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Like Tolstoy, especially the younger Tolstoy, Roth thrills to horses and soldiers and distances. His susceptibility to glamour is one of the many qualities that make him so appealing. One of the greatest passages in The Radetzky March comes when Lieutenant Trotta and his mistress arrive in pre-Great War Vienna for the annual Corpus Christi procession, in which the Emperor rides past at the head of his regiments. Trotta thinks of his childhood, ‘the old childish and heroic dreams’, of his father, the district captain, and then of his grandfather, the Hero of Solferino, looking on in rapture all the while:

The light-blue breeches of the infantry were radiant. Like the serious embodiment of ballistic science, the coffee-brown artillerists marched past. The blood-red fezzes on the heads of the azure Bosnians burned in the sun like tiny bonfires lit by Islam in honour of His Apostolic Majesty. In black lacquered carriages sat the gold-decked Knights of the Golden Fleece and the black-clad red-cheeked municipal councillors ... And the lieutenant’s heart stood still yet pounded fiercely – a challenge to medical science. Over the slow strains of the anthem, the cheers fluttered like small white flags amid huge banners painted with coats of arms.

The peculiar pleasure of a passage like this exceeds the obvious glamour and sensuousness of the material, or even the audaciousness of the similes. A further pleasure arises from our sense, as in Tolstoy, that anything can be described, that nothing outstrips the writer’s reach, and that the novelist is exulting in his own sovereignty. As Tolstoy shows us Napoleon both on and off the battlefront, so Roth, in The Radetzsky March, offers a superb ‘private’ portrait of the Emperor himself, and of the ways he slyly outwits his councillors. This sovereignty of description gives the novels a paradoxically old-fashioned and romantic air, as if the author had learned what he needed of Modernist narrative techniques and then somehow transplanted himself, with this new information, back to the more undaunted 19th century.

The whole of the Empire exists for Roth’s descriptive purchase, its Germans and Magyars and Czechs, its Poles, Ruthenians, Croats and Serbs, its Slovaks, Slovenes and Italians. His habitual plot sends a young man from pre-war Vienna to the very rim of Empire, to the kind of border town in which he himself was born. There, among Cossacks and traders and Jews, the young man will fight in the Great War, will die (as Lieutenant Trotta does in 1916, in The Radetzky March) or be captured by the Russians and sent to Siberia (as Trotta’s cousin is in The Emperor’s Tomb and Franz Tunda in Flight without End). If he survives, he must return to post-war Vienna, like poor, aimless Arnold Zipper in Zipper and His Father, and watch his fortunes drift, like those of Austria, or moulder in a microcosm of the old Empire, as Gabriel Dan does in the eponymous hotel of Hotel Savoy.

Even in The String of Pearls, although there is no war to be sent to, Baron Taittinger travels to ‘the Certerymentar district, buried deep in the snowy Carpathian mountains’, to attend to his crumbling estate. A marvellous few chapters follow, with Roth delighting in the obstructive, indefeasible human variety of the border districts. In Taittinger’s village, ‘the Mayor – Wenk – was a German, one of a scattering of Saxon colonists who lived in the area. The steward was from Moravia, the peasants were Carpathian Russians, the now-deaf footman was a Hungarian, who had completely forgotten where he had come from and when and why ... The forester was a Ruthenian from Galicia, the police sergeant from Bratislava.’

What Roth loved about the Empire, to judge from his fiction, was that it was, first and foremost, a form of rhetoric. In the early pages of The String of Pearls, he writes of Baron Taittinger’s substitution plan: ‘It all came off very efficiently, in a way that very few things in that state ever did.’ There is a kind of pride in this habitual inefficiency, as if such a fantastic assemblage of different peoples could only really be fictional, magical – as if it could only really exist for the novel (those blood-red Bosnian fezzes). In reality, so much human variety gathered together must be unmanageable, as Roth concedes; he is often rueful about the comical incapacities of the Austro-Hungarian Army: the Battle of Solferino, the founding moment of the Trotta dynasty in The Radetzky March, was a major defeat for the Austrian Army. But Roth loves the Empire as a fictional form, as something analogous to the novel itself. Thus, apparently paradoxically, he cherishes the unwieldy diversity of its people while praising again and again the way in which the furniture of Empire is exactly the same wherever you go: the same local railway station, lying like a cat in the snow or the sun, the same café with its portrait of the Emperor Franz Joseph, and its buxom, blonde hostess, the same garrison, all of these based on the great imperial model of Vienna. Roth, in his fiction, delights in the Empire as a kind of uniform.

If this Empire is almost too magical to exist in reality, it is not too magical for the novel. (And, of course, Roth wrote all his novels when the Empire had ceased to exist.) In The Emperor’s Tomb, Franz Ferdinand Trotta and his friends discuss a proposed excursion from Vienna to the distant border town of Zlotograd in Galicia. The journey seems like a charmed adventure to the young men, precisely because they cannot envisage Zlotograd beyond the imperial masonry they know will exist (the station, garrison etc). The men begin to paint a mental ‘picture of little distant Zlotograd, but in such a way that we were painting an entirely false portrait of it, yet could not stop picturing this place which none of us knew’. What the men cannot do is what the novel will shortly do: realise Zlotograd, by sending Trotta there. Somewhat similarly, at the beginning of The String of Pearls, the Shah is advised to alleviate his boredom with a visit to Vienna, so as to learn the lesson that variety ‘doesn’t exist’. By implication, he will learn that Habsburg Vienna, as an example of variety, ‘doesn’t exist’ – at least, outside the pages of this fable.

More than this, however, Roth makes his fiction identical with the Empire, using an empire of signs to create the closed world of his novels, using its layers and repetitions as symbols. The novels are not simply about the Empire: they enact it symbolically. Just as Roth cherished the fact that wherever you travelled in the Empire certain things were uniform, so his novels repeat and recycle certain characters, names and set descriptions. More deeply than that, Roth uses the Empire as a means to connect his people with one another, and to connect his imagery. The String of Pearls ends with Mizzi Schinagl producing a historical waxwork show at the Prater. The subject of the show is the story we have just read: the Shah’s first official visit to Vienna.

The subtlest fictive ‘use’ of the Empire is found in The Radetzky March. Here, the Trottas move through a landscape that is constantly reinforcing imperial uniformity; and hence the uniformity of the novel. Every time Lieutenant Trotta hears the Strauss tune, ‘The Radetzky March’, he thinks of the Emperor, and also recalls his childhood, for every Sunday, outside his father’s house, the local band played this tune. We pause at these moments to recall the title of the novel, which in turn reminds us of its principal theme, which is precisely the inescapability of the Empire. There is the man, already encountered, in The Emperor’s Tomb, rubbing both sides of his whiskers ‘as if he wished to caress simultaneously both halves of the monarchy’. There is Lieutenant Trotta’s father, the district captain, in The Radetzky March, becoming thinner and more gaunt as his fortunes dwindle. The district captain resembles one of the ‘exotic birds at the Schönbrunn Zoo – creatures that constitute Nature’s attempt to replicate the Habsburg physiognomy within the animal kingdom’. In Zipper and His Father, the regulars sit in a Vienna coffee-house ‘like a besieged garrison in a castle’.

In this interlocking world, moustaches and exotic birds and coffee-houses are all ultimately linked to the form and destiny of the Empire. In any other novelist’s work, this tendency to find connections everywhere would be heavy and explicit – a didactic attempt to enlarge the historical life of the characters and their world. But Roth achieves this by hollowing out his characters so that they are, in conventional terms, rather uninteresting; and then filling them with the colossal effects of Empire, which makes them interesting again, if a little freakishly so. Mann uses the uninteresting Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain in much the same way: his epoch has made him sick, and sickness is simply the critique of the epoch which honest, unremarkable people embody. Roth’s characters are not quite as sick as Castorp is. But they are aimless like him, sensitive and simultaneously indifferent.

The more indifferent they are, the more sensitive; the more isolated they are, like Hans Castorp in his mountain-top sanatorium, or Gabriel Dan in the Hotel Savoy, the more vulnerable to history’s sudden incursions. In this, they resemble the patrons of the Viennese coffee-house described in Zipper and His Father, who are like a ‘besieged garrison’: ‘Nothing reached them from the outside world, and none of them reached it.’ But it is into just such a coffee-house that a man will stride, as at the end of The Emperor’s Tomb, to announce that the city in which the patrons are sitting has been occupied by the Germans. Roth’s characters are made the more vulnerable to history by their refusal of it.

Above all, they are people who are acted on; the Empire is their fate, and the source of their infantilisation, in as much as they have handed over their volition to the great present-absent father, Franz Joseph. The Army is the imperial institution which manages this childhood. Lieutenant Trotta, gazing up in cafés at the portrait of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief, is the most pathetic example. But Baron Taittinger, in The String of Pearls, is a similar case. Roth suggests that Taittinger has never really had to think for himself because the Army – and thus the Empire – has thought for him. ‘Baron Taittinger was one of the not uncommon sort who, accustomed to military discipline, look to fate as much as to their superior officers, for orders and instructions.’ If, as his colleague remarks after his death, the Baron ‘lost his way in life’, it was partly because the Empire so blindly insisted on its own way for him. When the Baron is discharged from the Cavalry, he is at a loss, and Roth has a lovely phrase about how Taittinger must act as if he were a newly recruited civilian. One reflects that, in Roth’s fiction, to be discharged from the Army is like being rusticated from the Empire: it is to experience a private, mini-dissolution of Empire before the real, collective dissolution in history.

But then, if to be discharged from the Army is to be recruited as a civilian, most of the Empire’s non-military subjects might be described as enlisted civilians, wearing the figurative uniform and insignia of Empire, and too often turning over their will to their commanding officers. By the same token, those in the Army are often seen by Roth as discharged citizens, exiled from society in the strange, thrown world of military duty. Paradoxes such as these enliven and complicate Roth’s obvious conservatism, his nostalgia for an unrealisable and never-extant Habsburg utopia. Roth sees that Lieutenant Trotta thinks he is conserving his patrimony by honouring his grandfather’s name. Instead, Trotta is letting that patrimony congeal by not extending it. Roth describes Gabriel Dan as having ‘fallen prey to the Hotel Savoy’, and elsewhere in Hotel Savoy, a character remarks: ‘A man lays his head on the block – it is a Jewish destiny.’ Seen in this light, and despite Roth’s difficult relations with his own Jewishness, all of his self-defeating heroes, even the gentiles, are ultimately Jewish.

This profoundly contradictory vision is most powerfully figured in the movement between centre and rim, between Vienna and the border. The rigid Baron Taittinger is literally broken up by the Empire, by its human and spatial variety. He becomes entangled by Mizzi Schinagl and her low world, symbolised by the Prater fairground and its popular waxworks. At the same time, his estate, in a village far away, claims him. The Empire, as in Lieutenant Trotta’s case, is what holds him in place, and yet what flings him out of his place. But there again, Roth does not simply prefer stasis over movement, Vienna over Galicia, the Army over the Prater. For both Trotta and Taittinger to be in place, to be securely in Vienna, is not an absolute good, because they atrophy; and equally, to be sent to the rim, to be on the move, is not an absolute, transgressive good, because one may easily lose direction and wither into aimlessness. To be under command is not safe; and to be free is no release. Roth’s conservatism was an acknowledged yearning, from the prison of exile, for life outside. But that life did not really exist, and probably never had.

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