Empire of Signs

James Wood

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.

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