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Emperor of Nostalgia

In Roth’s universe, it is among its most marginal subjects that the empire finds its most faithful followers. The Trottas, his exemplary Austro-Hungarians, are not German but Slovenian in origin. Having killed off one line of the clan, Roth finds a distant Trotta cousin through whom to continue, in Die Kapuzinergruft (1938; translated as The Emperor’s Tomb), a rather pale sequel to The Radetzky March, his fictional history of the decline of the imperial ideal into the cynicism and decadence of postwar Vienna.

Meanwhile Friederike Roth had become mentally ill and been hospitalized. She spent the 1930s in asylums in Germany and Austria; when the Nazis took control she was one of those selected to be euthanized.

In 1933 Roth quit Germany for good, and, after roaming around Europe for a while, settled in Paris. Translations of his work were coming out in a dozen languages; by most measures he was a successful author. His financial affairs were, however, in chaos. Furthermore, he had long been a heavy drinker, and by the mid-1930s had descended into alcoholism. In Paris he made his base in a tiny hotel room and spent his days in the café downstairs, writing, drinking, entertaining friends.

Hostile to both fascism and communism, he proclaimed himself a Catholic and involved himself in royalist politics, specifically in efforts to have Otto von Habsburg, grandnephew of the last emperor, restored to the throne. In 1938, with the threat of German annexation looming, he traveled to Austria as representative of the royalists to persuade the government to hand over the chancellorship to Otto. He had to depart ignominiously without being granted an audience. Back in Paris he urged the creation of an Austrian Legion to liberate Austria by force.

Opportunities to escape to the United States came up, but he let them pass. “Why are you drinking so much?” asked a worried friend. “Do you think you are going to escape? You too are going to be wiped out,” Roth replied. He died in a Paris hospital in 1939, after days of delirium tremens. He was forty-four.


Though Roth tried his hand intermittently at short stories, his reputation has rested hitherto on his novels, above all on The Radetzky March. Now we have Roth’s Collected Stories, translated by Michael Hofmann, who also contributes an introduction in which he compares Roth at his best with Anton Chekhov.

The title The Collected Stories of Joseph Roth would seem to make a promise, and an unambiguous one at that: that we are being offered all of Roth’s stories. But what are stories? Instead of trying to establish formal criteria—a hopeless task—Michael Hofmann sensibly takes as his province all of Roth’s fictional prose with the exception of his novels. In the relevant volumes of the canonical six-volume German Werke edited by Fritz Hackert there are eighteen pieces of fiction not labeled Roman, novel. The Collected Stories consists of seventeen of these eighteen pieces; it pays no attention to the fact that some of the eighteen are not proper stories with beginnings, middles, and ends, but fragments of abandoned larger projects; or the fact too that four of them appeared, either during Roth’s lifetime or posthumously, as stand-alone books: April: The History of a Love (1925); The Blind Mirror: A Short Novel (1925); The Legend of the Holy Drinker (1939); and The Leviathan (printed in 1940, distributed only in 1945).

The missing eighteenth item is The Legend of the Holy Drinker, correctly classed by Hackert as a Novelle, a novella or long short story, rather than a Roman. The reason for its absence from The Collected Stories, tersely mentioned in the introduction, is that a translation (by Hofmann himself) is already on the market. The Collected Stories is therefore not, strictly speaking, the collected stories: it needs to be supplemented with either The Legend of the Holy Drinker1 or the composite volume Right and Left and The Legend of the Holy Drinker.2

The first clear masterwork in the collection is “Stationmaster Fallmerayer” of 1933. Fallmerayer is a cool, self-sufficient man of a type we find often in Roth, going dutifully but without feeling through the motions of love, marriage, and parenthood. Then fate intervenes. There is a train crash near the town in provincial Austria where he is stationmaster. One of the passengers, Countess Walewska, a Russian (an irritating feature of these translations is that German conventions are used to transliterate Russian words), is brought to his house to recuperate from shock. After she leaves, Fallmerayer recognizes he has fallen in love with her.

Within months—the year is 1914—Austria and Russia are at war. Fallmerayer fights on the eastern front, kept alive by his resolve to see the countess again. In his spare time he teaches himself Russian. Sure enough, one day he finds himself in the vicinity of the Walewski estate. He announces himself; he and the countess become lovers.

Their idyll is interrupted by the Bolshevik Revolution. Fallmerayer saves the countess from the Reds and escorts her across the seas to the safety of the Walewski villa in Monte Carlo. But just when their happiness seems assured, Count Walewski, whom they had thought dead, reappears. Old and crippled, he demands to be taken care of. His wife cannot refuse. Fallmerayer sums up the situation and without a word walks out. “Nothing has ever been heard of him since.”

Roth’s feel for what can and what cannot be achieved in the short story form is sure. To the eye of a novelist—Tolstoy, for instance, whose impress is detectable not only on this story but on the just completed Radetzky March —the sequence of events from the first meeting of the stationmaster and the countess to the arrival of the count might seem merely to set the stage for the real question: What will a middle-aged Austrian who has abandoned family and country to follow a woman, and now finds himself adrift in postwar Europe, do with his life? Roth does not even broach the question. Without denying the power of love, even of amour fou, to make us into fuller human beings, he takes Fallmerayer to the brink of the what next? and leaves him there.

The Bust of the Emperor” (1935) belongs squarely to Roth’s ultraconservative phase. Set in Galicia immediately after the World War, it concerns the quixotic Count Franz Xaver Morstin, who, despite the fact that his homeland now belongs to Poland, keeps a bust of Emperor Franz Joseph in front of his residence and goes around in the uniform of an Austrian cavalry officer. The story is told by an unnamed narrator who takes it as his task to commemorate this obscure, low-key protest against the course of history.

The narrator wastes no time in giving us his opinion of modern times. In the course of the nineteenth century, he observes caustically, it was discovered that “every individual had to be a member of a particular race or nation”:

All those people who had never been anything other than Austrians…began, in compliance with the “order of the day,” to call themselves part of the Polish, the Czech, the Ukrainian, the German, the Romanian, the Slovenian, the Croatian “nation.”

Among the few who continued to regard themselves as “beyond nationality” was Count Morstin.

Before the war the count used to have some kind of social role as mediator between the local people and the state bureaucracy. Now he is without power or influence. Yet the villagers—Jews, Poles, Ruthenians—continue to respect him. These folk are to be commended, advises the narrator, for resisting “the incomprehensible caprices of world history.” “The wide world is not so very different from the little village of Lopatyny as the leaders and the demagogues would have us believe,” he adds darkly.

Commanded by the new Polish authorities to remove the bust of the Emperor, Morstin supervises its solemn burial. Then he retires to the south of France to live out his days and write his memoirs. “My former home, the monarchy,…was a large house with many doors and many rooms for many different kinds of people,” he writes. “This house has been divided, broken up, ruined. I have no business with what is there now. I am used to living in a house, not in cabins.”

Works like “The Bust of the Emperor” and The Emperor’s Tomb are conservative not only in political outlook but in literary technique. Roth is not a modernist. Part of the reason is ideological, part temperamental, part, frankly, the fact that he did not keep up with developments in the literary world. Roth did not read much; he liked to quote Karl Kraus: “A writer who spends his time reading is like a waiter who spends his time eating.”

The Leviathan” (1940) is an entirely different kind of story. Gone is Roth’s reticence about his Ostjude origins. Set not in Galicia but in neighboring Volhynia, in the Russian Empire, it is expansive, lyrical in tone, folkloric in manner. At its center is the Jew Nissen Piczenik, who, despite making a living selling coral beads to Ukrainian peasant women, has never seen the sea. In the ocean of his imagination all living things, including the corals, are watched over by a fabulous beast, the Leviathan of Holy Scripture.

Piczenik makes friends with a young sailor, begins to visit taverns with him and miss prayers. He forsakes his family to go to Odessa with his new friend, and stays there for weeks, fascinated with port life. Back home, he finds he is losing trade to a rival who sells newfangled celluloid beads. Yielding to temptation, he begins to mix celluloid beads with the coral; but even this does not restore his fortunes. He decides to emigrate. En route to Canada his ship sinks. “May he rest in peace beside the Leviathan until the coming of the Messiah,” run the last words of this most Jewish of Roth’s stories.

Stationmaster Fallmerayer,” “The Bust of the Emperor,” and “The Leviathan” are works of Roth’s mature years. The earlier pieces in The Collected Stories are a miscellaneous lot, including humdrum pieces of naturalism, failed experiments, and abandoned fragments. Among the completed stories, two stand out. “The Honors Student” of 1916 is a remarkably confident debut. Set in small-town German Austria, it follows with a satirical eye the rise of Anton Wanzl, the honors student of the title, zealous, disciplined, obsequious, cunning—a being perfectly adapted to get ahead in the educational bureaucracy. Like many of Roth’s stories, however, it starts off full of ideas and energy, then loses its way and tails off.

The Wanzl character is reworked some fifteen years later, in a first-person narrative entitled “Youth.” The speaker comes across as cold-hearted, cynical, sensual yet mean with his emotions, excelling in literary study yet a stranger to the passions that animate great literature. “Youth” scarcely pretends to be fiction: we seem to be reading a mordant, barely veiled piece of self-analysis on Roth’s part.

The Blind Mirror” (1925) is the story of a rather ordinary, dreamy, submissive, sexually naive working-class girl, a süße Mädel in Viennese parlance. Here Roth goes in for a pastiche of novelette style, mitigating syrupy sentiment with ironic touches and flashes of dark poetry. Fini works in a city office and lives in cramped quarters with a persecutory mother and a father invalided out of the army. Seduced by an older man, she soon finds how little relief there is in quasi-marital life with a lover who doesn’t wash, wears slippers around the house, forgets to button his fly:

Once a week, or maybe twice, they had congress on the studio sofa, a miserable surrender, silent and accompanied by silent weeping, like the desperate birthday celebrations of a terminal patient.

Belatedly Fini finds true love in the arms of a dashing revolutionary. When her lover disappears, she drowns herself. This uneasy mixture of parody, sentiment, and urban realism ends with the girl’s corpse in a medical school, on a dissecting table.

In his letters of the 1920s Roth keeps mentioning a large-scale novel he is working on. The novel never got written; all that is left are two fragments, reprinted here—strings of anecdotes, fantastic in character and dotted with striking imagery, based on his early years in Galicia. Later Roth transposed this material into a darker key and used it in a powerful short novel, Das falsche Gewicht (False Weight, translated into English as Weights and Measures), another work in which a man finds love too late in life to be able to enjoy it.


Michael Hofmann has translated Roth before, and has won prizes for his translations. Hofmann’s English is as expressive, poised, and precise as Roth’s German at its best. However, Roth did not always write as well as he could, and what Hofmann does when Roth is at less than top form is cause for concern.

In “The Leviathan,” for instance, Roth writes of a “long nightshirt, sprinkled with a number of irregular black spots, evidences of fleas.” Hofmann condenses this to a “long flea-spotted nightgown.” In the same story Nissen Piczenik the coral merchant is greeted by his customers “with embraces and kisses, laughing and crying, as if in him they were recovering a friend decades-long not seen, and long missed” (Roth). In Hofmann he is greeted “with embraces and kisses, like a long-lost friend.” In both cases Hofmann seems to have decided that he can better render Roth’s meaning by recasting or condensing the text than by translating every word. But is it part of a translator’s job to give his author lessons in economy?

On occasion Hofmann improves on Roth to the point of rewriting him. In Hofmann we read of a pair of copper samovars “burnished by the setting sun.” To burnish metal is to polish it, to make it shine. Inside the word “burnish,” by a neat linguistic accident, lies the word “burn”—the copper shines because of the burning heat of the sun, so to speak. Any objection that English burnish derives from French brunir, to polish, which has nothing to do with burning, can be brushed aside: it turns out that burn- and brun- words are tangled at the root in their Indo-European past. The only trouble is that none of this verbal ingenuity is to be found in Roth, in whose German the sun is merely reflected (spiegelte sich) in the samovars.

Sometimes Hofmann seems to nudge Roth in a direction in which Roth is not actually going: the pressure of a man’s fingers on a girl’s arm is “insistent” when in the original it is merely soft. Sometimes, on the other hand, he misses a telling emphasis. To the narrator of “The Bust of the Emperor,” the generation that inherited power in Europe after 1918 was bad enough, but not as bad as (in Hofmann’s version) “the still more progressive and murderous inheritors” who succeeded it—a clear allusion to Mussolini, Hitler, and their cohort. But how can fascists be called progressive? In the German the word is moderneren, more modern: to Roth in his late phase, the modern line of thought that gave birth to the European nation-state also sanctioned the ethnic hatreds that would lead Europe to catastrophe.

Hofmann is British, and now and again uses British locutions whose meaning may escape the American reader. A young man plans to “see off” a rival for the affections of a girl (to drive him off the scene). One girl asks another whether she has “been poorly yet” (had her period). Someone “havers” (hesitates) at the door of a hospital. Just as there is a case to be made for translating into the dialect of English that the translator commands most vividly, there is a contrary case to be made for using as linguistically neutral, as mid-Atlantic, a dialect as possible.

  1. 1

    London: Chatto and Windus, 1989.

  2. 2

    Overlook Press, 1992.

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