Monday, June 02, 2008

Joseph Roth

Three Novellas by Joseph Roth is fiction from a point of view I had never read before. These stories reflect the sad longing of a man in the 1930's who wished the Austro-Hungarian Empire would reform and live again.

Joseph Roth (1894-1939) loved the Hapsburg Empire in which he was born and raised. In 1916 he volunteered to fight in what would later be called World War I. The war and the collapse of the Empire in 1918 had a profound effect on Roth; for the rest of his life he would think of himself as homeless.

In the 1920's he made a successful career in Berlin as journalist and novelist. The rise of the Nazis forced the Jewish Roth to move to Paris in 1933. There he lost interest in living and committed slow suicide by alcohol. Perhaps dying in 1939 was not a bad time for him to go; this nineteenth century man was spared the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust.

In "The Bust of the Emperor," the protagonist, Count Morstin, who surely speaks for the author, rails against nationalism and nation-states.

And all these people who had never been anything but Austrians, in Tarnopol, Sarajevo, Bruenn, Prague, Czernowitz, Oderburg or Troppau; all these who had never been anything but Austrian, began in accordance with the "Spirit of the Age" to look upon themselves as members of the Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, Roumanian, Slovenian and Croatian "nations," and so on and so forth.

It must seem reactionary from our contemporary point of view to pine for an Empire filled with officials in silly uniforms, an Empire that was a backward, atavistic remnant of the Middle Ages. And yet, I must think that something of value was also lost in the cataclysm of WWI. Both Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises wrote that it is impossible to express to people born later the benevolence and happiness of the world before WWI; I think that benevolence is really what Roth missed to the point that he no longer wished to live without it.

Count Morstin notes that there were no passports before WWI. Think of that -- a world without passports! No two-bit martinets demanding, "Papiere, bitte." It was also a world without major wars and without inflation. How is that worse than the totalitarianism that followed? How is that worse than Europe today with its vast welfare states and advancing dhimmitude?

Many readers will not like these three naturalistic stories -- "Fallmerayer the Stationmaster," "The Bust of the Emperor," and "The Legend of the Holy Drinker" -- about Austrians who, like their author, are out of step with the world and not entirely in touch with reality. The mysticism in these stories is not surprising, given that the author was an alcoholic who had given up on living in this world.

The heroes are not terribly heroic -- they are quixotic, almost comic men who cannot succeed in reality -- but they are all unwaveringly loyal to their ideals. I found their loyalty to their values quite moving, if sad and pathetic.

UPDATE: Corrected the German phrase, as per Wolfgang's comment.


Wolfgang said...

Did Roth really write: "Papieren, bitte!? In High German it would be proper to write: "Papiere, bitte! Maybe it is an Austrian dialect?

Myrhaf said...

No, he didn't write that, I did. It's my mistake! I'll correct it, thanks.

Anonymous said...

I would recommend, in addition to Roth's stories, the great Hungarian director Istvan Szabo's film "Sunshine" ( which shows in a powerful way what Roth writes about. I remember at the time of the film's release (1999 or so) that it was, in some ways, a history of Szabo's own family in Hungary from the turn of the 20th Century through the 1950s. What struck me most about the movie was precisely the benevolence of the pre WWI era that you (and Miss Rand and Dr. Mises) write of: it is a palpable presence throughout all the film's later events, many of which are positively horrific, and lingers long after one has left the theater. I was also struck by the . . . confusion . . . of so many of the film's critics and commentators, who were mystified by the sense of longing for the pre-WWI state of affairs that so clearly resonates in Szabo's story. I was not one of those: to go from Emperor Franz Joseph and the Strauss waltzes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the rise of Fascism and the Nazis to the Communists and their tanks rolling through the streets of Budapest and the 30 years of darkness that decended upon the country afterwards left no doubt in my mind, at least, what had been lost.

Myrhaf said...

Thank you. I will check that film out!

mike18xx said...

His other books: