Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Masculine Feminine and a Few Stories by Joseph Roth

I was reading this interview of British novelist Zoe Heller about Joseph Roth's The Radetzky March and was amused by this comment:


Ultimately, though, these questions about Roth's themes and vision and so on, makes me realize how little my enjoyment of this book has to do with its big ideas. To be honest, I'm much less compelled by Roth's final judgment on the Ancien Regime, or his views on modern Europe, or his ruminations on Fate, than I am by his descriptions of faces and shoes and villages. I don't think this is a distinctively female response to the book or anything like that.

and then she says:
I just think Roth is a better, more interesting writer when he's describing the details, the texture, of life, than when he's giving us grand asides about life's dramatic ironies.

Curiously I felt exactly the opposite. I think my response to the book was "masculine"? Roth is good at describing the sight and sound and the texture of life but he is no Nabokov, or Chekhov or Tolstoy. It is only when he makes his ideas clear that the his details become weightier and complex and meaningful.

I just finished reading a few of his shorter works. The one I liked best was The Bust of the Emperor. It is a beautiful and very moving story about a man and his protests against the arbitrary and cruel tides of history. Franz Xaver belongs the polish nobility in a small town in Galicia (now in Ukraine). Before the war he helped out the poor and the needy in his village by mediating with the state bureaucracy but after the dissolution of the empire he is reduced to a status of nobody. He resists this by mounting a bust of the dead emperor in front of his house and going about the village in the dress of the Austrian regiment. After the polish authorities threaten him he finally relents and supervises a solemn burial of the bust. He quotes an Austrian poet Grillparzer who said, "From Humanity via nationalism to bestiality" and this sums up his entire political philosophy.

Fallmerayer the Statiomaster is another wonderful story of doomed love set in the interiors of eastern europe during the first world war and the bolshevik revolution. J M Coetzee has called it a "masterwork" with which I can't agree more. It is just thirty pages long but it feels weightier. It is interesting, just as in Radetzky March where he spells 'Death' with a capital 'D' at a few times in the story he spells 'Fate' with a capital 'F'. And just as in his great novel the feeling of the presence of a dark, malign force hurtling everything towards doom and destruction is always there, almost in each and every sentence he writes.

The other novella in the collection, Hotel Savoy though much longer is not as impressive. It is still a very evocative portrait of a central and east European life between the wars when people had to choose whether to migrate westward or to continue living in a limbo. The novella is a little dull initially but after some time it becomes clear that the Hotel Savoy is not really a hotel but a microcosm of entire life in eastern europe at that time itself. Here's a nice write-up on it.

17 comments:

Antonia said...

that's very interesting, the question whether Roth was good at the big ideas or with the details. I can't say about the details & remember when reading him that he could describe scenes in a way as if one really is there, especially outdoor scenes, something I found similarly only in Thomas Hardy...I would say he was backwardly good at the big ideas, somehow, by indirect characterization and at once the big picture unfolded itself....but it is along time ago that I read Roth...I really like his style, so unpretentious.

Alok said...

It is actually very interesting. I used to once like writers who were good at describing textures and surface of things in poetic prose but who didn't have much to say on big things and ideas. But now I get bored with those kinds, and that's my grouse with most of the contemporary fiction too (in so far i have read) specially written by the younger writers. they all look like as if they went to the same creative writing school, for them good writing means inventing clever metaphors. i generally get bored with these types of books.

i think literature is a very effective way of tackling those big questions and in this way it is another way of doing philosophy and I like writers who do that. Of course great writers, Proust is perhaps one of the greatest, do both equally well. write awe-inspriring descriptive prose and also tackle big questions in serious and extremely complex ways.

Antonia said...

I agree with you, alok, those superficial writers I don't like as well - a certain sort of authenticity, no fear to tackle the big questions of the human condition, that's the style it takes and the style mostly follows from the question the writer asks or the topic he deals with and then nothing can go wrong...except of course going to such a writing school...

Cheshire Cat said...

I don't know about Roth, but that Coetzee review and the Hofmann response were both hilarious.

"Youth scarcely pretends to be fiction: we seem to be reading a mordant, barely veiled piece of self-analysis on Roth's part."

"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."

I can't decide if Coetzee just has an extraordinarily sophisticated sense of humor, or none at all. A bit of both, I guess...

Alok said...

oh i am always amused by a fine display of pedantry :) i can't say what goes on in a pedant's mind though when he is indulging in it ...

and this for example. the name of the russian woman in the fallmarayer story is spelled "Walewska"...

"an irritating feature of these translations is that German conventions are used to transliterate Russian words"

I think it is a slightly harsh review. Coetzee doesn't really like him...

"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.""

Cheshire Cat said...

Yes, I think Coetzee's coldness and impersonality are easily interpreted as harshness. It's hard to tell what his exact feelings are towards Roth, but Hofmann certainly detects a hostility, hence the lugubrious response...

Alok said...

even his other reviews and essays read more like academic appreciations rather than something written by a fellow novelist. his essay collection Stranger Shores is quite impressive btw. there is a similarly pedantic essay on translating kafka in it!

Cheshire Cat said...

Coetzee anecdote

"confrontationally aloof" :)

Should try to get "Stranger Shores"...

Alok said...

haha.. that was hilarious. I loved that word "basking" too :)

"Coetzee basking / icily across from you at the faculty table"

this is also interesting...

"JM Coetzee (...) approaches works of literature in rather the same spirit that a government nutritional scientist might approach a plate of roast beef and root vegetables. What exactly is the calorific value of these items ? And the fat content ? How much flour was added to the gravy ?" - D.J.Taylor, New Statesman

Cheshire Cat said...

"The collection also suffers from Mr.Coetzee's preferred critical tone, which is dry tending to arid."

And who says this? The Economist. The Economist!!

So many laughs today at the Nobel Laureate's expense :)

jyothsnay said...

Interesting post Alok...this certainly made my pause more rejuvenated an experience. In the beginning I was humbled by, let me say, overwhelmed by deeply felt pathos of not having read Roth till date, but as the journey progressed, I met a familiar figure, almost like a cocoon,Coetzee, my dear old man with his critical eye over there to entertain me again....
my first ever briefest exposure to Roth has been reinforced by this..."I sketch the features of the age..." absolutely unparalleled a statement!
Loved reading his touch on "Stationmaster Fallmerayer"..ah the brave-heart writhing in sweet a pain of being in love, what a pain that makes one impregnable to any kind of unpleasant development life throws at it..
that hapless girl's rendezvous or shall I say romantic interlude in "The Blind Mirror" reflects dreamy escapades one enjoys far away from the reality, however brief it could be..*my interpretation!
Nothing else could match both the fervor and intensity with which he depicted the wide chasm between the author/original thinker and the *interpreter...Hofmann!phew, what a flea. I am surprised to realise a writer's inability to read through the original author's wavelength and to understand what the author wants to convey or delineated the landscape..then I say he is just doing the job of a reader who is able to translate.
certain instances, I see this as an effort to "contemporise" the tonality of original work, rather than economising...where he failed is to grasp hold of the gist/essence! it's like a journey into many a string of words, indulging in a mere scratch on the surface without dwelling much into the character,the emotional experience enveloped around it and the influence of external world in the story....sad!
but the clincher is :
....."A writer who spends his time reading is like a waiter who spends his time eating."....I am happy to learn this...cause, I may be a midget, but I attempt my hand in writing!
thank you...for enabling me to breathe life into my pause..Jyo

Alok said...

cat: yeah. and from that sentence itself i can guess the tone of the economist's review. "dry tending to arid" hehehe :)

jyothsna:i think coetzee was being critical of that comment about writers not reading other's people works. i think young people should concentrate their energies more on reading, learning and gathering experiences rather than necessarily writing. i generally avoid reading what young people (people under 40) think :)

and when we were talking of dry and arid style here comes your comment with so many words! regarding that translation, i think Coetzee was being unduly harsh and pedantic. you should give translators some respect and freedom to do things their own way.

Cheshire Cat said...

The Kraus quote has an interesting ambiguity to it. "The writer who spends his time reading is like the waiter who spends his time eating." By extension, the writer's function is to serve the reader. I can't help thinking that most writers would be offended by the simile, even if not by the sentiment that inspired it...

Alok said...

yes, that's true. I hadn't thought about it this way. most writers if asked often answer that they write for themselves or at best for an imaginary, ideal reader. the waiter simile will definitely not work there!!

jyothsnay said...

Alok:
ignoring ur comment on the longevity aspect....
just going beyond ur interpretation of coetzee's criticism "young writers should read into and comprhend what the original thinkers have said...sure, the young writer can bring in the contemporariness, his interpretation, the relatability factor while not disturbing the stream of original thought...the tonality of emotions captured over there.."
why does one shy away from the critical eye?
why do we writers or non-writers still consume original/classic literature?why do we still thrive on established thougths n phils, n end up having glamorous egdes to
the work, which seems shallow, devoid of any kind of deeply felt experiences?
under 40 or over 40...is baseless. u meant after 40 people develop the ability to experience life? I negate you...introspective eye over life can develop anytime..it's just that most of us stopped living, stopped letting selves to experience life in its loveliest n most bitter hues..we sit comfortably in-doors n "exist"
-----
....The writer who spends his time reading is like the waiter who spends his time eating...
well, many an interpretation can be drawn..if we cross that word to word or part to part interpretation,it could be seen as
"the writer should experience life through interacting...the server moves around, talks to people, interact with them, develop certain familiarity..that's what we call human experience..it's not just serving food to table 1 or 3 or 5..."
similarly writers have to step out, feel n touch (please not in literal sense) the human factor, weave his imaginary world afer absorbing the world, in his own unique style...
watch AMELIE folks....study the character.that's life!

Alok said...

40 was just a random number. It is just that i value maturity, depth and analytical insights far more than energy or enthusiasm or verve when reading a work of literature and that generally comes only with age, after one has gone through the usual cycles of life and is able to distance and detach oneself from life. of course there have always been precocious talents. thomas mann wrote buddenbrooks before he was 25! incidentally there are far too many good young poets than good young novelists....

and I HATE Amelie. It is syrupy, sentimental, sweet and shallow.

Morwenna said...

People should read this.