July 2013

Nicholas Vajifdar

The Forgotten Twentieth Century

But What Would the Donkey Think?: On Rebellion by Joseph Roth

When a critic praises a novel for its empathy I have to confess to a little pang of suspicion. That line from William James swims back to me: "The weeping of the Russian lady over the fictitious personages in the play, while her coachman is freezing to death on his seat outside..." If a rich celebrity plays Jean Valjean, the moral becomes that when a rich celebrity begs for bread in the cold fields of France that he and his bleached smile deserve a brief squirt of tears; meanwhile, the scabrous bum with halitosis, limping toward the liquor store, seems only to dilute the purer and more facile forms of pity.

What the damned league of scribbling empathizers omit from their world picture is the essential ridiculousness that hangs over even, or especially, the most moral and deserving people. One of the things that most infuriates readers about King Lear (along with the suggestion that we should forgive bad fathers) is Cordelia's decision not to flatter Lear in his baffling contest in scene one. Few other decisions agree less with the temper of our times, when the adjective “smart” is enough to end a conversation about someone’s worth. Cordelia is wise, but not smart. Even regarded sympathetically, Cordelia’s precise motive remains shrouded in mists. It’s difficult to say just why, in a world where flattery is not only helpful but necessary, that it seems moral for Cordelia to refrain from buttering up her father at the cost of her safety and life. But the core, infuriating point remains: being good makes you look stupid.

Few writers have fused compassion with a feel for the ridiculous as well as did Joseph Roth, the German-language writer of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who drank himself to death in 1939. The trick to his fusion is that the narrative doesn't swing from funny scene to sad scene, alternatingly like Dickens at his clumsiest. Instead every incident -- often a single sentence -- is at the same time hilarious and sad and terrifying. Like real people (think of the last dozen people you shook hands with), his characters are convinced of their own importance and inflate their petty concerns to a cosmic struggle between good and evil. They are quick to take offense and often spend hours every day making delusional plans for their future happiness, receding in front of them like a mirage. Though they coat their speech with an absolving irony, they treat their own selfishness with something close to reverence. They judge others not by their inherent worth but by their social position; they scheme and laze about; their basic hallmark is pride. This is what makes them hilarious. But they are also touching, not in spite of, but because of their ridiculousness. They are also terrifying because you get the creeping sensation that Roth is describing you -- not the person one chair over, but you -- and this outstrips any slasher movie for sheer terror. God, if assigned human perception, probably sees us as Joseph Roth characters.

Consider what another, lesser writer would have done with this premise: a soldier returns from the Great War, missing a leg. He attempts to reintegrate into Viennese society, to find love and money, and then after being charged with a petty offense beyond his control spends time in prison and ends his life as an incompetent lavatory attendant. Solemnity practically emanates off of this, the skeleton plot of Rebellion, an early novella of Roth’s. And the darker aspects of the solder’s homecoming -- the protagonist Andreas Pum has lost his leg -- are not overlooked. Like Philip Carey in Of Human Bondage, Andreas learns that people are remarkably tolerant of his disability so long as he remains useful to them; but the moment he makes some sort of mistake, however small, the word “cripple” is quick to come out. But only a few pages are necessary to show how small a part solemnity plays in Roth’s treatment of the common plot of soldier’s homecoming. (Solemnity -- the worst trait in fiction, but how often do we find it covering the pages of dull novels like mold? It might be that solemnity is a symptom of narcissism or weakness of the imagination since in real, three-dimensional life it’s rare to find a uniformly solemn occasion; someone always smirks in the back row.)

We meet our returning soldier, Andreas Pum, as he’s forming a theory on the discontent of his fellow amputees, who have the guff to feel bitter toward the government. While waiting for his pension and discharge, Andreas has a flash of rhetorical genius and decides to call them "heathens":

Andreas Pum was highly delighted with his notion of "heathens." The word satisfied him; it answered his swirling questions and solved many riddles. It absolved him of the necessity of continuing to reflect and to think about the others. Andreas was happy with his word. At the same time, it gave him a feeling of superiority to his comrades chattering away on other benches. Some of them were more badly hurt and had no medals. [Andreas himself has been decorated for the loss of his leg.]

Anyone who finds this psychologically crude should visit the Huffington Post or else follow any link on Drudge Report and scroll down to the comments section. There you'll find a Heraclitean river of pretentious bathroom graffiti and the shouting of names a thousand times less clever than "heathens." Yet as usual with Roth, Andreas does not serve as a scapegoat for the reader, a garbage boat of blame -- it’s the very eagerness of Andreas to blame others that makes him so, as they say, "relatable." (Funny how characters become "relatable," in the Amazon customer review sense of the word, only insofar as they're charismatic and correct about everything, eh?)

On the other hand, there is something undeniably crude, artistically, about this passage and about the book in general. The thoughts of Andreas are transmitted directly, without coy hinting, and the irony is of the sledgehammer variety. What’s strange is how little this matters. Elif Batuman was onto something when she mocked "'good writing' as a matter of lucidity, striking word combinations, evocative descriptions, inventive metaphors, smooth transitions and avoidance of word repetition"; Batuman arrived at "the counterintuitive but real disjuncture between good writing and good books." Roth’s psychological insight and his invention of scenes to convey it concisely, rather than any careful avoidance of errors of “craft,” are what make the book so fascinating.

Craft -- what a weird thing to crave in a book, with its implications of wood-planing in suburban basements and of cranking out birdhouses with a Catholic fecundity. ("I was shocked to find some take the course in the same way as basketwork or karate," said Naipaul once about a Wesleyan writing workshop.) If there’s one thing I've noticed about my efficient countrymen, it’s their devotion to form over content, procedure over substance, and craft over whatever it is that makes a novel catch fire. “The supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring”; that was Joyce’s exhortation and a very different one it is from “Omit needless words.” A great piece of fiction cannot be a series of flawless sentences, conveyed past us mechanically like sushi platters. It has to be the result of a sort of frightening self-criticism, the result of which would be scenes like this: Andreas Pum has lost his prospects and is in the process of being abandoned by his wife. He spends a frigid night in a barn near his donkey, Mooli, who had been bought at his wife’s insistence to assist him in his work as an organ grinder:

It was a friendly animal that liked being stroked. Slowly and tenderly it raised a rear hoof, and it looked as though it were trying in its clumsy way to stroke Andreas… The more the night advanced, the colder it became. Andreas felt like whimpering, but he felt too ashamed to do so in front of the animal. His missing leg hurt him again, for the first time in a long time.

The essential talent of this novelist is not in turning out chiseled phrases so much as in his ability to notice that, even in the presence of a donkey, we retain our vanity; Roth gets this across in a single sentence. His whole talent is in that little donkey-fearing forbearance by Andreas: the hilarity, the pity, and the terror -- like the holy trinity, they are distinct facets of a single thing.

Like many Anglophones, I first came to Roth through The Radetzky March, a novel with a larger scope and cast of characters and with more obvious claims to historical importance. Radetzky is generally reckoned the masterpiece of Roth’s maturity, but I was startled to see how much of Rebellion is distinctly Roth, a flavor difficult to define but which is exemplified in that scene with Mooli the donkey. The fairy tale feeling is always present; though the events are contemporary, the reader often feels as if the narrative comes from the Thousand and One Nights. (“In days of yore and in times and tides long gone before, there dwelt in a certain town of Persia two brothers…”) This sheen of deific irony perhaps had its origins in personal disappointment. Roth, a Jew in a cosmopolitan Vienna, drank harder and harder as he watched a benign monarchy give way to disgusting nationalism. Roth, who began his life as a communist (like so many educated people), ended it as a monarchist in a world where monarchy was no longer feasible.

In the end, the Rebellion of the title is revealed to be the same as Ivan’s in the Brothers Karamazov -- a rebellion against God, against creation, against that haunting American bumper sticker, strangely insecure in its blunt insistence: LIFE IS GOOD. But in the Rothian bitterness there is always an ambiguity, as if everything might turn out all right in the end, at the very last moment -- as if to justify the ways of God to man requires first putting God on trial for crimes against humanity.

Roth ranks with the best novelists for his ability to make you say to yourself, at least a few times a year, This is just like a Joseph Roth novel. This occurs when life becomes suddenly weird, sad, and hilarious -- when you start worrying what a donkey thinks about you, or whatever the equivalent is in your life.