May 2013

Christopher Merkel

Unamerican

The Story of a Bourgeois

"It was ambition." Plain and simple. And that, plainly and simply, is how Naphtali Kroj describes Henriette's decision to leave the employ of the Perlefter household in Vienna in order to marry a wealthy widower living in the countryside. Like the Perlefter children, she could be forgiven her dalliances, so long as she remembered what was ultimately important. As Alexander Perlefter says himself with regard to Frau Kempen finding a suitable match for his daughter Karoline: "You need to treat this like a business." Plain and simple. And that household ethos had apparently rubbed off on the domestics. No more chimneysweeps for Henriette. "She was attracted by the large farm and the role she would play in her village." And so she sewed her trousseau -- and then started waiting for her new husband to die.

Perlefter: The Story of a Bourgeois is exactly that -- and nothing more. Its narrator, Naphtali Kroj, is a man from a small, provincial and predominantly Jewish town who has gone to Vienna to live with Herr Perlefter, a rich relative who runs a large timber business. Kroj has an education, which doesn't really suit him to taking the reins of the coach from his dead (coachman) father. From his vantage within the Perlefter household, Kroj describes Perlefter and his family.

And the story that emerges is hardly even a story, which is to say that it's really nothing more than the story of a typical early twentieth century Austrian bourgeois, plain and simple. Perlefter exemplifies his social condition, but he's nonetheless not exemplary. Kroj remarks early that the name Alexander doesn't suit him. Any name that would correctly name Perlefter would be "indecipherable and thus unusual, of an extraordinary ordinariness," and, "unfortunately... such a word does not exist." So Kroj compensates with details and anecdotes. A timber business. The coffin business. The Moderate Party. The Moderate Party Club. Cooption of the arts. Wife, children, domestics, in-laws, and some less successful distant relations. And that's it. Slip into a good suit and develop a banal social talent. The story of Alexander Perlefter the bourgeois in Perlefter is obviously intended ironically, but it's straightforward in as much, as well as more or less simply linearly expository.

The problem is that what Kroj tells us isn't exactly the whole story. Perlefter was never finished. Joseph Roth began writing the book in 1928 and then abandoned it in 1930. The Perlefter manuscript was discovered well after Roth's death from drink in 1939 and was published for the first time in German in 1978. Now, continuing a trend of renewed interest in its author since the late twentieth century, the incomplete story has been translated by Richard Panchyk and is available for the first time in English.

That was my problem, anyway. Joseph Roth has been widely enough published and translated, as well as well enough acclaimed, to warrant an unfinished work of his being published (and translated). Perlefter is, in fact, the second unfinished work by Joseph Roth to appear in English. But as it happened, Perlefter was also my introduction to its author's oeuvre, and, to put it plainly, I didn't find much of anything in it that I thought shored up its author's tremendous reputation. It isn't poorly written, and the translation reads well (except through occasional passages where the original seems obviously to have been bumpy or neglected). But as Richard Panchyk acknowledges in his introduction, Perlefter isn't so much a plot-driven novel as an extended character study. And as it is, it isn't boring, but neither is it especially entertaining or its satire particularly profound. Knowing nothing else of the life or of the work of Joseph Roth, I read Richard Panchyk's translation of Perlefter and found myself at a loss.

Not that a book shouldn't stand to criticism outside of the context of its author's biography or his or her other works, but I hesitated to be too immediately critical of Perlefter because it was plainly incomplete, and because the author himself hadn't sought its publication. Perlefter was what it was. But for what it was worth (or might be), I held off passing complete judgment. Was I underwhelmed simply by Perlefter or by Joseph Roth?

So I committed myself to reading something else -- and my choice wasn't difficult because the closest library only had The Radetsky March, which Roth wrote in 1932 and which might be his best known work. And that, I realized upon reading it, was for good reason. If the story of the bourgeois Alexander Perlefter bordered on caricature (or, perhaps worse, never manifested beyond a guileless if elaborate sketch), then the style and the story of The Radetsky March were equivalently cultivated -- although never precious or overblown. "The Trottas were a young dynasty," it begins. "Their progenitor had been knighted after the Battle of Solferino. He was a Slovene... Fate had elected him for a special deed. But he then made sure that later times lost all memory of him." And The Radetsky March follows the progeny of the Hero of Solferino from the Hero's salvation of the Emperor on the battlefield in 1859 through the final decades of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the outbreak of World War I.

Since the story at hand shouldn't stray too far in its focus from the story of Alexander Perlefter the bourgeois, I won't elaborate too extensively on the Trottas. But The Radetsky March is certainly worthy of Joseph Roth's reputation -- as well as having been significantly responsible for it. The Radetsky March is a sweeping saga of sober lyricism, longing, and portentous decline. Its scenes of both town and country are captured impressionistically, and its collections of images and modulations of tenses are steadily underscored by the music of birdsong or military bands. Throughout his tribulations, the attendant ministrations of the throne and everyone's advance together toward their collective end, Carl Joseph, grandson of the Hero, is in constant recollection of bygone summers with his father at a small district town in Moravia, where the band of the local infantry regiment always seemed to be playing -- most memorably -- the titular song.

Of course, the style and the structure of The Radetsky March aren't categorically better or worthier than any alternative, neither for considering modern fiction in general or for evaluating the work of a single author, and the comparative simplicity of the style of Perlefter isn't a negative in itself. (What might have been its final structure is almost anyone's guess.) But that still doesn't deny that I'd desired more when I'd read Perlefter, or that I had a very solid sense of what might be desired of Joseph Roth once I'd established a basis for comparison, albeit only based on one other book. Perlefter is, of course, unfinished. And that should of course factor into any consideration of its standing as a piece of literature or as a piece of literature by Joseph Roth, although that same admission might only strengthen the case for the question of whether the work might have been better left abandoned.

From the time that he began writing Perlefter through the beginning of the 1930s, Joseph Roth appears to have undergone a peculiar sort of ideological shift, which was described for me in the introduction to The Radetsky March. His political sympathies in the 1920s were known to be with the left. He wasn't a Communist himself, but Communism and socialism were common themes in his writing. As political tides in Europe shifted, however, Roth appears to have shifted with them along a strange parallel. The author worked as a nomadic journalist for liberal newspapers headquartered in Vienna and Berlin until shortly before Hitler came to power in Germany. By 1933, when he moved himself to Paris, Roth had begun to deny his left wing past, and in response to the specter of Nazism had embraced a conservatism based in a nostalgia for the order of the old Austrian monarchy.

Perhaps Perlefter had been nothing more than an attempt by Joseph Roth at a satirical twist on socialist realism. Although its focus is on the story of what could only have been seen as a class criminal effigy, the one character in the book who seems to be somewhat happy, or even concerned with happiness as such, is the socialist organizer and decidedly unbourgeois Leo Bidak, a distant relative of Perlefter's for whom Perlefter has little if any use. The incomplete story of the bourgeois Alexander Perlefter ends as Bidak is about to entreat him for financial help.

Maybe Roth abandoned the project of Perlefter as he was abandoning what existed of his enthusiasm for the left. Or maybe Perlefter was a project inspired by a more general social realism without any specific political bent. Maybe Roth had planned a more elaborate structure. Had it been completed, maybe the story of Alexander Perlefter might have been fleshed out beyond its ironic window dressing and bones. Maybe Judaism would have gotten a wider treatment in a finished book (which I might have speculated with more urgency had I ended up reading Job). Or maybe it would have been better if we'd never been given cause to speculate.

Maybe the greatest irony of Perlefter is that I found its attempt at an ironic narrative of the life of a Viennese bourgeois to be kind of dull, but that its rather uninspired irony was the impetus for my feeling the need to read more of its author. Still, I don't think (I dare to not think) that world, German or Austrian literature would be worse off had it never been published or translated into English. Richard Panchyk may be specifically interested in translating Joseph Roth, but his skills and energies as a translator might have been more enlighteningly applied to a work other than this one. The irony of the question of what to translate is that a general dearth of literature in translation necessitates careful decision-making (the ideal of which is further complicated by marketability). The more the better, maybe, but more importantly the better the better, whatever that happens to mean to the decision makers.

What we have in Perlefter, however, is what we have. It's plain and it's simple, but it's also unfinished. I find it difficult to say much more. Maybe Joseph Roth ultimately abandoned the book because of the crisis he faced in the late twenties as a result of his wife's mental illness. Roth slowly drank himself to death. Biographically, Joseph Roth isn't without his similarities to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Too bad his story of a bourgeois isn't more like some of Fitzgerald's. Perlefter isn't nearly as entertaining as Fitzgerald's unfinished, posthumously published (and unmistakably flawed) The Love of the Last Tycoon. Maybe it's an American thing. But I don't think that Roth would take issue with the left field comparison. He was well known as an accomplished writer of feuilletons. It's just that I read Perlefter and was at a loss as to what to say. And why even say that so many times? Why, if I didn't like it, keep trying to plumb it for residual value. Simply because the author is renowned? Ha. Ha! I don't know. So maybe it was ambition.