Six to eight months, that is how long it takes for a reading project to wear me down. I do not know why my course of Austrian reading has taken me to the periphery of the empire. A signal that I am winding it up, I guess.
So two books from semi-Austrians. Colonial writers, like Rudyard Kipling. Gregor von Rezzori tomorrow; Joseph Roth today, with Job (1930).
Job is about a teacher and his family, Galician Jews. The novel begins circa 1905, and as readers of S. Ansky’s 1925 The Destruction of Galicia, or perhaps some other book, know, the region will become the front line between Austria and Russia during World War I, leading to horror and atrocity. The title tells us what else the book is about. The teacher, Mendel Singer, will have his faith tested when he loses everything he values, perhaps because of the war, although something will be restored in the end. At some point after the loss friends will stop by to offer cold, fallacious comfort.
Roth surprised me by using the first half of the short novel to move the family through ordinary Jewish life. A few Modernist touches aside (like a sudden shift in perspective), I could have believed that the novel had been written in Yiddish by a disciple of Sholem Aleichem. An even greater surprise: halfway through, most of the family emigrate to New York City. Roth’s New York is more abstract than his Galician village, more the product of books or film; nevertheless it can look like this:
Then he saw for the first time the American night from up close, the reddened sky, the flaming, sparkling, dripping, glowing, red, blue, green, silver, golden letters, pictures and signs. He heard the noisy song of America, the honking, the tooting, the roaring, the ringing, the screeching, the creaking, the whistling and the howling. Opposite the window on which Mendel was leaning appeared every five seconds the broad laughing face of a girl, composed entirely of sprayed sparks and points… It was an advertisement for a new soda. Mendel admired it as the most perfect representation of the night’s happiness and of golden health. (198-9)
Given that the book is only 204 pages long, this Whitmanian celebration of a neon billboard must come after the miracle.
One more sample, in the category of good metaphorical writing:
Soon a window was opened here and there, the busts of the neighbor women became visible, they hung red and white bedding and naked, yellowish, skinned pillows form the windows. (141)
I do not want to say anything about the story except that it is so sad, the saddest book I have read in a long time, even with the return of God’s favor at the end. The profound subtheme that runs through Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman stories is Tevye’s lifelong argument with his God. In Job, Roth continues and updates the argument.
Ross Benjamin translated the book.