"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

January 4, 2013

"Legend of the Holy Drinker" by Joseph Roth (Best Novellas)

When watching the New Year Concert from Vienna on TV this week, I was reminded that Strauss' polkas and waltzes formed the popular music of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while his marches were played by the imperial army bands. That Empire, governed from the "musical" capital of Vienna, consisted of Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Czech, northeastern parts of Italy, Romania, Croatia, Bosnia, parts of Ukraine and Poland, etc. It was a truly multinational state, and that was also its problem, as the second half of the 19th c. was a period of rising national consciousness - the Double Monarchy came to be regarded as a "prison of nations." As long as it lasted, it was the second largest country in Europe (after Russia) and the third most populous (after Russia and Germany).

The First World War was caused by an act of Bosnian-Serbian terrorism against the Habsburg crown prince. Austria-Hungary immediately declared war on Serbia, which was joined by Russia and later Italy. Although the Western front, opened by ally Germany against France (joined by the U.K. and later the U.S.) became more "famous" because of the terrible trench warfare, there was also this eastern front, the origin of the whole war, which led to the synchronous demise of the two main participants, the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires. The large multinational state fell apart and only its core, the small country Austria with Vienna as a sort of water head, remained.

Those who were most negatively affected by this desintegration, were the two million Jews living in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They had no national affiliation and felt at home in the multinational empire, where they thrived and were able to come to good positions in the army, in medicine, science and in music. But after 1918, in the small nation states, Antisemitism became virulent.

This rambling preamble brings me to my topic: the author Joseph Roth (1894-1939) and his novella The Legend of the Holy Drinker. Roth grew up as the son of a Jewish family in Brody, at the easternmost reaches of the Empire. He studied in Vienna and was devastated by the end of his country, which came when he was in his mid-twenties: "My strongest experience was the War and the destruction of my fatherland, the only one I ever had, the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary."

Roth started writing for newspapers and in 1922 moved to Berlin, to work for the "Neue Berliner Zeitung." He also started writing fiction. His greatest achievement is generally considered to be the novel Radetzky March (1932), which tells of the flourishing and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire seen through the fate of one family.

After Hitler came to power, Roth fled from Germany to Paris, where he continued writing during the thirties  until his death (brought on by alcoholism) in 1939. He wrote about 20 novels and a number of short stories; his collected works consist of six volumes, of which half is journalism.

The Legend of the Holy Drinker ("Die Legende vom heiligen Trinker", 1939) was Roth's last work, published posthumously in Amsterdam. It is a secular miracle-tale, a self-ironic fable into which Roth transformed his personal tragedy. Set in Paris, it follows a drunken vagrant, Andreas, a Polish miner who had come to France to work in the mines, but has lost his job due to trouble. Now he tramps through Paris without any papers, living under the Seine bridges like a true clochard. Then he has a series of lucky breaks that let him briefly taste of another life. A stranger gives him 200 francs and asks him to repay these, if he can, to the shrine of St. Theresa. As an honorable man, Andreas indeed tries to do so, but he is continually sidetracked - he either spends the money on wine and Pernod, or on lovemaking and a hotel room. But each time he runs out of cash, more is provided by another miracle... And in the end, Andreas repays the debt with his life in a beautiful epiphany. Convinced in his befuddled state that a little girl called Therese he encounters in a bar is Saint Therese, he drops dead at her feet with just the right amount of money in his pocket.

Roth himself seems to have been the most prodigious dinker of his time, but there is nothing of the alcoholic about this story written in a beautiful inspired and elegant style. The story is dry-eyed and witty, rather than sentimental. It is also full of innocence, an improbable twinkle of sweet light in the gathering darkness of Fascism. The Legend of the Holy Drinker is generally considered Roth's best novella, second only to the novel The Radetzky March - about which another time.

My attention was drawn to Joseph Roth by an essay of J.M. Coetzee in Inner Workings. I read the novella in the German complete works which are hosted at Archive.org). Many of Roth's novels and stories have been expertly translated into English by Michael Hofmann and others and published by Granta (here is "The Legend of the Holy Drinker").

Best Novellas

Banville: The Newton Letter   Bioy Casares: The Invention of Morel   Bulgakov: A Dog's Heart   Byatt: Morpho Eugenia   Carr: A Month in the Country   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Chekhov: The Duel   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Elsschot: Cheese   Flaubert: A Simple Soul   Gotthelf: The Black Spider   Kafka: The Metamorphosis   Maupassant: Boule de Suif   McEwan: The Comfort of Strangers   McEwan: On Chesil Beach   Nabokov: The Eye   Nerval: Sylvie   Nescio: Amsterdam Stories   Nooteboom: The Following Story   Roth: The Legend of the Holy Drinker   Schnitzler: Dream Story   Storm: The Rider on the White Horse   Turgenev: Clara Militch   Turgenev: Torrents of Spring   Voltaire: Candide   Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau