Playing Depart

The Coral Merchant: Essential Stories by Joseph Roth, translated from German by Ruth Martin. London: Pushkin Press. 256 pages. $18.

The cover of The Coral Merchant: Essential Stories

“I PAINT THE PORTRAIT OF THE AGE,” the Austrian writer Joseph Roth proclaimed in a 1926 letter to his editor at the Frankfurter Zeitung. “I’m not a reporter, I’m a journalist,” he continued. “I’m not an editorial writer, I’m a poet.”

In the English-speaking world, Roth is most often canonized as a novelist. He is known primarily as the author of The Radetzky March, a 1932 saga about an Austrian dynasty rendered tragic—and ridiculous—by the collapse of the dual monarchy. During his own lifetime, however, Roth was better known as a writer of feuilletons, and even his longer works are rich with redolent miniatures. In Job, his 1930 chronicle of Galician Jewish life and perhaps his most extraordinary book, an angry woman stands “hissing as if filled with boiling water,” and clocks tolling sound like “great heavy spoons” striking “gigantic glasses.” A flabby man in The Emperor’s Tomb (1938) has a face like “dough that has failed to rise.” A woman’s tongue in Confession of a Murderer (1936) is “a red and venomous little animal.”

Likeness-mad, Roth churned out fictions and feuilletons at a fantastic pace, completing close to a novel a year for the last decade and a half of his life. He was as versatile as he was prolific. He wrote about everything: He reminisced about childhood escapades and opined about politics; he defended the Jews in the shtetl; he dashed off sketches of people he glimpsed on the train. With canny foresight he excoriated the Nazis—and with gentle irony he extolled the stately grandeur of the Hapsburgs, whose flaws he acknowledged but forgave.

Still, there are recurring fixtures, and many of them emerge and reemerge in The Coral Merchant, a new selection of Roth’s “essential stories” translated by Ruth Martin. The book bustles with Rothian hallmarks: impoverished Galician Jews steeped in small-town superstitions; noblemen with moldering estates on the margins of a crumbling empire; soldiers returning from the front to find the old world cratered; trains; hotels; broken or stopped clocks. Like each part of Austria-Hungary, each piece of Roth’s writing is at once reminiscent of and distinct from every other piece. In his 1935 story “The Bust of the Emperor,” he describes the empire as “a great house with many doors and many rooms, for many types of people”—yet one in which there is everywhere the same iconography, everywhere “the same coffeehouses” and the same soldiers “in the same blue uniform tunics.” The Hapsburg insignia that ornamented every train station and post office in the empire consisted of a “glittering double eagle”; the signature echoed in each region of Roth’s sprawling province is his style. The tightly compacted sketch—the snapshot bursting like an overstuffed suitcase—reigns everywhere supreme.

Though Roth’s Collected Stories were elegantly translated by Michael Hofmann in 2002, there is a case to be made for many of Martin’s divergences. To give just one example, the protagonist of “The Bust of the Emperor” is a Polish count who is “fast in allen europaïsche Ländern heimisch.” Hofmann’s English translation omits the word heimisch, “homelike,” and we end up with a count who knows “his way around most European countries.” But home is an important theme for Roth, and I prefer Martin’s rendition, according to which the count is “at home in almost all the countries of Europe.” Hofmann’s collection is excellent, graceful, and comprehensive: It amasses a range of Roth’s shorter fictions, including fragments of unfinished novels. But The Coral Merchant, too, serves a purpose in highlighting the more polished stories. Each contains not one but many portraits of the age.

Joseph Roth dressed in traditional Albanian clothing, 1927.
Joseph Roth dressed in traditional Albanian clothing, 1927. Center for Jewish History

ROTH ALSO PAINTED DIVERGING PORTRAITS OF HIMSELF, circulating a number of conflicting stories about his background. He lied about everything, including lying: “You’ve no need to tell me of all people what it is to be a poor little Jew. I’ve been that since 1894, and with pride,” he once wrote in indignation to his friend and benefactor, the novelist Stefan Zweig.

But in fact Roth was far from transparent about his humble origins. He was born Moses Joseph Roth in the then-Galician and now-Ukrainian town of Brody—but when he left to study art in Vienna, he faked an Austrian accent and donned the costume of a carefree dandy, sporting a monocle and cane. He boasted that his father, a salesman who had gone mad and died in the care of a wonder rabbi, had been a railway official, a painter, and even a Polish nobleman. By the time he was hired as a columnist for the prestigious Frankfurter Zeitung in Berlin, he had dropped the “Moses” from his name. In the city that he adopted but always claimed to hate, Roth enjoyed a brief stint of stability. His columns commanded hefty fees. His wife, Friederike, was charming. He and his bohemian friends held court at the fashionable Romanisches Café.

But Roth’s luck was as brief as his brisk feuilletons. Soon after Friederike was diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalized, Hitler became chancellor. Roth fled to Paris, moved in to a seedy hotel, and started drinking heavily. Cut off from his German publishers, he struggled to support his demanding new mistress and ailing wife (who would be murdered as part of the Nazis’ euthanasia program in 1940). But despite—or perhaps because of—his disillusionment and destitution, he remained productive, writing for hours in cafés each day, lubricated by cognacs and subsidized by worried and indulgent friends. As Hofmann states, he was “industrious from despair.”

In 1939, at the age of forty-four, he died a monarchist and a Catholic convert, his body ravaged by his ruinous alcoholism. Like the heterogeneous empire he loved, Roth was diverse to the point of self-contradiction. He was, as he put it in a letter, “ein Franzose aus dem Osten, ein Humanist, ein Rationalist mit Religion, ein Katholik mit jüdischem Gehirn” (“a Frenchman from Eastern Europe, a humanist, a rationalist with religion, a Catholic with a Jewish brain”). Legend has it that Jewish and Catholic leaders bickered over his grave about which rites he should receive.

THERE IS NO QUESTION IN MY MIND THAT ROTH DESERVED A JEWISH BURIAL. An itinerant by necessity and vocation, the self-identified “hotel patriot” regarded his perennial homelessness as his cultural inheritance. James Wood has suggested that Roth’s feuilletons are so densely packed with language because they “behave as if they are always about to end.” In The Wandering Jews (1927), his harrowing meditation on the beleaguered Ostjuden scattered in ghettos across Europe, Roth maintains that the Jews, too, live in expectation of imminent exile. They “always have to be on the alert, be packed and ready, have a piece of bread and an onion in one pocket and the tefillim in the other. Who can say whether he won’t have to resume his wanderings in another hour?”

Roth is habitually cast as a devotee of old Austria, and in a sense he was. The dual monarchy swells to mythic proportions in almost all his books. As he insisted in one letter, it was the only “fatherland” he ever had. And yet he was hardly at home there. Even in The Emperor’s Tomb, one of his most nostalgic books, he shudders to recall “the virulent anti-Semitism” that was so pervasive among the Austrian aristocracy.

The protagonist of “The Bust of the Emperor,” who is not a Jew but an old-fashioned Polish count, recalls that in Austria-Hungary, “what was foreign became native to him without losing its color, and thus his homeland always had an enchantingly alien quality about it.” That the empire remained foreign even when it was familiar is perhaps what made it palatable to Roth, a vicious opponent of nationalism in all forms (Zionism included). More to Roth’s tastes were “wanderings”: “a tribulation that is appropriate to Jews, and to all others besides. Lest we forget that nothing in this world endures, not even a home; and that our life is short, shorter even than the life of the elephant, the crocodile, and the crow. Even parrots outlive us.” To love a nation is to cling to the illusion of a home—but to love Austria-Hungary is to inhabit homelessness.

It is fitting, then, that Roth’s stories and feuilletons are always on the verge of departure. The tales in The Coral Merchant are restless in theme and in tone. Each sentence is loaded, ready to flee. Thus each image, fearful that it may be the last, brims, overflows, and comprises a story in itself. In “The Blind Mirror,” a languid and occasionally undercooked coming-of-age story, the dreamy teenage protagonist wraps “the good warmth of the April day around her like a shawl.” In “The Rich House Opposite,” a Great Dane strides alongside his owner “as if performing a ceremonial duty.”

Many of the denizens of The Coral Merchant are vagrants. The protagonist of the last story Roth ever wrote, “The Legend of the Holy Drinker,” is an alcoholic who sleeps under a bridge in Paris. A weary expatriate, he is so estranged from himself that he forgets his own surname. In “The Blind Mirror,” the protagonist’s father returns from the front to find himself “homeless in his home and unusual among the usual.” And in “The Rich House Opposite,” a poor man fantasizes about quitting his own modest lodgings and moving in to his neighbor’s mansion.

But Roth’s most exquisite reckoning with deracination comes in “The Leviathan,” the longest story in the book and the most reminiscent of Job. Nissen Piczenik, the coral merchant of the collection’s title, has a deep affinity with his wares. Although he has never left his landlocked shtetl, a “vague homesickness” afflicts him, and he longs sharply for the sea. In the end, he sets sail for America, only to find himself aboard a sinking ship. In his final moments, he hurls himself into the water in hopes of encountering the corals he loves.

Is “The Leviathan” an inversion of Job, which ends with a happy miracle, as Anka Muhlstein claims in the New York Review of Books? On the contrary: The narrator of the story assures us that Nissen “belonged with the corals, and that the bottom of the ocean was his only home.” Roth was always messianic in orientation, and he often suggested that the only respite available to us is in heaven or in fictions—in any case in a different world. In the end he wishes Nissen “peace there with the Leviathan, until the coming of the Messiah.”

For Roth, whose sentences always anticipated departure, there was no home on this earth. I hope he found one beyond it.

Becca Rothfeld is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Harvard.