Tag Archives: Joseph Roth

“My address is: Sarreguemines”

Alfred Döblin has left a huge literary oeuvre: novels, stories, essays, autobiographical and literary theoretical writings, and more. His importance as a writer has been emphasized by many of his contemporaries (Brecht, Benn, Tucholsky, Feuchtwanger to name a few) and some authors of the post-war generation. His work is available in German in several editions, including two paperback editions. In 1979, Günter Grass donated the Alfred Döblin Prize, which has become one of the most important literary prizes for German-language literature, and in 1984 the International Alfred Döblin Society was founded, which is intensively involved in the exploration of Döblin’s work.

Nevertheless, Döblin is not a very popular author in the German-speaking countries. The mostly read work is undoubtedly Berlin Alexanderplatz, a book that is frequently compared with Ulysses or Manhattan Transfer in terms of its literary importance. Despite this fact, it is a book that is not easy to digest, and it is hardly suitable for a cozy reading in bed. The impression this book left on many readers may have prevented them from discovering other translated works of this author. This lack of interest also applies to Döblin’s reception outside the German-speaking countries; only a fraction of his work is available in translations and here, too, at most Berlin Alexanderplatz receives some attention. (Translated works available in English are: The Three Leaps of Wang Lun, November 1918, Tales of a Long Night, Men without Mercy, Journey to Poland, or Destiny’s Journey; Manas and Mountains Oceans Giants will be released in English translation in 2020 by Galileo Publishers.)

In his text On My Teacher Döblin Günter Grass addressed in 1967 some of the reasons why Döblin could not really catch up with the German reading public after the Second World War:

“Döblin was not trendy. He was not popular. He was too catholic to the progressive left, too anarchic to the Catholics, he denied solid theories to the moralists, he was too inelegant for the night program, he was too vulgar for the school radio; neither the ‘Wallenstein‘ nor the ‘Giant‘ novel could be digested easily; and the emigrant Döblin dared to return home in 1945 to a Germany that would soon devote itself to consumerism. As for the market value: the asset Döblin was and is not listed on the literary commodity market.” (Translation T.H.)

And for many, one might add, this converted Jew, who returned from exile to Germany wearing a uniform of the French occupiers, was simply suspect – one who didn’t belong here and whose presence was rather embarrassing, for reasons that have also to do with a deep-rooted anti-Semitism that didn’t disappear just like that after 1945 but that only went into hiding for a while.

This year, Berlin Alexanderplatz is the subject of a readalong in the context of German Literature Month and I hope that this will increase the interest in Döblin. Personally, I have decided to discuss another work, which seems to be rather marginal, but which nevertheless makes it possible to contribute to the better understanding of this author. I am talking about the book “My address is Sarreguemines” (“Meine Adresse ist: Saargemünd“), a work that explores Döblin’s significant relationship with the French-German border region near the Saar, with Lorraine and the Saarland. (The book is available in German, as well as in a French translation.)

Döblin, who had a doctor’s practice in Berlin, volunteered for military service in 1915 and was assigned to Sarreguemines. The French town of Sarreguemines is now located directly on the German-French border, but between 1871 and 1918 Lorraine was part of the German Reich (it had been annexed after the victory in the Franco-German War in 1870/71). The volume “My address is: Sarreguemines”, which collects various texts that illuminate Döblin’s relationship to the German-French border region, begins with letters from this period (1915-1918), which he sent from Sarreguemines and later from Hagenau in Alsace (he had been transferred there briefly before the war after a conflict with a superior over the provision of food to the patients.)

It is interesting to see how Döblin’s attitude regarding the war changed over time. While he hailed in an early letter – although already ironically broken – a victory at the eastern Front, he becomes more and more disillusioned and skeptical about the war and its futility as the slaughtering is dragging on for years. Privately he may have spoken even more openly but due to the existing censorship Döblin was not elaborating on this topic in his letters from that period.

Most important for the reader, who is interested in Döblin’s literary work, are in the period between 1915 and 1918 his letters to Herwarth Walden. The journalist Walden – he was first married to Else Lasker-Schüler – was a close friend of Döblin since their youth. At the same time Walden was the publisher of the magazine Sturm, which became the preferred publication platform of many expressionist and modernist authors. In addition, Walden operated the Sturm Gallery and under difficult conditions made a contribution to the popularization of many expressionist artists that can hardly be underestimated. (Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, for example, exhibited at the Sturm Gallery, illustrated the first book by Döblin and later also painted his portrait).

Döblin, at the time a published (two volumes with stories and numerous contributions in magazines), but moderately successful author, used the Sturm during this time as the most important organ for the publication of his stories. With Walden he talks about book projects – his first novel The Three Leaps of Wang Lun and another book with stories are being published during this period, two more novels are almost completed or in preparation – but also occasionally on reading experiences that are often disappointing (e.g. he expresses complete disappointment over a novel by Heinrich Mann). In his letters to Walden, Döblin also describes his difficulties with his literary work in Sarreguemines. This is partly due to his work as a doctor – Verdun is about 100 km away, and the cannon thunder from there can be heard in Sarreguemines. For the work on a historical novel (Wallenstein will be published after WWI), that requires access to secondary literature, Sarreguemines is not a good location; only rarely can he get some of the books he needs urgently from the library in Strasbourg.

In addition, Döblin has financial worries (which get better later); he suffers from cramped living conditions, narrow-minded colleagues and superiors and his health is not always the best. Although he is vaccinated, he is contracting typhus and has severe necrosis, which necessitates several stays in German spas. As if that were not enough, Döblin also has a fling with one of the female doctors at the hospital; the young lady is being transferred to Berlin shortly before the arrival of Döblin’s family. (Walden, to whom Döblin confides these details, receives the Berlin address of the lady from his friend, with the cryptic remark that this may come in handy for him one day…)

Döblin’s feeling regarding the arrival of his wife and children who will live with him, are ambiguous. He is happy to have his growing family around him (his wife will bring their two sons to Sarreguemines, a third son will be born there, a fourth son in the post-war years; Döblin also has a son from an extramarital relationship whom he secretly supports financially). On the other hand, the noise at home, the frequent quarrels with his wife are obstacles that lead to a slowdown of his literary production. (Döblin’s marriage to his wife Erna, a trained physician, was extremely turbulent, but it lasted until his death. Döblin’s propensity to marital infidelity may have been one of the reasons for the frequent quarrels of husband and wife.) The situation only improves after the family moves to a slightly bigger flat in which Döblin is “smartly” (as he writes to Walden) arranging a spatial separation: while he is living upstairs, wife and children stay downstairs and don’t disturb him when he is working or needs a rest.

A little peace and relaxation Döblin finds during this time on occasional visits to Saarbrücken. By far the largest city in the region, it offers the urban life, a more open, cultured atmosphere compared to the Lorraine garrison town of Sarreguemines that he misses so much. However, the confrontation with his superior also takes place in Saarbrücken, which ultimately leads to his punitive transfer to Haguenau. (This event happens coincidentally at exactly the spot where the hospital in which I was born is located.)

After the end of the war and demobilization Döblin returns to Berlin (he later used these experiences in the first of his four-volume work November 1918). The twenties and early thirties are the time of Döblin’s greatest productivity and success as an author; he and his family can for the first time live without financial worries, if only for a few years.

Döblin didn’t burn the bridges to the Saar region, which was from 1920 to 1935 not a part of Germany but under International Administration by the League of Nations. He corresponds with the essayist Arthur Friedrich Binz from Saarbrücken who is publishing in 1924 an essay Alfred Döblin und das Saarland (Alfred Döblin and the Saarland); Binz mentions also that two of Döblin’s wartime stories are playing in the German-French border area: Der Geist vom Ritthof (The Ghost of the Ritthof) und Das verwerfliche Schwein (The reprehensible Pig), two grotesque ghost or horror stories still written in the spirit of Expressionism. (The essay of Binz is reprinted as well as the two stories by Döblin in the book.) Döblin also wrote at least two more texts, which were then published in Saarland media. And he campaigned for the publication of the first novel by Anton Betzner, an author that lived at the Saar region for many years; the then still very young author proved later to be a very important supporter of Döblin after WWII.

A drastic deterioration in living and publishing conditions began for Döblin in 1933. As a Jew and leftist, he had to flee; in France he worked for some time – together with the scholar Robert Minder, a professor for German literature – in the Ministry of Information (Minister: Jean Giraudoux). After the invasion Döblin had to flee again under adventurous circumstances. Via Portugal he finally arrived in the USA, where he was initially working as a scriptwriter at MGM; later, he and his family lived on the financial support of various aid organizations. Döblin’s conversion to Catholicism also falls into the period of his American exile.

In 1945 Döblin returned to Germany via France; he entered his country of birth as a French citizen and in the uniform of a French Colonel. Firstly in Baden-Baden and later in Mainz, he worked for the French Military Administration on the reconstruction of literary institutions; he also founded the literary magazine Das goldene Tor (The Golden Gate), which was to play an active role in the democratic transformation of Germans; it became a platform for new talents and authors that had remained in Nazi-Germany but had kept a distance to the regime; also exiled authors were published. Döblin was supported in this task by Anton Betzner, whom he could win as editor for the magazine. In addition, Döblin completed various of his own works. Radio broadcasting became an important publication channel for him. The letters to Betzner from the years 1946-1953 that are included in the reviewed volume reflect the editorial work in the magazine Das goldene Tor. But the letters show also an increasing disappointment of Döblin: despite Betzner’s efforts and publishing contacts Döblin can not secure a publishing contract for his Hamlet novel for many years; and he despairs more and more with the restorative tendencies in the post-WWII West Germany. (Betzner proves in the decades to come one of the few who on many occasions promoted Döblin’s literary oeuvre by essays and radio features.) Only occasionally Döblin’s sharp wit seems to be revived. But these last years are also a period of various health ailments for Döblin – he has an infarct and is struggling with progressive Parkinson’s disease. After West German President Theodor Heuss (himself a writer and author of several essay collections) intervenes in favor of Döblin in the financial compensation proceedings, the author finally receives a settlement, and is able to buy a tiny apartment in Paris. There he lives with his wife – apart from frequent visits of his friend Robert Minder – almost completely isolated from 1953 on. Döblin dies during a spa stay in Emmendingen in 1957, already forgotten by most of his contemporaries. His widow will take her life a few months after his death.

Alfred Döblin and his wife are buried in the small village of Housseras in Lorraine (approximately 500 inhabitants), where his son Wolfgang (Vincent Doblin is the French version of his name), who died in tragic circumstances, is also buried. Döblin, who after his return to Europe found out that several of his closest relatives had been murdered in Auschwitz, had lost contact with his son Wolfgang (Vincent) during the war, who served as a soldier in the French army. Wolfgang, who was a highly gifted mathematician, had some conflicts with his father in his youth, who had always hoped during the time of the separation during the war to reconcile with his son one day. But this reconciliation could no longer take place, Wolfgang had died during the war, as the shocked parents learned in March 1945. Afterwards Alfred Döblin apparently suffered greatly from feelings of guilt. Döblin and his wife decided to be buried later at the side of Wolfgang.

The book reviewed here gives further details about the circumstances of Wolfgang’s death. To avoid imminent capture by German troops, the desperate young man had shot himself on a farm in Housseras. After he had been buried in a mass grave, he was later exhumed and buried in a solitary grave. The house where he died carries today a memorial plate with the note “mathématicien de génie”, and his grave plate mentions that he died for France (“mort port la France”). (Photos and further information can be found also in this interesting French-language article.)

A sealed envelope, which Wolfgang had sent to the French Academy of Sciences, was opened in 2000. The envelope contained a significant unpublished mathematical manuscript on stochastic processes Sur l’équation de Kolmogoroff, which anticipated findings of the Japanese mathematician Itō Kiyoshi. On Wolfgang Doeblin’s life and work there is an interesting book by Marc Petit, which I refer to at the end of the article.

The last text by Alfred Döblin in the volume reviewed here is his speech in Saarbrücken about the New Europe (Saarbrücker Rede über das Neue Europa). It was Döblin’s last public address and a powerful statement for a strong, peaceful and united Europe:

“Europe! [….] The current state […] is actually unworthy of the men and women who live here, in fact we are all Europeans, whether we speak German, French or Italian. But it doesn’t matter, tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, we have to confront each other again, because the border runs like this and the other runs like that, and we would have to put ourselves on this side or on that [….] The old state systems have lost their meaning, Europe is the reality of today [….] Show them that behind the old rusty reality there is a young and splendid new one. Show the power you have to tear down the old structure. Team up! No small slogans. The just fight, the true fight, the only fight. ” (Translation T.H.)

It would be the right time today to remember this encouraging call for peace and unity in Europe!

The reviewed volume is excellently edited. It contains a long and instructive afterword by Ralph Schock, the editor of the book, as well as references and a bibliography. Particularly noteworthy are the many historical photos from German and French archives; they make the numerous connections of Döblin to the German-French border region also visually tangible. The book has a hard cover with dust jacket, a bound-in book sign and is carefully bound and printed on good, acid-free paper. It was published in a series “Spuren” (Traces) of a regional small publishing house (Gollenstein), which illuminated the literary references of significant authors to the Saar region in outstanding editions. I have for example discussed a volume of Joseph Roth’s journalistic work in the past that was published in this series; other volumes are dedicated to Hermann Hesse, Philippe Soupault, Ilya Ehrenburg, Theodor Balk, Francois-Régis Bastide, or Harald Gerlach. It is a pity that the publisher has now disappeared from the scene without a trace.

Admittedly, this was a contribution that went well beyond the average length of my usual book reviews. This is mainly due to this really beautiful book itself, which I read with particular interest not least because of my own origin from this region. In addition, I learned many details from the life of Alfred Döblin, that were previously unknown to me. Although an English translation of this volume is very unlikely, I still hope that especially Berlin Alexanderplatz readers may find this article useful. And maybe a few readers will try one of the other translated, but rarely read books by this author. Döblin’s oeuvre is full of surprises; in any case it is worth discovering this interesting author!

Alfred Döblin: “Meine Adresse ist: Saargemünd”, Gollenstein 2009; Je vous écris de Sarreguemines, tr. Renate and Alain Lance, Serge Domini Editeur 2017

Marc Petit: L’équation de Kolmogoroff. Vie et mort de Wolfgang Doeblin, un génie dans la tourmente nazie, Ramsay 2003, Folio 2005; Die verlorene Gleichung. Auf der Suche nach Wolfgang und Alfred Döblin, Eichborn 2005

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-9. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


German Literature Month 2015 – wrap-up

literatur_2015_gold-2 German Literature Month in November was again an extremely interesting event, just like last year. The two unfatigable hosts Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) and Lizzy (Lizzy’s Literary Life) once again created an event with plenty of opportunities to join in. In the end 44 bloggers had published 166 posts, mainly about fiction and poetry, but also including some featured articles and several non-fiction reviews. Over the years, this event has become increasingly popular and the index on the website that links to all articles that were published in all editions of the German Literature Month has become a major resource for anyone who wants to get informed about German literature. Check it out, the variety of authors and opinions is truly amazing! (Thanks, Lizzy!) Interestingly, the most reviewed author this year was Stefan Zweig (14 reviews of 12 works), followed by Schiller (10 posts related to Schiller’s works and books about Schiller). Goethe on the contrary was ignored by everybody – maybe we should include a Goethe week next year? After several months of being not very active, this event has brought me back to blogging on a more regular basis. I discovered plenty of new books, got reminded of some others I should re-read again in the future and I also discovered a few book blogs which I hadn’t known before but will follow in the future. It was fun to read the comments and to comment myself sometimes. I read literally all reviews, but time restrictions prevented me so far to comment on all of them.  Just like last year  I thoroughly enjoyed this event, and just like last year, I won a giveaway, Ulrich Plenzdorf’s Werther novel which I will review one day of course. (Thanks, Caroline!) This year, I published ten posts – compared to eight last year. Beside a featured anecdote about Jean Paul, nine of the posts were reviews: Veza Canetti: The Tortoises Thomas Kling: Collected Poems Schilleriana (9 publications of Deutsche Schillergesellschaft) Hans Magnus Enzensberger: New Selected Poems Walther von der Vogelweide: Poems Detlef Opitz: The Books Murderer Jean Paul: The strange company at New Year’s Eve Joseph Roth: Letters from Germany Gertrud Kolmar: Poems Several of the books I had intended to read for German Lit Month, I had to postpone for the time being, while others popped up in the last moment. I reviewed/presented more poetry than last years and a bit less prose by contemporary authors. Who knows what I will be up to next year?!
© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Joseph Roth’s “Letters from Germany”

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This blog post is part of the German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzie (Lizzies Literary Life) and Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

Joseph Roth was not only the author of some of the most remarkable novels of his time, he was also a very prolific journalist who published hundreds of articles in newspapers. In the second half of the 1920s and early 1930s he worked mainly but not exclusively for the Frankfurter Zeitung, the leading liberal newspaper in Germany, one of the few papers that openly supported the Weimar Republic and that was known for its high quality journalism.

Roth was at the time when he worked for the Frankfurter Zeitung the allegedly highest paid journalist in Germany, if not Europe. He owed this not only to his reputation as a novelist but mainly to his brilliant article writing skills. Benno Reifenberg, the editor of the Frankfurter Zeitung made great efforts to keep Roth as a Sonderkorrespondent (special correspondent) in Paris even when that cost the paper who had already a regular correspondent in Paris a lot. Roth, who lived at that period without regular home in the best hotels earned plenty of money, but he spent it also immediately.

Considering the amount of publicist work and also the great qualities of these articles it is worth to read Roth’s journalism. It contains the same outstanding qualities as does his novelistic writing but it is a part of his work that is virtually unknown outside the German-speaking countries. A small collection of well-annotated articles Briefe aus Deutschland (Letters from Germany) is a good example of this part of Roth’s oeuvre. (Almost needless to repeat my mantra that there is no English translation yet.)

Between November 1927 and January 1928 Roth wrote a series of seven articles under the pseudonym Cuneus and published by the Frankfurter Zeitung under the title Letters from Germany. It describes Roth’s impression when he travelled to the Saargebiet, a part of Germany that was after WWI and the Versailles Treaty under a special legal regime. It had an international government formed by representatives of seven countries that was established by the League of Nations, the predecessor of the United Nations and monitored also by troops from many countries, and it was agreed that after a period of 15 years’ international control the citizens of the region should decide if they wanted to become part of Germany, of France, or if they would prolong the Status quo for another 15 years. In the meantime, the real important player in the Saar region was France.

The Saar, a mining and steal producing region was of strategic and economic importance for France and Germany as well and the French used the opportunity that Versailles created to detach this part of Germany that contributed heavily to the production of weapons at least temporarily from Germany and exploit its resources. That was the situation when Roth travelled to the region.

Roth makes a stop in Metz where he meets Hermann Wendel, a socialist German-French publicist and politician and he makes also the acquaintance of one of Wendel’s political adversaries. But his real target is a few kilometres behind the border: the Saar. Roth describes his impression of the city Saarbrücken (by the way my birthplace) after his arrival – the area around the Central Railway Station has changed, but not so much since Roth’s time; it is still an urbanistic mess – , he has a look into shops, talks with the traders, with people in coffee shops, restaurants and beer halls, he goes to the cinema (Murnau’s Faust which he didn’t like a lot), he joins the coal miners for a day and visits the steel factory in Neunkirchen, he attends a worker’s meeting where Alexandra Balabanoff, a Russian socialist and feminist is speaking, he is telling us the story behind the monument for “King” Stumm, the industrialist Carl Ferdinand Freiherr von Stumm-Halberg, who governed his steel factories and his workers very much like an absolutist king and more interesting things.

Roth is filtering the thousands of impressions he has during his trip and is turning them into descriptions that speak vividly of his abilities as a writer. No subject is too small as not to attract his attention, no remark anyone makes is too unimportant as not to put it into an interesting context. Sometimes it is as if we watch a novelist taking notes for his next book, it is all so well written and interesting although it was written for the day – and “the day” in this case was almost 90 years ago. But it is still very fresh thanks to Roth’s great gift as a writer.  

A small example: while sitting in a café mainly frequented by not very wealthy people, Roth is watching some girl or young woman sitting alone at one of the tables. He is writing:

“Manches einsame Mädchen sitzt hier, schon sitzen gelassen oder noch nicht – und zwischen beiden Zuständen ist so wenig Unterschied! … Je länger ich die Frauen und Männer ansehe und vergleiche, desto grösser wird meine Angst, sie könnten sich ineinander verlieben. Wenn sie bald ein paar Männer herangezogen haben, die Mädchen, fang ich an zu weinen. Denn die Liebe könnte noch trauriger ausfallen als das Leben.“

„Some lonely girl is sitting here, already deserted, or not yet – and between both conditions there is so little difference! …The longer I look at the women and the men and compare, the bigger gets my fear that they might fall in love with each other. Soon when the girls have attracted a few men, I will start crying. Because that love could turn out even sadder than life.”

There are many paragraphs I would like to quote, but I will refrain myself with a second and final quote in which Roth is describing his surprise about the interest of people in literature and good books. After meeting a lawyer and later an owner of a department store both with a genuine interest in literature and art, he writes:

“Nirgends sah ich Bürger, deren Beruf es ist, Geld zu verdienen, so leidenschaftlich interessiert für Bücher, Wissenschaft, Kunst, Politik, mit so viel Begabung für Form und Manier und mit so viel Überlegenheit über jenen Matz, in dessen Zeitung sie inserieren müssen. … im Saargebiet treffen Sie noch Menschen, die sich um jede „Neuerscheinung“ kümmern und literarische Zeitschriften lesen, obwohl sie keine Literaten sind. Was mich betrifft, so habe ich zum ersten Male von Angesicht zu Angesicht Leser getroffen, denen ich in keinem Künstlerklub begegnet wäre. Es gibt noch Leser in Deutschland, die nicht schreiben.“

„Nowhere I saw citizens whose profession it is to earn money with such a passionate interest in books, science, art, politics, with so much talent for form and manner and with so much superiority compared to that fellow Matz (a local journalist who used this pseudonym to publish two articles that were denigrating Roth’s writing – T.H.), in whose newspaper they have to advertise…in the Saar you still meet people, who take care of each newly published book and who read literary journals although they are no literati. As for myself, I met for the first time face to face with readers that I could have never met in any artist’s club. There are still readers in Germany, that are not writing. (i.e. outside writers’ circles – T.H.)”

I am glad I read this book about my home region that is very carefully edited. It contains also photos, facsimiles of Roth’s articles and the two articles by “Matz” to which I was referring above, a letter of Roth to Benno Reifenberg and some excerpts from Roth’s diary of that period. An instructive essay by the Germanist Ralph Schock and additional annotations make this small book a real gem.

If you love Joseph Roth and read German, don’t miss his journalistic work; and why not to start with this well-edited small book?!

Joseph Roth

Joseph Roth: Briefe aus Deutschland, Gollenstein, Blieskastel 2008

The quotes by Joseph Roth are translated by Thomas Hübner

© Gollenstein Verlag, 2008
© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Joseph Roth’s Rebellion

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This review is part of the German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzie (Lizzies Literary Life) and Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

Joseph Roth is nowadays mostly known as a literary fiction writer but in the 1920s and early 1930s his reputation as one of the most prolific journalists was outshining even his fame as a novelist. To those who want to get to know the full Roth, I recommend therefore his journalistic work; frequently he touches issues in his articles that he later on used as material or inspiration for his literary prose.

Roth was best when it came to social issues, to the living conditions of the ordinary, mostly poor population of Austria, Germany, France, and the other countries he visited. He wrote for example several long pieces for the Frankfurter Zeitung and the socialist Vorwärts about the fate and the living conditions of the crippled and physically handicapped ex-soldiers of WWI – if you know the artwork of Otto Dix or George Grosz you know how terribly millions of men were mutilated for the rest of their mostly miserable lives.

One such victim of WWI is Andreas Pum, the central figure of Rebellion, the novel that was also first printed in Vorwärts before a book edition was published. Andreas lost a leg in the war, but he seems strangely happy. Not only has he survived, he also got a medal (one of those pieces of metal that governments are quick to hand out) and a license to play a barrel organ and so he can make a living from the few coins he gets from the people listening to his repertoire. To him that is fair enough.

Andreas is a simple, uneducated man. He doesn’t reflect his situation and those war cripples that complain about their fate or the lack of support from the government, he considers as malingerers and thieves. Andreas is at this stage the complete negation of the rebel. He just wishes to improve his life a bit and to have a wife and family. A good fate – so it seems to Andreas – sends him a widow whose plump forms attract him and soon he moves in to the widow’s house and can enjoy the life of a husband. He loves the widow’s daughter like his own child and even for Muli, the small donkey that carries his barrel organ, he has tender and friendly feelings. Andreas is a kind man.

Everything could be perfect for Andreas, but one day he is being insulted by a rude passenger in the tram, one word gives another and the verbal argument is followed by physical violence. A policeman is soon on the scene and Andreas will be held responsible by the court for his violent behavior. How Andreas becomes – just by coincidence and certain unpredictable events in combination with the vileness of the public organs such as the police – a victim of a system that always holds people like Andreas down, shows Joseph Roth’s mastery and also his sympathy with people like Andreas, who are always the victims. And who usually even don’t remark it.

To read how Andreas is going through a real ordeal is depressing; although he is just 45 years old, he looks with his completely white hair already like a very old man; but the more he is physically degrading, the more conscious he becomes about his real situation, the more he becomes a rebel – a person who disagrees with the order of things.

When I read the book, I realized that there were certain elements you can find also in most other of Roth’s novels and long stories: the main character slips down like on an inclined plane, the physical degradation corresponds with an awakening in terms of self-consciousness and acts of rebellion (like not praying to God anymore), and the tone of the narrative is always close to the legend. The similarities to Job and Legend of a Holy Drinker in this respect are particularly stunning.

Rebellion might not be the best novel of Joseph Roth, but I found it well written and touching. For those who are familiar with Roth’s oeuvre it will be particularly interesting how in this early work he prefigured many topics and tropes that he was also using in his most mature works of the late 1920s and 1930s.

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Joseph Roth: Rebellion, transl. by Michael Hofmann, Picador 2000

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Ostende. 1936, Summer of friendship

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This review is part of the German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzie (Lizzies Literary Life) and Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

The Belgian kings Leopold I and Leopold II liked to spend their summer holidays in the seaside town of Ostende, a place which was famous then and now for its long sandy beaches. What followed in the late 19th and early 20th century was a construction boom: the small harbor town developed into an opulent summer holiday location for the wealthy bourgeoisie and the upper echelons of society. Those who visit Ostende today will realize that a lot of the splendour of those days has gone and many of the gorgeous buildings of that time were destroyed either by the bombings of WWII or by the similarly devastating “modernization” frenzy in the 1950s and 1960s.

But in 1936, the old Ostende was still very much alive. Those who could afford it were packing their things and spending a few weeks here. Among them were also a group of German-language writers. They enjoy the sun, the swimming, the drinks, the company, and their talks about literature. But all of them either lost their homes, or had to prepare for losing it in the near future. They had mostly also lost their by far biggest publication market, Germany, and with it also the biggest part of their income. The small new book by Volker Weidermann, Ostende. 1936 – Sommer der Freundschaft (published this year and not yet translated) describes this summer, the strange atmosphere between holiday mood and depression that most of the writers felt. And it shows also the difficulties to be a writer in exile, and what happened to the friends that met in Ostende during that summer.

I was amazed to read who was in Ostende at exactly the same time – it reads like a part of the Who is who of German literature of that period: Stefan Zweig (with his secretary and lover Lotte Altmann); Joseph Roth; Irmgard Keun; Ernst Toller with his wife, the actress Christiane Grautoff; Egon Erwin Kisch, the famous “Raging Reporter from Prague” with his wife; Hermann Kesten; Arthur Koestler; also Willi Münzenberg, the “Red Press Czar” and founder of one of the biggest media empires of the world was there with his wife and some aides, among them the shady Otto Katz, one of the most notorious GPU agents, also known as Andre Simone.

Weidermann focuses the book mainly on the friendship between Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth. Zweig, one of the few German-language writers that was not dependent from the German market because his books were popular almost all over the world, was in a similarly privileged position like Thomas Mann, Lion Feuchtwanger, or Erich Maria Remarque: they lived in very comfortable conditions even in exile, but all of them used their wealth and contacts to support the big number of poor colleagues financially or with contacts with publishers. In later years their assistance in getting affidavits and visas was crucial to get many writers out of Europa after the outbreak of the war (Anna Seghers’ Transit gives a haunting description of the emigrants in Marseille).

Joseph Roth was on the other side of the social pyramid of writers: the once well-paid journalist and author had not been very lucky. He was not the kind of person to save money for bad times to come and spent what he earned with full hands, living a life in the most expensive European hotels in the late 1920s and early 1930s. A mental illness of his wife who had to be admitted to an asylum (she was later killed by the Nazis in the framework of the infamous T4 program), his growing problems with alcohol – the book describes Zweig’s caring efforts to feed his friend at least one time or another – and his complete loss of the German and Austrian book market; there was hardly a disaster that didn’t strike Roth in those years. Stefan Zweig proved to be a loyal friend who helped Roth not only financially; he tried to make Roth quit or at least reduce his booze addiction; he discussed manuscripts with him and reminded him to work more slowly and diligently; and he introduced him to his other friends and colleagues in Ostende. Among them was a young and attractive “Aryan” female writer from Germany: Irmgard Keun.

Keun, already an accomplished writer in the early 30s, was caught in an unhappy marriage in Germany from which she ran away, and she had also difficulties to publish in Germany. Her books were banned and the works she wrote during her time in Belgium (for example After Midnight, her probably best book) and on travels would be published in German exile publishing houses. When she met Roth, it was obviously a coup de foudre from both sides. They started a relationship almost immediately after their first meeting, much to the surprise of the other emigrants who couldn’t understand what this attractive woman drew to the hopeless drunkard in tattered clothes. Weidermann describes how they got “to work”: they used to go to the same small bar every day, sit on separate tables with their small typewriters (Keun loved the sun, Roth couldn’t stand it) and ordered some liquor. Or more correctly: a lot of liquor. Yes, also Keun was an alcoholic. But for both of them, it seemed to have been an extremely productive time and both wrote excellent works during their time together.

Also for Zweig the times were not easy. But his were more his private problems and sorrows, not so much the political situation. His marriage with Friederike had failed, his home in Austria was soon to be sold to settle the financial issues following the divorce, and he had also sold his extraordinary collection of autographs. But his relationship with a young woman, Lotte Altmann, whom he hired as an assistant and secretary and who later became his mistress and after the divorce his second wife, also set new energies free in Zweig. He wanted to use the fresh energy he felt to do some serious work on some of his book projects in Ostende and also to think about where to settle in the future. It was also a good opportunity to catch up with friends and colleagues, especially with Joseph Roth with whom he entertained a close friendship.

For Zweig it was not the first time he came to Ostende. He had spent the summer 1914, the days before the outbreak of WWI in Ostende to meet his idol Emile Verhaeren. So overwhelmed was the young Zweig by the meeting with his master in 1914 that he didn’t realize at all that the world was preparing for war and that the world he loved would be doomed. (Verhaeren turned soon after the outbreak of the war into one of the most radical chauvinists, a major disappointment for Zweig)

What drew Zweig to Roth, and vice versa? For Zweig, Roth represented the Ostjudentum, the world of the Jews from the periphery of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a world about which Zweig knew very little but to which he felt in a strange way attracted. And that Roth, despite his insane alcoholism and his financial dependency from Zweig, was so loyal and honest was for Zweig also very attractive. Roth knew no friendship, no superficial friendliness when it came to questions of literature. When he smelled one wrong expression, one superficial adjective, a weak plot, or something else that his unfailing instinct discovered, he would not hide it and let his friend know. Also vice versa, Roth accepted the professional advice of Zweig on many occasions. Due to the extreme difference in their living conditions one could have expected Roth to be a sycophant at least at times, but it seems that this was never the case. Theirs is a dialogue eye to eye when it came to matters of importance, i.e. to literature.

Weidermann’s book is excellently written. Not only writes he almost like an experienced novelist who arranges his material in an interesting way. He also succeeds in making the motives of his heroes understandable to the reader. And he adds interesting details that you can hardly read in any other book about the German exile – such as the unintentional act of disloyalty Zweig commits when he writes to his American publisher that Roth is suffering from being over-productive (writing too much in a short time) with the result that his exile books are much weaker than the previous one’s (I would disagree with Zweig here). As a result, the American publisher writes Roth that he is cancelling his author’s contract, a financial catastrophe for Roth who lives his last years mainly from Stefan Zweig’s financial support.

Although the other authors are not so much in the centre of the book, they play an important role too and Weidermann shows a great talent to integrate their fates almost effortlessly in his small masterpiece. Ernst Toller, the expressionist poet and dramatist, and his beautiful actress wife add a lot of flair to the weeks in Ostende – but Toller has always a rope with a noose in his suitcase; he suffers from extreme bouts of depression and the reader knows that he will sooner or later use the rope to hang himself. (When it finally happened a few years later, Roth collapsed when he heard the news and died shortly thereafter) Also the Münzenberg/Katz story made me shiver, knowing what later happened; and of course the end of the two main protagonists, so sad and unnecessary, victims of a time that was so opposed to the human values they represented in everything they did and wrote.

I hope for a swift translation of this wonderful book of Volker Weidermann. (The translation rights for the English-speaking edition are already sold to Pantheon/Knopf.) It will be a must for all Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth aficionados, and for all friends of literature in general. And if you visit Ostende, take this book with you. And don’t miss the house of the painter James Ensor. It plays a small but important role in this book too and is different from any other house you will ever visit.

Ostende

Volker Weidermann: Ostende. 1936, Sommer der Freundschaft, Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Köln 2014

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

German Literature Month – My book selection

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As you know from one of my previous posts, I will participate in the German Literature Month hosted by my blogger colleagues Lizzie (Lizzie’s Literary Life) and Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) in November for the fourth time.

Luckily, I won one of the giveaways of Lizzie, Marjana Gaponenko’s novel Who is Martha? about which I have read enthusiastic reviews in the German-speaking media. Gaponenko is a young author from Odessa that writes in German. She won the prestigeous Adelbert von Chamisso Prize for German-language authors whose mother tongue is not German in 2013. Who is Martha is her second novel and I am very glad that I will have a copy fresh from the printing press for review.

It was not so easy to pick the other books I will read and review for the German Lit Month, simply because the pile of good and interesting books is too big. After some back and forth I decided that I will read and discuss these books in November:

The Nightwatches of Bonaventura (attributed to Ernst August Friedrich Klingemann) (novel), University of Chicago Press 2014 

Marjana Gaponenko: Who is Martha? (novel), New Vessel Press 2014 

Hermann Hesse / Thomas Mann: The Hesse/Mann Letters, Jorge Pinto Books 2005 

Herta Müller: The Passport (novel), Serpent’s Tail 1989 

Joseph Roth: Rebellion (novel), St. Martin’s Press 1999

I have one or two more books in mind I would like to review, but five books is already quite an ambitious programme and I am not sure if I will have enough time to read and review more in November.

Now I am really a bit excited to see what the other participants will read and review!

P.S.: Since I won – again! – a giveaway at Lizzy’s Literary Life’s ‘Wednesdays are Wunderbar!’, I am gladly adding one more book to the list:

Wolfgang Herrndorf: Why We Took the Car (novel), Scholastic 2014 

It will be a very busy month, but the books are worth it!

P.P.S.: In the last weeks, three more books have popped up that I would like to include in the German Literature Month:

Jakob Arjouni: Happy birthday, Turk! (novel), No Exit Press 1996

Kurt Tucholsky: Castle Gripsholm (story), Overlook Press 1988

Jonathan Franzen: The Kraus Project (essays), Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2013

You may be surprised to find a title of Jonathan Franzen on this list, but The Kraus Project is indeed a translation of four essays of Karl Kraus by Franzen, with extensive footnotes by him, the Kraus scolar Paul Reitter, and Daniel Kehlmann.

I hope I can really read and review all this in November!

 

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 


The Story of a Simple Man

It begins like a legend and it ends like a fairy tale: Joseph Roth’s novel Job, the Story of a Simple Man, as the subtitle says.

Mendel Singer is a “pious, God-fearing and ordinary . . . everyday Jew,” who lives the life of a poor school teacher in Zuchnow, a shtetl in the then Russian part of Galicia. It’s the early 20th century and the lives of the Jews were not only threatened by poverty but also by the frequent pogroms. Emigration or involvement in one of the revolutionary political groups were the only real way out of this misery; for all the others the only relief from their difficult situation lay in the imagination. It’s the world that is described in the novels and stories of Scholem Alejchem, Isaac Bashevis Singer or Isaac Babel, or in the paintings of Marc Chagall.

Mendel Singer’s life is not different from many others: he is married, has two sons and a daughter and his life is rather uneventful. Things change when his fourth child, his son Menuchim is born. Menuchim turns out to be not able to speak (except for the only word “Mama” he is mumbling again and again) and he cannot walk properly either. Menuchim’s presence changes the whole dynamics of interaction within the family. His father gives him much more attention than to the other children, in the hope that this will enhance his development, his mother Deborah is visiting a famous rabbi in the next town to ask his advice, while in the meantime even the usual household routine suffers:

She neglected her duty at the stove, the soup boiled over, the clay pots cracked, the pans rusted, the greenish shimmering glasses shattered with a harsh crash, the chimney of the petroleum lamp was darkened with soot, the wick was charred to a miserable stub, the dirt of many soles and many weeks coated the floorboards, the lard melted away in the pot, the withered buttons fell from the children’s shirts like leaves before the winter.

Menuchim’s siblings don’t really like their brother who is such a burden to them and in one specific moment even make a half-hearted attempt to kill him, fortunately without success.

When the children grow up, things go worse and worse for Mendel Singer. While his son Jonas joins the army (usually most Jews in Russia dreaded the moment when their sons had to go to the army where they were exposed frequently to the rudest forms of anti-semitism) and even likes it there, his second son Schemarjah is deserting and emigrating to America where he soon changes his name to Sam.

The biggest problem beside Menuchim who doesn’t show any sign of development is Mendel’s daughter Mirjam, who has several affairs with soldiers and even cossacks, who had frequently a prominent role in the anti-semitic pogroms. The only way to save his daughter from the path on which she was embarking seems for Mendel Singer the emigration to America. An invitation from Sam, who sends also the money for the ship tickets through his new American friend Mac, will make it possible.

But there is a problem: the sick Menuchim cannot travel (the immigration officers at Ellis Island would send whole families back in such cases). Mendel and Deborah make for themselves all kind of excuses. If Menuchim will be healthy one day, he will join the family. In the meantime, he will stay with a good and caring family who will live in the house of the Singer’s. Deborah remembers the words of the famous rabbi: “Don’t ever leave him!” And also on Mendel, who is by then estranged from his whole family except for Menuchim to whom he feels particularly close, the moment to say goodbye is heartbreaking.

The second part of the book describes Mendel Singer’s and his family’s life in New York. Sam, together with his reliable business partner Mac is successful and able to provide a comparatively good life to his family. Jonas is writing a letter from Russia with some good news about Menuchim who surprisingly started to speak. Sam and his wife have their first child. Mirjam is having a regular job in Sam’s company. For the first time in his life, the sorrow seems to disappear from Mendel Singer’s existence. But only for a short while.

WWI breaks out and again everything changes for Mendel Singer. After some time he loses contact with Jonas, who went missing and is maybe dead. And also from Menuchim there are no more news anymore. Mendel fears the worst. After America enters the war, Sam also enlists for the army. Only a short time after he was shipped to Europe, he gets killed in combat. When Mac brings the bad news, Deborah has a breakdown and dies. Mirjam has to be admitted to a mental hospital after the outbreak of an unexplicable mental illness, probably schizophrenia.

Mendel Singer is withdrawing more and more from life. The most remarkable thing is that he stops praying. He is angry with God. What has he done to deserve such a fate? The parallel with the biblical Job is obvious.

Still, even after the complete collapse of his existence, life has a few surprises left for Mendel Singer. When a grammophone record plays a beautiful melody from his home region, Mendel finds out that this touching record is called Menuchim’s Song. And one day the composer of this song is by a strange coincidence giving a concert with his orchestra in town and is investigating about an old man, Mendel Singer. He wants to bring him some news from his son Menuchim…

Job is a great novel. It is very touching, without being sentimental. It is written in a very beautiful prose. It is well-composed. It has very interesting parallels not only with the biblical Job, but also with Joseph, Jacob’s youngest son. And it is asking interesting questions regarding belief and moral. It is a story that will stay with you for a very long time when you read it.

Joseph Roth knew about what he was writing. He was born himself into the world he is describing in Job, but he had the chance to grow up in Vienna. In the 1920s and early 1930s he worked as a journalist for the best European newspapers. His salary when he was working for the liberal Frankfurter Zeitung is said to have been the highest of any journalist. Beside from that Roth was an extremely productive author of novels and stories.

For those who don’t know him Job is (beside Radetzky March) probably the best starting point to discover his work. Since Roth objected Austro-Fascism as well as Nazism, he was forced into exile, where he drank himself slowly to death. His catholic funeral in Paris 1939 was attended by his friends, by Otto von Habsburg, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, by representatives of the Jewish community, and by a delegation of the Austrian Communist Party. His grave is at the Cimetière parisien de Thiais, where also Paul Celan and Yevgeni Zamyatin, Leon Sedov and the Albanian king Zog are buried.

 

Job

Joseph Roth: Job, transl. by Ross Benjamin, Archipelago Books, New York 2010

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.