Thursday, August 15, 2013

Joseph Roth's Job - the most perfect representation of the night’s happiness and of golden health

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 from 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.


  1. I also thought Job was a beautiful book, one of the saddest I'd read in a long time.

  2. I enjoyed the book but failed to post anything on it. The book lent itself beautifully to a movie adaptation. Unfortunately the 1936 movie Sins of Man was that adaptation. While capturing the moving parts of the book, it changed so many things that it was unrecognizable at times.

    From a letter by Stefan Zweig to Roth:
    "Your Hollywood-style Job is said to be, well, exquisite. They’ve turned Mendel Singer into a Tyrolean peasant. Menuchim yodels. I simply have to see it. I will roll in the aisles on your behalf."

    If you get the chance to watch it, do so and marvel at the mix of good and awful. My initial response to the book was favorable but only tepid. The movie made me realize how horribly wrong Roth could have made it and increased my appreciation for the fine line he walks throughout the book.

  3. I read it it but likle Dwilght haven't post on it unfortunately had to return it to library hope to get it out again at some point ,but was struck by Job he was a perfect portrayal of the idiot for the modern age and in the US ,all the best stu

  4. I'm ashamed to say that I received this in Caroline and Lizzy's book give-away for German LIterature Month last year, then failed to post about it. I too found it deeply sad, and surprising, and exquisitely written, with abundant use of simple swatches of color making it almost more like a Chagall painting or a stained glass panel than a novel. Roth develops the story so carefully, so unexpectedly; I simply did not anticipate that it would end up being a great book about the immigrant experience in America.. On a first read, though, I felt that in choosing to trying to construct a new fable around the old one, Roth had sapped the redemptive scene of some of its emotional power. How wrong I was; idly picking the book up again not long after a loss of my own, I found myself re-reading the whole thing, and I cried and cried.

  5. A common line in the comments that I might have expanded on is that Roth develops the novel slowly. Not too slowly, since it is only 200 pages, but still. For the first half or so, maybe more, it seems close to purely imitative of earlier Yiddish fiction, with a few passages that seem to be doing something else.

    Then the catastrophe is all the more affecting, even though it is expected.

    A yodeling Menuchim, huh? All right, maybe, sure.

  6. One aspect of the novel I found interesting was how parts of Job mirrored Roth's life--both the real history and his invented (massaged, if you will) tales about himself. It's almost as if he adapted parts of his life to this tale as well as claiming parts of this tale to his life.

  7. One for me for November, methinks, especially as I enjoyed last year's stay at 'Hotel Savoy' :)

    As for projects, I recently finished a short, languid self-imposed Spanish-language lit education, and after a few months, you do start to lose steam somewhat...

  8. Interesting, Roth and Kafka both wrote about an America they never visited, around the same time, conjuring it from books and popular culture...

  9. Dwight - what are you talking about? Really? I know nothing about that. How curious.

    Miguel - that is funny. I had not thought of that. Roth's New York is more or less real, and does not come to imaginative life until near the end. But, then, it does, which is impressive.

    Tony - a good one for the November event. Also a good one for Passover.

    Maybe it is not so much that we lose steam but that it is helpful to allow some absorption, rather than just piling on more books.

    No, that can't be right. All I do is pile on more books.

  10. It really sounds like a novel that I would like.

    The comparison to the passage about the description of the Billboard to Whitman was spot on. This is true especially in regards to the list of the adverbs.

  11. This novel could almost be popular if people knew it.

  12. What I was referring to 'real history' was Roth's "exile" from Germany as similar in a way to Job. For the invented, massaged parts of his life, I'm relying on Michael Hofmann's notes in Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters. Roth tended to change his bio for people depending on (a) what he needed at the time, and (b) how 'romantic' he wanted his history to sound. Parts of Job sound very similar to invented parts of his life in his letters. One of my comments about Roth regarding the Letters encompasses part of Job: "Roth’s life, reflected in these letters, shows the price of being an émigré, not just from a country but from the world at large."

    If it interests you, click on the summary link above and read Albert Einstein's comments on the book.

  13. Very interesting. I would never have guessed that Job was particularly personal.

  14. Tom, I feel so ill equipped to properly respond to your posts; they are always so indepth, and they point out things I wonder if I'd noticed had I read the book. (Therefore, a big thanks for keeping me in your sidebar!) If this book remains sad, even after the return of God's favor, I doubt I could stand it. The whole point of the Biblical book of Job is redemption. Moving forward. Healing from what has caused us to scrap at our boils with pottery shards. I'm so sad that this doesn't appear to be the case in this Job at all.

  15. Ill equipped, pshaw. Your point is so good that I originally meant to write about it. Why didn't I write about it? I forget.

    There is real joy at the end of the story, real redemption, a miracle that, in context, can only be the return of God's favor, with the suggestion that more miracles might follow.

    I remember as a youngster thinking that God's testing of Job was kind of rough on his children. In the social context of the Biblical book, sons are sons, so one son can be replaced by another, one wife by another. But in our context, our world, this is not true. Roth has to - and some of this is just a matter of plotting - take away Mendel's children and then give them back. They are not all coming back, though. The son killed in combat in Europe, the wife who died from grief, they're not coming back. Not every loss can be made good.

    So, joy amidst sadness, sadness amidst joy. Roth creates a credible miracle within something resembling modern life, a real achievement.

  16. Ah, "not every loss can be made good." Now that is a theme worth exploring...

    I think it takes an extraordinary person to overcome the most painful losses of life. And really, doesn't each one of have, or won't we all at some point have, a loss which makes us want to crumble? I know I have wanted to, at times, and yet somehow I'm given strength to overcome.

    Perhaps Roth is given this strength as well?

    I need to read this book, I think.

  17. Yes, I think you'd get a lot out of it. I was surprised about the extent to which it was a serious book about faith. What is an act of faith?

    1. Are you asking me? I'd have to say it is believing without seeing, and acting accordingly. Venturing forth, and whatnot, when we have no certainty that "it will all be okay."

    2. I meant the question rhetorically, but I will not complain about getting a thoughtful answer!

  18. Yeah, I wouldn't read too much into the personal connections... but there are some there.

  19. Thanks for recommending this excellent novel. My review, in case you are interested:

  20. Ah, a real review. Curious readers might want to read it before or instead of my piece.

  21. I also as I read Job, my ninth Roth work, was struck by how it did seem very much like a Yiddish work. I really liked the depiction of the move to New York City.

  22. Job is a remarkable bit of literary cross-pollination, isn't it?