Joseph Roth: Die Geschichte der 1002. Nacht (The String of Pearls; The Tale of the 1002nd Night)

The latest addition to my website is Joseph Roth‘s Die Geschichte der 1002. Nacht (The String of Pearls; The Tale of the 1002nd Night). This is another excellent novel by Roth, focussing on three characters whose life all takes a turn for the worse, particularly as a result of the visit of the Shah of Persia to Vienna in 1873. The Shah wants a particular Austrian countess to sleep with and in order to placate him and preserve her, Baron Taittinger comes up with a look-alike, Mizzi, one of his former flings. The Shah is not too happy but Mizzi is rewarded with a string of pearls. As in other novels, by Roth and others, the pearls bring bad luck for the Baron and Mizzi as well as the owner of the brothel where Mizzi works. We gradually follow the downfall of all three, as a combination of bad luck and trying and failing to function outside of their normal sphere of activity, leads them to disaster. The novel is superbly well told and must rate as one of Roth’s finest.

Joseph Roth: Die hundert Tage (The Ballad of the Hundred; later: The Hundred Days)

The latest addition to my website is Joseph Roth‘s Die hundert Tage (The Ballad of the Hundred; later: The Hundred Days). This novel tells the story of Napoleon’s hundred days. i.e. from when he fled Elba to his defeat at Waterloo and surrender to the British. The book was criticised when it first appeared in Britain as it is relatively sympathetic to Napoleon. As well as following Napoleon – his loneliness and his hubris – we also follow the story of Angelina Pietri, a Corsican laundrywoman in the Tuileries, Napoleon’s palace, who, though receiving and rejecting two marriage proposal and having a son by one of the men, adores only one man, Napoleon Bonaparte, remaining faithful to him to the end. Roth tells his story well and while he is certainly fairly sympathetic towards Napoleon he can also see his faults.

Joseph Roth: Hiob (Job, the Story of a Simple Man)

The latest addition to my website is Joseph Roth‘s Hiob (Job, the Story of a Simple Man). This is a modern (late 19th/early20th century) updating of the story of the Biblical Job, whom God made suffer, in order to test him. Our Job is Mendel Singer, a Russian Jew, living in Zuchnow, a fictitious town in Tsarist Russia. He is married with four children. His youngest is handicapped. Things get worse when his two eldest sons are called up the army, with one fleeing and escaping to the US, and his daughter has a Cossack boyfriend. The son who escaped pays for his parents and sister to join him in the US and things start to look up, when more afflictions fall on Mendel and he ends up wanting to burn God. He eventually adapts and moves on but he does have his fair share of suffering.

Katja Perat: Mazohistka (The Masochist)

The latest addition to my website is Katja Perat‘s Mazohistka (The Masochist). The novel is narrated by Nadezhda von Moser. She was found as a baby, abandoned, in a basket by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the man whom Richard von Krafft-Ebing named masochism after. Sacher-Masoch brought her up but he was neither a good father or husband. She meets the rich Maximilian von Moser and they marry and move to Vienna, where she meets famous people such as Freud (from whom she has treatment), Klimt and Mahler. She is not particularly impressed with any of them or, indeed, with her husband, ending up in Trieste where she meets Rilke and Joyce. It is a very clever,feminist novel, witty and cynical but also serious about sexism and the role of women and what we know to be the final period of the Hapsburg empire.

Joseph Roth: Radetzkymarsch (The Radetzky March)

The latest addition to my website is Joseph Roth‘s Radetzkymarsch (The Radetzky March). This is a superb novel, following the downfall of Austria from its defeat at the Battle of Solferino in 1859 to the death of Emperor Franz Joseph I, who led his troops at Solferino, and who lived till 1916. Along with the downfall of Austria, we follow the rise and downfall of the Trotta family. Lieutenant Joseph Trotta is known as the Hero of Solferino, as he saved Franz Joseph’s life and is amply rewarded. He, his son and his grandson benefit from this, all three meeting the Emperor, but Carl Joseph, the grandson, even with these advantages, like his country, gradually slides down the slope and for all three – Austria, Carl Joseph and the Emperor – it does not end well.

Joseph Roth: Hotel Savoy (Hotel Savoy)

The latest addition to my website is Joseph Roth‘s Hotel Savoy (Hotel Savoy). It tells the story of Gabriel Dan who, in 1919, is returning from three years in a prisoner-of-war camp in Russia. The novel is set entirely in the now Polish town of Łódź which is facing something of an upheaval – loss of German population, numerous returning soldiers passing through and economic disruption. Gabriel stays at the Hotel Savoy, which becomes a microcosm for society, with the poor staying in cramped quarters on the upper floors and the rich enjoying themselves downstairs. We see the city and its problems though Gabriel’s eyes as he tries to survive. His rich uncle offers no help but he manages to earn some money but is less successful with Stasia, the dancer who lives above him. However, a crisis is building up, caused particularly by labour agitation and the wise seek to move on. Roth tells the story very well as we get a wonderful portrait of post-World War I Eastern Europe through Gabriel’s eyes.

Robert Menasse: Die Hauptstadt (Capital)

The latest addition to my website is Robert Menasse‘s Die Hauptstadt (Capital). This is a satire on the European Union, its officials and some of the nationalities who are part of it. The story starts in Place Sainte-Cathérine, in the centre of Brussels, where most of the main characters are to be found at the beginning of the book, including two senior EU officials having an affair, an Auschwitz survivor, a hitman who has just killed someone, an Austrian visiting professor and a pig who seems to be wandering round the square. We follow their stories but the two main themes are (the lack of) EU pig policy and an attempt by the Commission to exploit Auschwitz for a jubilee to promote the Commission. Many of the stories merge while many take unexpected and, in some cases, not very pleasant turns. Menasse has fun mocking EU officials and various nationalities while raising the issue of nationalism vs supranationalism.

Heinrich Eggerth: Die Papierrose [The Paper Rose]

The latest addition to my website is Heinrich Eggerth‘s Die Papierrose [The Paper Rose]. It is narrated by a man whose almost ten year old daughter has died of a brain tumour. He visits her grave almost every day and talks to her, over a period of many years. The books is his (obviously one-sided) conversations with her. We learn about how she died, the two operations she had and her cheerful, chatty nature. We also learn about how bitter he is that she had to die before her time and how he feels guilty – was the tumour caused when she fell off him, when playing, or was God punishing him for not quitting his smoking habit? He tells her of his life and the life of their family (he has a wife and another daughter, though they are barely mentioned) and imagines her growing up and having a family of her own. It is a sad book but not mawkish or overly sentimental. Apart from a few poems, none of Heggerth’s work has been translated into English or any other language.

Christoph Ransmayr: Cox oder Der Lauf der Zeit [Cox or the Course of Time]

The latest addition to my website is Christoph Ransmayr‘s Cox oder Der Lauf der Zeit [Cox or the Course of Time]. The hero of this book is Alister Cox, based on the very real James Cox. Unlike James Cox, Alister Cox travels to China to build clocks for the Chinese Emperor Qianlong. Qianlong is not particularly interested in the clocks and automata that they bring with them but wants a clock that can tell variable time – the time of a child or a lover or a man condemned to death. They work on those clocks and make some progress but the Emperor still seems less than impressed. Then the Emperor says he wants an eternal clock – a clock that works eternally. Cox feels he cam make such a clock but he is warned by Joseph Kiang, his interpreter, that to do so would be to challenge the Emperor, who has sole control of time, and to challenge the Emperor can only end one way – badly. I found this book less interesting than Ransmayr’s other work as it did not seem to really take off but was almost mundane, despite its exotic location and fascinating theme. It has been translated into four other languages but not English.

Aftermath

I recently attended an exhibition at Tate Britain called Aftermath, exploring the impact of World War One on British, German and French art. I have long been fascinated by this period for two reasons.

Knights: Marriage at Cana

Firstly I have long enjoyed the British artists of that period (and up to and including World War II). These include artists, who were in this exhibition, such as Edward Burra, Winifred Knights (whose The Marriage at Cana I was able to see both in Auckland (where it normally lives) and at the Dulwich Picture Gallery), John Nash, his brother Paul Nash, C R W Nevinson, William Roberts and Stanley Spencer. Many of these artists have had something of a rediscovery in the UK in recent years, with exhibitions devoted to them.

The exhibition did, of course, include some interesting French artists, such as Picasso, André Derain, Georges Braque, Fernand Léger and André Masson and German artists such as Max Ernst, Otto Dix and Georg Grosz.

My grandmother who died in the Spanish flu epidemic, with my uncles

My other interest in this period is because World War I changed so much. There were the obvious changes such as the fact that 10 million died and 20 million were injured, large parts of France and Belgium were destroyed, the economies of many European countries were destroyed, it led directly to the Great Depression and the rise of Fascism, various revolutions/civil wars happened (Russia, Ireland, Malta, Hungary, Germany, Egypt, Finland and others) and various countries died/significantly changed their frontiers and/or came into being after the war. Less obvious but still fairly well-known were the Spanish flu epidemic immediately after the war, which took millions of lives, the fact that after the War, the US surpassed Britain and Germany in economic and political power and the fact that after the War, Britain (and other countries, too) moved from being primarily a rural country to being primarily an urban country. In the UK, we have recently celebrated one hundred years of votes for women though, as many pointed out, it was at the same time that all adult men also received the vote. There is no question that the role of women changed after the war, not least because women had to work at men when the men were away fighting and dying.

Many novels and poems were written (and are still being written) about World War I, probably as many if not more than those set in World War II and the American Civil War. I have a long but far from complete list on my main site. Obviously many of those concern the actual conflict as well as life at home. Many of the World War I novels are critical of the conduct of the war. We can read about the terrors of the war, the inefficiency, incompetence and, at times, venality of the powers that be and of the officer class. Some novels show gentlemen declining to be officers and enlisting as other ranks.

The Tate divided its exhibition into eight categories. These are:

  • Remembrance: Battlefield and Ruins
  • Remembrance: War Memorials and Society
  • Traces of War: Wounded Soldiers
  • Traces of War: Dada and Surrealism
  • The Print Portfolio (prints, primarily in France and Germany, widely distributed)
  • Return to Order
  • Imagining Post-War Society: Post-War People
  • Imagining Post-War Society: The New City

While this division is not necessarily terribly helpful in looking at the novel, it does have some relevance. The war-wounded, example, certainly appear in various novels as do ruined battlefields and the idea of a return to order. However, I shall focus on a few novels that are on my website that do look at some of the after-effects of the war. There are, of course, many other novels dealing with this topic that are not on my website. Also, some of these novels will also deal with the war itself before moving on to the after-war period.

It could be argued that many of the great novels of the post-WWI period would not have existed without World War I. Would we have had, for example, Kafka, Joyce, Woolf,Faulkner and many other fine novelists without World War I. The answer is, of course, maybe but they may have been different and we may well have had others who would have revered even more. I shall not, therefore, be looking at those writers and others as regards their writing style and experimentation (Surrealism, Dadaism, etc. probably influenced the novel but were not, on the whole as key as they were in art.)

I shall start with my favourite post-war novel and that is Ford Madox Ford‘s Parade’s End tetralogy. Much of the series – and probably the better part – is set during the war but it is also is very much concerned with what we call world-weariness though other languages have better terms. While researching this issue, this clearly came up as a general issue. Some of it, of course, was post-traumatic stress disorder (then called shell-shock) but a lot of it was a general malaise that affected a lot of people, combatants and others, and Ford deals with it.

One other great English post-World War I novel and one far less known is Henry Williamson‘s The Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight series. This covers a long period – from the late 1890s to the 1950s. It covers World War I, of course and also the aftermath. The Williamson character and hero of the book, Phillip Maddison, does what Williamson actually did (and what D H Lawrence and others did) – retreat from the world, an aspect of world-weariness. Maddison also remarks on the disappearance of the rural around London.

Virginia Woolf‘s Mrs Dalloway is not the only novel to have a shell-shocked soldier in it but Septimus Smith is memorable, not least because he appears in a first-class novel, but also because he is so well portrayed by Woolf, as he retreats into his own world from which he will never return. Sadly, there were many men like him.

Two key themes for US writers were The Lost Generation and the Depression. The obvious Lost Generation work is Ernest Hemingway‘s The Sun Also Rises (UK: Fiesta) with its epigraph You are all a lost generation. Jake Barnes, the hero/narrator, has been wounded and left impotent and joins the list of literary characters, wounded physically and mentally during the war. William Faulkner‘s Soldier’s Pay is not an obvious Lost Generation novel, not least because it is set in the US and not Paris but it does show the effect of the war on those who do not go to Paris.

Many of the French novels of the period are concerned entirely with the grimness of the war, which is not surprising as much of the war was fought in France. Louis-Ferdinand Céline‘s Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night) may be the most miserable book about the post-war period. Ferdinand Bardamu is a deserter and spends much of the book wandering around in a state of misery and encountering the miseries of other people. If you have any doubts as to whether people really were miserable after the war, this book should cure you.

Like other combatants, Germans tended to write about the horrors of the war. The most famous German writer (at least in the English-speaking world) on the war was Erich Maria Remarque. I have not read any of his work. His best-known work – Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) is set during the war. However, he did write a sequel: Der Weg zurück (The Road Back), about the period after the war. His Drei Kameraden (Three Comrades) was about a later period and was made into an excellent US film.

Of the relevant German books I have read, I would mention Ludwig Renn‘s Nachkrieg (After War). His previous book was set during the war while this one deals with the period after the war, with the German Revolution and Kapp Putsch.

Oskar Maria Graf‘s Anton Sittinger (which has not been translated into English) also deals with the post-war period.

Austria was also a combatant. Hermann Broch‘s Die Schlafwandler (The Sleepwalkers) was mainly about the war but it ends with the period immediately afterwards, with Austria descending into chaos. Alexander Lernet-Holenia‘s Die Standarte (The Standard; The Glory is Departed) deals with the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the exile of the Kaiser.

The war was not just about the Western front. Events took place elsewhere and World War I influenced them. I mentioned various revolutions and civil wars. The best-known book in English about the Russian Revolution is, of course, Доктор Живаго (Doctor Zhivago). If you have not read the book, you may well have seen one of he films. Nabokov hated it. It does show the horrors of the Revolution which, of course, came about because of the war.

There are quite a few books about the Easter Rising and the Troubles afterwards. The Irish Times has a list. Liam O’Flaherty‘s Insurrection is an obvious Easter Rising novel and Elizabeth Bowen‘s The Last September an obvious one about The Troubles. However, I hope my Irish friends and relatives will not find it amiss if I mention an English writer, J G Farrell‘s Troubles, which mocks the English (though is not too flattering towards the Irish), as their Empire crumbles beneath them and, in this case, above them.

I would mention the German post-war revolution in passing. Alfred Döblin wrote November 1918: A German Revolution, a tetralogy of novels about this revolution, which I have not read. Ludwig Renn‘s Nachkrieg (After War), mentioned above, also deals with this period.

There were other places involved. I would mention Macedonia, not an obvious one. Petre M. Andreevski‘s Пиреј (Pirey) is about the aftermath of the war in Macedonia with the hated Bulgarians being replaced by the hated Serbs.

Only the first volume of Cezar Petrescu‘s Întunecare (Gathering Clouds) has been translated into English and that deals with the war. However, the second and third volumes deal with the post-war period in Romania. They have been translated into French and German and I hope to get round to them sometime.

Louis de Bernières‘s Birds Without Wings deals with the situation following the fall of the Ottoman Empire as does Dido Sotiriou‘s Ματωμενα Χωματα (Farewell, Anatolia). ‘s Նահանջը առանց երգի (Retreat without Song) deals with it from the perspective of the Armenians, the Armenian genocide and their exile to Paris.

I would mention two excellent more modern novels that deal with the aftermath of the war. Sebastian Faulks‘s Birdsong does take place, in part, during the war but also some of it is set in modern times (i.e. late 1970s) and is about the modern memory of the war. This has been quite common recently with the hundredth anniversary but was less so when Faulks wrote his book. There have been several other novels doing this as well.

Robert Edric‘s Desolate Heaven is less well-known but deals with a group of people shortly after the war who are suffering in various ways. It is a first-class novel which should be better-known.

There are many, many other worthwhile novels on this topic but I hope this will give you a flavour to supplement the Tate exhibition. The exhibition continues till 28 September 2018, so do try and see it if you are in London.