May 16, 2008
Joseph Roth: The String of Pearls
I feel that Joseph Roth has had a sort of invisible presence on this blog – through his lover Irmgard Keun and his devoted translator Michael Hofmann – so it’s about time I wrote about one of his books. A couple of years ago I read and enjoyed The Legend of the Holy Drinker, which apparently was the last book Roth wrote and was published posthumously. The daunting question when delving into any new author then is: where next? My semi-logical solution: get the next last book, and stick to translations by the reliable Michael Hofmann. Granta Books seem to have cottoned onto the latter as a selling point: Hofmann, unusually, is named on the cover, and the By the Same Author page also includes a list of books By the Same Translator. Michael: you’ve made it.
I hope it hasn’t gone to his head: Hofmann has boldly changed the title of The String of Pearls (1939, the last book published in Roth’s lifetime). Its original name was The Tale of the 1002nd Night. Changing a title so comprehensively is not something to be undertaken lightly, but here I think it works. The difficulty with Roth’s original title, full of Eastern promise, was that it pins down the story onto the opening chapters, which end up seeming little more than a prelude.
Which is to damn it with faint praise, as those opening chapters are among the most engaging in the book. They take us back to the 19th century, and tell us of the Shah of Persia, who experiences an unaccustomed “sense of malaise” which he decides to alleviate by taking a trip to Europe. “You know I haven’t touched a woman for weeks,” he tells his eunuch, Patominos, who responds by informing the Shah that he feels sorry for him:
For many reasons, but especially because men are driven to the pursuit of variety. And that is a treacherous objective, because there is no such thing as variety.
Nonetheless the Shah takes his trip, to the Dual Monarchy of Austria and Hungary, and the wit Roth brings to every detail is magnificent, from the ship’s captain who invents a storm to explain to the Shah why the ship is sailing in circles (in fact they are awaiting word from the Persian Amabassador before docking), or the niceties of political and media spin when the Shah arrives in Austria:
Carriages were boarded and driven away. Behind a blue wall of soldiery, the populace cried out their huzzahs. The horses of the mounted policemen became jumpy and, much against the wishes of their riders, kicked out. There were twenty-two injuries. The police report in the Fremdenblatt merely noted three instances of people ‘fainting’ from ‘emotion’.
Once in Vienna, the Shah is delighted to discover that his hoped-for variety is present – “How was it that the women in his harem at home were a thing of indifference, even irritation to him, while these women here, in Vienna, seemed to belong to a different race, an unknown people that were as yet undiscovered?” – and finds one who dazzles him, Countess W., at a ball held in his honour. “One looked for a moment and felt so richly rewarded one felt like saying thank you.” The Shah makes known his desire for her. The Countess of course is not available on such terms, but an Austrian officer, Baron Taittinger, happens to know a prostitute who closely resembles her…
This sounds like the plot of a crude farce – and it is – but it’s merely the set-up for the meat of the story. When the Shah rewards Countess W’s lookalike, Mizzi Schinagl, with a string of pearls, the valuable gift becomes the MacGuffin from which the rest of the book develops. However at this point Roth both accelerates his pace and widens his concerns, so that from here the book feels crammed, overstuffed with too many characters and developments even for an author as skilful as Roth to give full justice to. It seems to have the ambition and aims of a 600-page epic, a Dickensian doorstop, but without each element given space to breathe. As a consequence he is forced too often to distance the reader by telling us what has happened to various characters rather than showing.
This is not to deny the continued beauty of Roth’s observations, particularly his loving – though not indulgent – portrayal of Vienna and Austria, and his sympathetic but ironic portrayal of characters like poor (and then, through the gift of pearls, rich) Mizzi:
As far as men were concerned, the only reason Mizzi bothered with them was because she was quite convinced that life without them was no more possible than life without oxygen. When she had been poor and working and had not known what to do, she had accepted money. Now she could offer them love for nothing. It was good for her, to offer love for nothing. Sometimes it was she who paid men. Some were pleased to borrow from her for their ‘business’. She didn’t care for any of them. Men had been her daily, her nightly bread. She was like a poor quarry seeking its own hunters.
Among the themes seems to be the one Roth would visit again in The Legend of the Holy Drinker: that money will bring only temporary happiness, and lasting sadness; or rather that those typically without money will never retain it for long. There is social awareness which seems as recognisable to us as to the particular historic setting – a declining empire – which the book evokes. I had mixed feelings about The String of Pearls: a faint dissatisfaction that the whole of the book did not retain the poise and pace of the opening scenes, and yet the distinct awareness that my reading of it did not do justice to the brilliance of so many elements brought together. (As a result I’m itching for recommendations of where to go next with Roth.) Roth’s characters are real but distinct and often larger than life, so we can see a trace of the author when a waxwork manufacturer, at the end of the book, says:
I might be capable of making figures that have heart, conscience, passion, emotion and decency. But there’s no call for that at all in the world. People are only interested in monsters and freaks, so I give them their monsters. Monsters are what they want!