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.

The String of Pearls

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!


  1. John: I wonder if you’ve read The Radetzky March yet (translated by Michael Hofman!). Hofman writes that this novel is often taken….’as tantamount or equivalent to Roth. In a game of literary consequences, if A says Joseph Roth, B says The Radetzky March.’ It’s a bleak, beautiful book.

  2. Thanks Wendy, I haven’t read The Radetzky March yet, though I am uncomfortably aware that all Roth roads seem to lead there, so it’s only a matter of time. I say ‘uncomfortably’ because it seems to be his longest book and carry so much advance expectation that I will invariably fail to do it justice in my reading, or have such a high level of anticipation that I’m bound to be disappointed. But I do keep returning to those corner shelves where his books are stocked in my (and your, I presume!) local Waterstone’s, fingering the spines indecisively. That corner, in fact, has become my richest source of reading delights of late, with Roths Joseph and Philip, as well as James Salter all nearby.

  3. Yes, I haven’t read it yet, but Radetzky March is supposed to be his master work (though Hofmann’s translation of it is really hard to find in North America). I have read some of his journalistic observations or ‘feuilletons’, which are collected in *What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933* and *Report from a Parisian Paradise: Essays from France, 1925-1939*. Highly recommended.

  4. Nothing to do with present discussion but I finished my second Fitzgerald today. Completely different from The Blue Flower and totally wonderful, The Golden Child is funny as hell. You should read it.

  5. That’s great Candy, and I enjoyed reading your blog piece about it. I have imposed an embargo on buying any more books at the minute so I will have to read The Blue Flower before I consider getting The Golden Child!

    Paul, thanks for the recommendations. I had noticed some non-fiction titles (translated by ‘the Hof’!) which sound similar to those in my trawl of Roth’s books online. And it looks as though The Radetzky March is fast approaching a tipping point of approval where I am going to have to get it. Thank heavens for the embargo!

  6. Hofmann: yes, everything he writes. His translation of his father’s last novel, Lichtenberg & The Little Flower Girl (which you muse about elsewhere, and which Mark Thwaite has written about, and which is wonderful), was published by New Directions in the US in 2004; no UK publisher having taken it (and there’s a sermon to be written on that), CB editions (a kitchen-table venture that I set up last year) will be bringing out a UK edition in the autumn. More details will be on an expanded CBe website next month. Other autumn titles will include translations of the Polish writer Andrzej Bursa and of prose poems by Francis Ponge.

  7. Thanks Charles. Yes I did mention Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl elsewhere, and I will pick up a copy as soon as I can. I saw mention of your other books on another blog recently, though I can’t remember where now. Good luck with the ongoing venture. Small publishers increasingly seem to be where the interesting stuff is going on.

  8. Wendy and Paul may be pleased to know that I almost bought The Radetzky March when I was in Cambridge last week. Sadly I was confused into inactivity by the choice of two editions, both of which had things going for them. The Granta edition was translated by Michael Hofmann, and the Penguin Modern Classic had a nice cover and was, well, a Penguin Modern Classic. So I chickened out of a decision and bought his 1929 novel Right and Left (tr. Hofmann!) instead.

  9. Now, you see, if I had been there, I would have bought all three books and then felt guilty about it for days. I haven’t heard of Right and Left. I’ll have to look it up.

  10. I recently read Radetzky March which is superb. Deeply elegant & of real substance. Just started Hotel Savoy, which is a very slim volume but from the brief amount I’ve read, every bit as great.

  11. To add, I read Hofmann’s Radetzky which judging from the pleasure of reading it, is the one I’d unhesitatingly recommend, though Hotel Savoy is by a John Hoare I think, & seems to have the same deep effortless style also.

  12. Thanks Andrew. I did have a copy of Hotel Savoy around somewhere which I must look out. And yes, the Hofmann Radetzky it has to be I think. Thanks for the recommendations.

  13. Hotel Savoy is indeed tremendous.

    Also possibly worth investigating is Roth’s journalism. What I Saw is a collection of short essays (feuilletons is I believe the term, I don’t think there is a word for it in English, one to two page essays on a single point of interest, nowadays they’d be blog posts) about Berlin in the 1920s and early 30s. The White Cities is a similar collection of pieces about Paris. By way of example, one piece might be about a department store, another about Turkish baths.

    They’re well written, though they’re not books to read cover to cover. Each piece was originally designed as a short article for a newspaper, the intent was never that they be read one after the other consecutively in the way they now have to be collected.

    Still, they’re interesting historical documents and they’re examples of some highly skilled writing. Might be worth taking a look at.

  14. Agh, I read through the whole thread but somehow missed Paul’s post. Sorry for that. White Cities is I think the same as *Report from a Parisian Paradise: Essays from France, 1925-1939*, under another title.

  15. No need for apologies, Max – always useful to be reminded about these books. I’ve picked up a collection of Roth’s stories, as well as Right and Left, as mentioned above, but none of his non-fiction, yet.

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