The meeting was held in the residents’ lounge of Burt’s Hotel in Melrose where seven of the members were celebrating the 10th anniversary of the MBG. After an excellent lunch in a wine shop and a walk along the Tweed (for the majority, two arrived later by bike from Edinburgh) members settled down at 5.00 pm to a two hour pre-dinner session on the book. The proximity of the bar with good local Border brewery beers on tap assisted the discussion of a book with a strong alcohol presence.
The proposer opened by saying that the MBG had already considered German novels from the Twentieth Century by Franz Kafka and Gunter Grass and he wished to introduce a novel by another writer in German, Joseph Roth. The proposer was a keen student of the pre 1914 Habsburg Empire and had discovered Roth’s work as a result. Although less well known than Kafka, Grass and Thomas Mann, he considered Roth to be in that class of writer, a judgement shared by other more eminent critics.
For example, the Best German Novels of the Twentieth Century, is a list of books compiled in 1999 in which 99 prominent German authors literary critics, and scholars of German ranked the most significant German-language novels of the twentieth century. The group brought together 33 experts from each of the three categories. Each was allowed to name three books as having been the most important of the century (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Best_German_Novels_of_the_Twentieth_Century). Ranked in order, these were
- Robert Musil: The Man Without Qualities
- Franz Kafka: The Trial
- Thomas Mann: The Magic Mountain
- Alfred Döblin: Berlin Alexanderplatz
- Günter Grass: The Tin Drum
- Uwe Johnson: From the Life of Gesine Cresspahl
- Thomas Mann: Buddenbrooks
- Joseph Roth: Radetzky March
- Franz Kafka: The Castle
- Thomas Mann: Doctor Faustus
The proposer further summarised some of the principal milestones in Roth’s life (1894-1939) which can be found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Roth. He emphasised the influence of Jewish culture, WW1 and the fall of the Hapsburg Empire, and the rise of the third Reich on his life and writing. He explained that Roth also considered his relationship to Catholicism very important and may even have converted. Michael Hofmann states that Roth “was said to have had two funerals, one Jewish, one Catholic.” In his last years, he moved from hotel to hotel, drinking heavily. His novella The Legend of the Holy Drinker (1939) chronicles the attempts made by an alcoholic vagrant to regain his dignity and honour a debt.
As is often the case, members discussed first what translation they had read. Two had been read: one by Michael Hoffman, Roth’s main English translator, and the other by Joachim Neugroschel who had translated the Penguin Classic version. Readers of each version were enthusiastic about their translations and a comparison of some passages revealed reassuring similarities. The proposer, however, did indicate a preference for Hoffman’s use of ‘ Habsburg’ with ’b’ rather than Neugroschel’s ‘p’. It was also noted that Hoffman had translated the name for the local schnapps as 90 rather than 180 proof which Neugroschel had used.
Comparisons were made between the translations of various passages that had impressed readers’ e.g. the return of Carl Joseph’s love letters in Chapter 4; the physical description of Franz Joseph at the beginning of Chapter 15; the fourth sentence of the book ‘Fate had elected him for a special deed. But he then made sure that later times lost all memory of him.’
The general response to the book was enthusiastic. It was written, translated and flowed very well. There were rich, poetic scenes both of the natural and human world. It was an elegiac, poignant novel. Comparisons with Chekhov, Hardy and Joyce were made.
There were some superb set scenes suffused by Roth’s sense of the ridiculous: Solferino; the meeting between Carl Joseph and Sergeant Slama, the husband of his mistress; the sex scenes; the gambling, duels and drinking of army life; Carl Joseph’s attempt to live as a peasant; the party during which the assassination of Franz Ferdinand is revealed; the non-heroic death of Carl Joseph.
It was a male dominated novel with women in subordinate roles and there was dispute about how well the women were portrayed.
The use of the pictures of the hero of Solferino and the Emperor Franz Joseph was well done. The similarities between the two were well brought out. The proposer said he had recently been in a restaurant in Cracow which had a picture of Franz Joseph on the wall though Cracow had left the Habsburg Empire a century ago.
There was some discussion of Roth’s treatment of Jews. Roth was a Jew at a time of growing persecution but in his writing he portrayed Jews as whatever he perceived, warts and all. Some saw the book as portraying an archaic world where duels involving honour over gambling debts or love affairs occurred. The role of the army as a unifying force within the Empire was noted. One of those present said his brother-in-law had been a member of a duelling club at a German university and had the scars to prove it! The proposer volunteered that at university he had been run through some four inches during a fencing bout.
The book was a wonderful evocation of its world. Roth was not recreating a historical account of the past, as Tolstoy did in War and Peace, but writing as one who lived it. He was obsessed with the events of his own time.
The book had a sense of the helplessness of the individual participants and the empire struggling against an inexorable fate. All the Trottas were incapable of action and were unable to form proper relationships. Random chance had brought them to prominence and they had not adapted well to their new noble status. They were not alone in this; all the characters in the novel were locked into their roles, apart from perhaps the Polish Count Chojnicki.
The juxtaposition of borders and opposites, e.g. monarchy/revolution was perfectly expressed in the frontier between the two empires of Franz Joseph and the Tsar in Ukraine. Roth was a pessimist. He said his characters were not ‘intended to exemplify a political point of view- at most they demonstrate the old and eternal truth that the individual is always defeated in the end.’ Roth saw the old pre 1914 world as obsolete but the new post 1914 world was worse in many ways. He came to see the values in the old world as superior to the new.
The meeting concluded in general agreement that the book had been an excellent choice for the tenth anniversary and in a mellow mood adjourned to dinner and the bar.