There is a hat trick of literary Roths out there, waiting to be collected by literary completists. Personally I’ve written extensively about the late Philip Roth (admittedly not on the blog, but only because it would feel repetitive after completing my MA dissertation on him many years ago). His compatriot Henry Roth on the other hand was the subject of a glowing New York book recommendation when I reviewed his sublime ‘Call it Sleep‘. I was only missing Joseph Roth to finish the set.
In a convoluted way I suppose I had vaguely planned to repeat my Henry success by reading Joseph on location. All I needed to do was go on holiday to Austria, get hold of a copy of ‘The Radetsky March’ (which I understand to be an Austro-Hungarian ‘War and Peace’) and wait for the magic to happen. While this remains an ambition, real life fortuitously gave my plans to read all the Roths a boost when a friend was able to lend me a precious copy of ‘Rebellion,’ a lesser known, and much shorter book by the Austrian third of the trio.
At the time I didn’t realise how lucky I was. Not only is ‘Rebellion’ an example of angry interwar literature that fits perfectly alongside Haffner’s ‘Blood Brothers‘ and Fallada’s ‘The Drinker,’ it is incredibly hard to get hold of. The book cover image above is from an edition currently going for well over £700 on Amazon; I believe my friend got her Granta edition (translated by Michael Hofmann) from a library sale for a somewhat lower sum, but count myself no less responsible for reviewing it fairly and getting the precious volume back to her in pristine condition.
After that long introduction, ‘Rebellion’ is a very short and direct book, a precise snap-shot view of an unimportant man, living in a time and place to which subsequent events have given terrible significance. The story begins among the inhabitants of an Austrian military hospital:
They were blind or halt. They limped. They had shattered spines. They were waiting to have limbs amputated, or had recently had them amputated. The war was in the dim and distant past. They had forgotten about squad drill, about the Sergeant Major, the Captain, the Company, the Emperor’s birthday, the parade, the trenches, going over the top. They had made their own individual peace with the enemy. Now they were readying themselves for the next war: against pain, against artificial limbs, against crippledom, against hunchbacks, against sleepless nights, and against the healthy and the hale.
Only Andreas Pum was content with things as they were.
‘Rebellion’ concerns this Andreas, a man who feels a medal is appropriate compensation for his missing leg and sees order and justice in his place in post-War Austria. Satisfied that ‘ordinary people shouldn’t get mixed up in the affairs of clever men,‘ Andreas is as pompous, bigoted and pitiable as the hero of Babbitt – published in America only two years before ‘Rebellion.’ Perhaps it is symptomatic of the differing fates of Austria and America going into and out of the coming conflict that while Babbitt’s story is essentially a comedy, ‘Rebellion’ is a blackly comic tragedy, from its bleak opening and right through Andreas’s conversion from a yes-man of the system to an embittered self-proclaimed rebel.
Ironically, Anreas’s downfall from contented stooge to miserable outcast comes from his own inability to live up to his advice. One single instance of getting ‘mixed up in the affairs of clever men‘ (too tragically petty to recount here) will shatter his complacent illusions – and without his illusions his physical, intellectual and spiritual poverty is inescapable. As the set up makes clear, ‘Rebellion’ was never going to be a cheerful novel, but it more than makes up for this with the cold passion of Roth’s prose and powerful protest against his world.
My final recommendation – read ‘Rebellion’ if you can get hold of a copy. Meanwhile, I’d really appreciate recommendations for which Joseph Roth novel I should read next (as I plan my endlessly deferred trip to his home country…)