Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Silent Prophet - Joseph Roth

A year ago, I did not know that there were two famous Roths in the literary world (may be there are more and I will still take years to find them out but I can only speak as far as the extent of my current knowledge goes). During the year, I read Philip Roth for the first time and appreciated his work - I amassed a few of his books which still lie unread on my shelf. While hunting for his books, in the same section I found books from another Roth - Joseph Roth. Since I like experimenting and have a little bias towards East European authors and more for writings grounded in real history, I picked up The Silent Prophet. It is only now, a few months after the purchase could I reach this book buried in my long pile of waitlists. After reading the book, I am left with a sense of deep melancholy and alienation. This is not to say that the book is depressing - far from it, it is very engaging and penetrates the superficial public image of revolution leaders created and left to us by media, and brings out the real person that remains hidden behind this image.

Referred to as Roth's Trotsky novel, the book loosely borrows from the life of the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky to draw its own central character Friedrich Kargan. Kargan, at a young age gets involved in the revolution, spends time in the Siberian prison after being caught in an attempt to enter Russia to spread his ideas; he escapes and returns to Russia after the revolution to become the leader of the red army. However, after his return, he is perturbed with the growing bureaucratization of his country and realizes that the revolution he was trying to bring was already a dead idea and he already a man belonging to the past generation. Disappointed, he choses exile to Germany and spends his time in solitude and a discontent that is caused by rootlessness.
Through the writing, Roth has beautifully impounded on the disillusion that follows a great revolution, when all the ideas leading up to a revolution suddenly become extinct in the world after the inflexion point arrives. The peak of such a great upheaving then, is also its nadir and it leaves the leaders of such a revolution to leave gaping and without goals - now that their work is apparently over.
It is also a novel of exile and alienation, bringing to front in Roth's own words as to how it feels on being banished from your own country. It was a feeling that presumably also played largely in his own life after the collapse of the Hapsburg empire where he had been serving in the army. In many ways, Kargan could be said to draw from Roth himself as much as he drew from Trotsky. Perhaps, that is why the words do not sound superimposed and ring with a disturbing reality, not even losing this reality through the translation. The solitude that is present throughout the book, is suddenly confronted by Roth in the chapters of his exile, specially when Kargan falls ill:
He lay alone in his room, in fever's soft delirium, cosseted by solitude for the first time. Till now he had known only its cruel constancy and its obstinate muteness. Now he recognized its gentle friendship and caught the quite melody of its voice. No friend, no loved one and no comrade. Only thoughts came, like children, simultaneously begotten, born and grown.
Expressive words with a resounding sincerity. It is of course credit also to the translator, David Le Vay, that the sincerity transpired to the English text as well.
The Editor's note tells me that the manuscript was never revised and prepared for publication during Roth's lifetime - he had apparently shelved his Trotsky novel, even after making 3 diligent drafts. The published text is a result of a laborious and painstaking task of reconstructing the final work by leafing parts of the three drafts together.
When coming across such writers, I feel a little bit of panic and anxiety over what all good literature I might be missing out because there is not enough time to read it or not enough publicity is given to them. I wish I could just scoop it all up and read everything worth reading - and sometimes this feeling is greater than the joy that reading brings - I think I am, after all, that ridiculous reader from Calvino's book, hunting desperately through books, overlooking sometimes the leisure of reading.


Alok said...

I haven't read this one but his other (and most famous) novel The Radetzky March is one of my all-time favourites. I have read few of his novellas and short stories too. Actually what you wrote about this book was not unexpected for me. In all his writings you find the same mood, same kind of characters - people coming to terms with disillusionment. The first world war, specially the dissolution of the austro-hungarian empire is always at the center of the story. (Russian revolution belongs to the same cycle of events which ushered the world into a chaotic and disorderly modern age.)

It is great how he links this political event with the events in the personal lives of his characters... he even takes it to philosophical level. end of empire meant to him like end of God... or rather the end of the illusion of God.

Alok said...

There was an excellent essay in new yorker about him sometime back. Long but really worth reading, specially the sad details of his life.

Madhuri said...

Alok, Thanks for the link - it was a very good article. I have been thinking of reading The Radetzky March ever since I heard of Roth, but I instinctively always start on an author with a less popular work.
Are any of his stories available online? Would love to read them.

Alok said...

I couldn't find any of his writings online. But other than March, I loved two of his short stories The Bust of the Emperor and Stationmaster Fallmereyer and also the novella Rebellion.

runawaysun said...

Joseph Roth is a wonderful writer, though not too many have heard of him. If you liked 'The Radetzky March', I'm sure you'll enjoy his short stories. Try 'The Collected Shorter Fiction of Joseph Roth'.

Madhuri said...

Thanks for the recommendations, will keep these works in mind.