Friday, November 28, 2008

Allegory and an Era

Job: The Story of a Simple Man
by Joseph Roth

Joseph Roth remains little known outside the German-speaking countries, despite being one of the most prolific and talented writers of the twentieth century. He is best remembered for two novels recreating, respectively, the shtetl of the Eastern Jews (Hiob or Job, 1930), and the vanished world of the Habsburg monarchy (Radetzkymarsch or The Radetzky March, 1932). However, Roth was one of the best-known and highest paid journalists in the Weimar Republic, whose articles and Feuilletons about Berlin (What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933), Paris (Report from a Parisian Paradise: Essays from France 1925-1939), Russia and other places seemed to capture the energy and ambivalence of the Zeitgeist, a culture dazzled by competing ideologies, new technologies, and a burgeoning entertainment industry; and in the case of Berlin the particularly ominous onset of Naziism. His novels from the 1920s, the most famous of which is Die Flucht ohne Ende (Flight without End, 1927), portray a damaged generation of young men and women as vividly as those of Hemingway or Fitzgerald.

I have just read the novel Job and find it to be a moving retelling of the Job story from the perspective of the Jews from the netherland border between Poland and Russia at the end of the nineteenth century. It was published in 1930 and marks a turning point in Roth's career. With this novel, Roth takes a transformation of socio-politically motivated journalism to author as a poet of conservative myths. Roth takes for his presentation of Jewish existence within the elements of traditional storytelling. "Job" for Roth meant his breakthrough as a novelist.
Mendel Singer is a pious, God-fearing and ordinary Jew who lives in the idyllic Schtetl Zuchnow and performs there with his family a modest life as a village teacher. But the rest of his life will not be long because it through a chain of hard blows from the meaninglessness of his existence is torn by fate. Still he believed humbly that misfortune was just a test from God. The first blow hit him when his youngest son Menuchim is born with epilepsy. This was followed by the drafting of his oldest son Jonas into the military, with which his traditional Jewish faith did not agree. His second son Schemariah flees to America. Ultimately, Mendel Singer must discover that his daughter Miriam is with Cossacks, French, and what the strictly devout Jews considered the epitome of depravity. The Singers decide to emigrate to America. This trip can only be bought while leaving his youngest son Menuchim behind. In New York Mendel meets a new fate: He loses both sons in World War I, and his wife dies from grief over it. When his daughter becomes insane, he loses his strength, to tolerate and to believe, leading from humility and piety to rebellion and spite; Mendel loses his faith in God. From now on he no longer prays and lives quietly and inward. But now he learns the grace of the Lord; and the prophesy of a rabbi's wonder that his sick son Menuchim would become healthy is fulfilled. When the gifted composer and conductor Alexei Kossak (really Menuchim) comes to America he introduces himself to his father.
Joseph Roth tells the story of Mendel Singer in a language both allegorical and with biblical directness, whose theme is one of divine visitation and the wonder of God's grace. Roth's answer to the question of the meaning of suffering in the spirit of the Bible is the answer of a skeptic, whose life was visitation, the redeeming grace one fervently longs for, but do not to believe they could find or receive.

Job: The Story of a Simple Man by Joseph Roth, trans. by Dorothy Thompson. Overlook Press, New York. 1982 (1930)

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