Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The String of Pearls by Joseph Roth

"A fairy story that has swallowed a novel..." Michael Hofmann, in the Introduction to his translation of "Die Geschichte der 1002en Nacht" or "The Tale of the 1002nd Night" sums up Joseph Roth's artistry admirably. Roth's writing is indeed Dickensian in style "but at a third of the length" - an even more admirable quality in my books. This volume published by Granta books London is delightful to hold and delightful to read.

It is not without its disturbing qualities. And by disturbing I don't mean scary or unpalatable; I mean disquieting, uncomfortable and rousing the reader to deep contemplation of the world and its human occupants.

The story is set in 18-- and for the most part in Vienna. It starts in Persia however with the Shah-in-Shah who is "sick". His Chief Eunuch diagnoses boredom but not in so many words and so the royal delegation and all its retinue head off to Vienna in search of variety. The Shah's visit has unintended consequences for various unsuspecting individuals which I won't reveal for fear of spoiling the story.

This is my first experience of Roth. I will definitely be going back for more. So many of the passages in this book are spine-chilling in their accurate observations of human frailty. His characters often commit "monstrous" acts and yet the reader is still compelled to observe them with compassion if only out of a knowledge of shared weaknesses.

Here is one little quote to give you a sense of his style:

"Experiences, when one encountered them, looked bright, colourful, floating. You held on to them as to a balloon on a string, for as long as they were fun. Then, when you got bored, you let go. They floated off prettily into the air, you watched them go with gratitude and affection, and they they went quietly pop somewhere in the clouds. But a few hadn't gone pop at all. Instead, treacherous and invisible, they had hung around somewhere for years, in defiance of all the rules of Nature. And then, full of ballast, they fell back like lead weights on the head of poor Taittinger."

Roth's observation of humanity is almost scientific in its accuracy but mercifully he softens it with a large dollop of droll humour. Enjoy!

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