Joseph Roth stories in ‘Vienna Tales’

This week is Joseph Roth week at German Literature Month. Although the month itself is hosted by Caroline and Lizzy in equal measure (and you will find many outstanding reviews and discover many enticing authors here) , the Joseph Roth special is hosted by Caroline.

From kuenste-im-exil.de
From kuenste-im-exil.de

Joseph Roth was an Austrian Jew who lived and worked both in Vienna and Berlin, fled to Paris after the rise of Hitler in 1933, and died there in 1939, following a period of alcoholism and depression. He is most famous for that masterpiece of a novel documenting the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – Radetzky March (named after the march by Johann Strauss the Elder that is always played at the end of New Year’s Concert of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra).

The three short stories I am talking about here are really journalistic pieces which Roth wrote in 1920, when he was working as a journalist for several short-lived left-wing newspapers in Vienna.

The first of these, Ausflug (Day Out), is almost an impressionist painting of autumn in Grinzing – the outer district of Vienna where the new wine is served at open-air pubs called Heurigen.

You can smell the new wine already at Schottentor, the number 38 tram is tipsy and staggers off hung with bunches of human bodies.

It’s a very short, slight piece, yet it perfectly conveys the drunken shenanigans of the city-dwellers out on a day trip. Blackmarketeers without table manners (one of the most terrible accusations one can make in good old conservative Vienna), ordering hot chocolate and Sachertorte without really knowing what either of them are, sarcastic descriptions of the contrast between peaceful nature and sleepy suburbia and the almost unbearable despoiling of it by the urban hordes.

Grinzing vineyards.
Grinzing vineyards.

Nearly a hundred years later, the tram No. 38 still follows the same route from Schottentor to Grinzing, and the atmosphere is still the same at the Heurigen and in the Wienerwald. Roth was writing at a time when the great empire had disintegrated and he thought the city would be full of traumatic changes. He could not have foreseen that, even after a further World War, the city would change so little. The black marketeers have been replaced by tourists, the atmosphere in the trams is calmer and more subdued, but the outer districts retain their country feel and green vineyards. The pubs are still full of pleasure-seekers speaking and singing in all languages. And the Sachertorte is still rich and sinful.

The second and third piece are portraits of some of the eccentric characters which are also part of the Viennese landscape. In ‘The Spring Ship’ we meet a boatsman and his family, off a white steam ship on the Danube Canal. The yearning for the great wide world in this small landlocked country is evident here. In ‘The Merry-Go-Round’ it’s Herr Rambousek, director of said merry-go-round, which migrates annually all through the Vorstadt neighbourhoods. He wears a suit of blue corduroy velvet and brandishes a horse-whip. He too reeks of the wider world and its dangerous charms…

In just a few pages we catch a glimpse of the sharp observational skills, irony and wistfulness of the Roth style. Even in his mid-twenties, early on in his writing career, he has the knack of the perfect phrase. “The poodle’s chain of thought is soaked now. It trembles, dripping nerves and water.’ ‘People who have city slicker ties around their necks and the boots of country dwellers on their feet.’

ViennaTalesThe whole book ‘Vienna Tales’ (edited by Helen Constantine, translated by Deborah Holmes, published by OUP) is worth reading for the combination of nostalgic and neuralgic insights into the city and its inhabitants. Ingeborg Bachmann is present with a story about a woman whose bad eyesight permits her to distance herself from any painful realities. Bulgarian-born Dimitre Dinev shows us the tribulations of an asylum-seeker in the centre of (still quite xenophobic) Vienna. Arthur Schnitzler is featured with two previously untranslated stories, while other writers such as Christine Nöstlinger, Veza Canetti, Adalbert Stifter and Heinrich Laube are little-known outside their native country.

This is a review linked of course to that wonderful German Literature Month meme as seen below. I’m discovering so many outstanding new writers thanks to having joined this initiative, I am truly grateful. And that’s my Thanksgiving moment for the week! Happy Thanksgiving to all my American friends!