The Legend of the Holy Drinker, Joseph Roth, tr. Michael Hofmann, Granta, 2013.
The Legend of the Holy Drinker was first published, posthumously, in German in 1939 and in English in 1989. The novella was written in the four months preceding Roth’s death on 27 May, 1939. He was not quite forty-five years old.
I find it very sad that Roth’s life was snuffed out so soon. His last years were spent in Paris and were blighted by his alcoholism and poverty. Despite being a renowned journalist and writer, the fact that he was Jewish meant that he was exiled from Austria. He became disillusioned with the world and his life turned to bitter ashes, especially after his wife was diagnosed with schizophrenia and confined to a mental institution. Living a hand-to-mouth existence in Paris, his health deteriorated and he died from the complications of an addiction to alcohol.
The Legend of the Holy Drinker tells the tale of Andreas, a Polish coal miner who has made his way to France and is down on his luck. He is astounded when he appears to encounter a string of ‘miracles’ that have the potential to turn his life around. One evening, wandering the streets of Paris, he encounters a well-dressed man who is intent on giving away some money. His only stipulation is that when Andreas is in the financial position to do so, he must go to a particular church and leave the same amount of money with the priest there, in honour of St Therese whose story had inspired the man to do good works. Andreas is taken aback but agrees. He then has a run of good luck: finding temporary work, meeting an ex-work colleague from home, reacquainting himself with an old school friend who is now a famous footballer, hooking up with an old girlfriend, finding a substantial sum of money, and meeting a beautiful young girl who seems to like him. It is all rather like the dream a down-and-out alcoholic would have and the book is all the more poignant because of that. Roth was on his last legs when he wrote the story, and it seems to me that what he wrote is wish fulfilment, especially the final line, ‘May God grant us all, all of us drinkers, such a good and easy death!’
The prose in the version of the novella I read is lovely, but there is an interesting paragraph in the introduction about Roth’s style of writing and some of the decisions Hofmann made about transposing the German to English:
It is customary – and usually correct – to praise Roth’s style for its simplicity. But Roth is not monosyllabic and not Hemingway. He is a thoughtful, quirky and refined writer. Simplicity in English is apt to be taken for rawness, simple-mindedness or blandness, and Roth is very far from being any of these. Nor would he have allowed simplicity to obstruct him in what he was saying. Therefore, after little hesitation I have decided to plump for a style that gives expression to Roth’s ironic capacity, flexibility and qualities of thought. In English, this means using French and Latin words, and this I have very occasionally done, conscious all the time that Roth would have deplored such a practice (and even more the condition of the language that necessitates it), but thinking that in the end he too would have had to adopt it.
Hmm. Clearly, I did not read a literal translation but a version that has been consciously re-written in order to reflect Roth’s ‘style’, as both a writer and a thinker. I would dearly love to be able to read the original and see how the two versions differ. A ‘clochard’, for instance, a term used to describe Andreas, can mean a beggar or a vagrant. It seems to me that there is quite a degree of difference between those two words: a beggar actively engages in soliciting money from people, and begging is an action that has moral implications, whereas a vagrant refers to a person who is simply without a permanent home. So, was Andreas a beggar or a vagrant? In the story he did not beg anyone for money but he was certainly homeless. The use of the word clochard in the early part of the story does rather cloud the issue and I wonder if this was deliberate? I wonder if using a less ambiguous term may have given us a different view of Andreas from the outset? The problems inherent in the art of translating continue to nag away at me: how do translators sleep at night with all the questions and decisions whizzing around in their brains?
I am interested in reading something of Roth’s that is more substantial, to see how he goes with sustaining a longer narrative. I liked The Legend of the Holy Drinker for its brevity and simplicity but I want to enter more fully into Roth’s mind-world. I have Hotel Savoy on a shelf somewhere and plan on reading it next year. Forty-five years is a short lifespan, however, Roth appears to have packed a lot of living into those years. I want to read a biography of him and find out more about his life and his relationship with his cruel and ugly mistress, Mademoiselle Alcoholic Beverage, however there is still no English language biography and I do not really fancy reading the English translation of his letters because it sounds as though they do not show him at his best.
I read this book for German Literature Month 2014.