Nov 262014

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.

Nov 252014

Today is White Ribbon Day. It is a day to think about the violence that men perpetrate against women, in all its forms and permutations: killing, rape, pornography, assault, sexism, verbal harassment…

I grew up in a family where violence was the norm and I drifted into a violent relationship when I was a teenager. It took me a long time to get out of that situation because I did not know that what was happening to me was wrong. As stupid as it sounds now, I really had no clue that what I was experiencing was domestic violence. A lot of women are in that situation. He tells you that he loves you and you believe him and you forgive him, again and again. But, I have learnt that love is a verb. It is not what he says but what he does that counts. Hurting you or your children, trying to control where you go and what you do, or hurting your pets is not love. And it is never your fault. No one deserves to be hurt. No one is unworthy of love. There are people who will help you, so reach out and tell someone.


We’re all in this together, so if you know someone who you think is being abused, do something. No one deserves to live in fear and shame. If you know someone who holds sexist views of women, call them on their bullshit. Tell them you don’t find their joke funny, or that what they said is disrespectful to women. Be part of the solution and not part of the problem. One in four women in Australia has experienced male violence. The way to change this shocking statistic is for men to own their attitudes and behaviour. Perpetrating violence is a choice and never an excuse.

Nov 242014

Mesmerized, Alissa Wasler, tr. Jamie Bulloch, MacLehose Press, 2012.

When I interrogated the library catalogue and saw this book listed, I thought it would be right up my avenue. Historical fiction about Franz Mesmer, the German doctor who came up with the idea of animal magnetism? Yes, please. So, I borrowed the book and sat down to read. Oh. Dear. Although I wanted to love the book and had high hopes for my enjoyment of it, sadly, I found the writing style so unappealing that only the fact that it was a library book prevented me from throwing it at the wall. The problem, and it was a deal-breaking, major problem for me, is that the book is composed of sentence fragments. Yes. The book. It is written in fragments. And so many sentences begin with ‘and’. Which drove me batty. Because. Dude. Just find and use some conjunctions. And stop torturing me. With ugly prose construction. It is difficult. To read an entire book that sounds like this. I struggled to the end, but I did not really engage with the novel. There were some lush descriptions of interiors and landscapes, and the characterisations were interesting, but the prose itself killed the possibility for any proper engagement with the narrative.

Anyway, the novel tells how, in 1777, Mesmer treated Maria Theresa Paradis (1759–1824), a famous blind pianist for whom Mozart possibly wrote a piano concerto in 1788. She had been blind since the age of three and her her eyes spasmed in a rather disconcerting manner. She was a musical prodigy who had come to the notice of the Empress of Austria and had been granted a state pension [of 200 florins a year]. Her parents had tried many cures, and finally Mesmer was called in to give his opinion.

Unfortunately there is a some fairly nonsensical padding in the novel:

Disgust begins with ugh. Just as relishing nice smells begins with mmmhs and aaahs. When Kaline dabs her face with scent-covered fingers. And sneaks behind her ears, on the shoulders, wrists, between her breasts. In those places where a young lady should be fragrant. Like flowers in her parents’ garden. Which she picks and pushes between her lips. Separating the petals with her tongue. One after another. Feeling them go limp. She doesn’t spit them out, but draws them into her mouth. Until they stick to her palate. Where she stores them with her tongue. So that at least she can taste something. The taste of green. Yellow. Pink…

Also, it seems to me that the prose style gives the characters a more modern sensibility, somehow. If you are going to write a novel about eighteenth-century people, you probably need to make them sound like people who lived in the eighteenth century. Maria Theresa’s ambition to be famous did not sound authentic to me:

After all that friends and relatives have told her, seeing must be the loveliest activity there is. Lovelier than speaking and singing. Although singing is definitely one of the loveliest. And she wants to play the piano. For a professional career you need eyes. If you can’t see, you can’t be seen either. If you can’t be heard, you’re not alive. That’s what her father says. And she totally agrees with him. She wants to travel. To Italy and England. Become famous. Throughout Europe. Maybe in America, too. She wants to play concerts to foreigners. In foreign cities. She wants to know what they look like. What people look like. And animals. She wants to appear with magnificent coiffures, in elegant dresses and look people in the eye.

Sadly, this book did not work for me, and I am sorry about that because the story of Franz Mesmer and Maria Theresa Paradis has a lot of novelistic potential.

I read this book for German Literature Month 2014.

Nov 222014

Winters in the South, Norbert Gstrein, tr. Anthea Bell and Julian Evans, MacLehose, 2012.

Winters in the South is set in the former Yugoslavia and Argentina, just as the ethnic conflicts that saw the break up of Yugoslavia began, in 1991. Marija has recently turned fifty and has lived in Vienna since she was five, having fled there from Dalmatia with her mother at the end of World War II. Her father, who fought on the losing side in that war as an anti-Communist, had escaped to Argentina and made a new life for himself, but Marija and her mother never knew what happened to him, and he told people that his wife and child were dead.

Marija is a university lecturer married to a high-flying journalist who used to be a well-known Communist supporter in Austria. Their marriage is on the rocks and Marija does not seem to like him much at all any more, especially since she found out about his latest affair. Once, he used to think she was special because she came from the former Dalmatian coast and he prized her as his ‘Mediterranean beauty’, but now they have lapsed into squabbling and are bored with one another. So, just as it looks like war will break out in Yugoslavia, Marija decides to leave safe Vienna and travel to dangerous Zagreb and stay there for a while. Her husband is not too happy about this but offers to drive her, and off they go.

Meanwhile, a Viennese policeman named Ludwig has been having a holiday in Argentina. He has recently suffered a personal trauma and needed to get away for a while. On his last day there he meets a beautiful woman who offers him a job as a family bodyguard, and not really wanting to go home – he has nothing there except his ex-wife and their young daughter – Ludwig agrees to meet the woman’s husband and learn more about the job offer. The husband turns out to have escaped from Yugoslavia after World War II, for unspecified reasons, and he is now rich and married to his third wife and has young twin daughters, two snarling German Shepherds, and a firing range in the basement of his house.

Back in Zagreb, Marija picks up a young soldier who is in town for a few days of R&R before heading off to the fighting again and they have a tawdry sex thing. I guess this is where I completely lost interest in the book, because Marija’s character reads like a man’s fantasy of how a woman might act, and I did not buy it. The man in Argentina’s young wife is another male fantasy of ‘the feminine’, with her bleached hair, layers of makeup, rampant sexuality and monetary greed. I am the last person to play the gender card when it comes to fiction, but I just did not buy these two characters as anything more than stereotypes that have been written a million times before. The two main male characters, Ludwig and his unnamed employer, are equally as unoriginal – the escaped war criminal (depending on which side you fought) and the traumatised cop – and Gstrein’s treatment of them was entirely predictable.

Anyway, when it looks like war will break out, the man in Argentina hies back to his old country, eager to be of relevance once again. He thinks he might find his lost daughter via an ad in the newspaper, and lo and behold! she just happens to be there in Zagreb and reads it. What happens next? Well it is probably not what you expect, or maybe it is. The soldier brings a mate with him the next time he visits – oh joy! – and then the narrative plods to an end that is not in the least surprising. By this stage, I just wanted the book to be over because I was tired of the lack of light and shade in the text, and I was really tired of the three main characters. It is not a matter of ‘liking’ them or ‘not liking’ them, but more a matter of them being dull stereotypes that I did not find in the least interesting.

The prose is nice and the translators have done a good job with the English version. Obviously, this was not my kind of book. I read it because I am interested in Balkan politics and hoped to gain some further insight into the conflict there. I have never been able to get a precise picture in my head about who was at war with whom and why, and I am none the wiser after reading this book.