Nthposition review of The Spider’s Web, Joseph Roth

It seems that Nthposition is no more, or hopefully temporarily down (on another note, The Dabbler, which had seemed to have expired, now seems seems to be back) Here is a somewhat random review of Joseph Roth’s novella The Spider’s Web.


The spider’s web
by Seamus Sweeney

[ bookreviews ]
Some authors have a greater renown in languages other than their own. For instance, Edgar Allan Poe has often been regarded with a fastidious scorn by English and American literati, with Henry James pronouncing with high-minded disdain that “an enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection” and Eliot that “Poe had a powerful intellect was undeniable but it seems to me the intellect of a highly gifted young man before puberty.” The French, however, went loopy for Poe at an early stage, with the Bostonian alcoholic and child-marrier tapping deep into the part of the French collective subconscious that would beget Baudelaire and surrealism. Or the part that dug Jerry Lewis.

Other writers however have their reputations imprisoned firmly within the confines of their language, at the mercy of their translators – and even then how many subtleties, how many interplays of idiom and dialect, can be missed. Joseph Roth, for a long time, seemed to be such an author – highly regarded in the German speaking world, less known without. Perhaps in Anglophone countries his name is too easily confused with both Philip and Henry Roth. (Note to self: I must take steps to doom Seamus Heaney to obscurity. Though I fear it’s a bit late now)

Roth, one of the most famous and highly paid journalists of the Weimar Republic, became the chronicler of the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that extraordinary, almost accidental political institution that saw enormous intellectual ferment, with figures from Wittgenstein to Freud to Adler to Gödel, mixed with the rise of anti-intellectual and anti-Semitic forces such as the Guido von List societies. In novels such as The Radetzky March and Right and Left, Roth chronicled the last days of the doomed Central European culture that flourished under the Empire. Contemplating the subsequent history of the nations that made up the Austro-Hungarian Empire, monarchy does not seem like such a bad system after all.

This, Roth’s debut novel, follows Theodor Lohse, a personification of the resentments and hatreds of the post war German. He was a lieutenant during the First World War, and now as the novel begins is a law student and tutor to a Jewish jeweller’s son. He lives unhappily with his mother and sisters, who “couldn’t forgive Theodor for having failed – he who had twice been mentioned in dispatches – to die a hero’s death as a lieutenant. A dead son would have been the pride of the family. A demobilised lieutenant, a victim of the revolution, was a burden to his womenfolk. Theodor lived amid his family like some aged grandfather who would have been revered in death but who is scorned because he is still alive.”

Theodor resents the Efrussis, the Jewish family where he serves as a tutor, and the Jewish student who comes top of his class in law school. Theodor comes second by dint of application and dogged persistence, whereas, “the Jew, Glaser, who drifted smilingly through breaks, carefree and headless of books” effortlessly rises to the top. “Glaser’s learning was as dishonestly come by as the jeweller’s fortune.”Lohse lusts after Frau Efrussi, with her violet knickers (how does he know she wears violet knickers? It isn’t terribly clear) and haughty tone, while the women Theodor has are “the barefoot simpleton from the north, the woman with the angular rough hands and the crude caresses, chill to the touch, with sweaty stockings and dirty underclothes.”

“His dream cried out for release like some sickness living invisibly in his joints, filling every blood vessel, which he could no more escape than he could escape himself.” His dream, of course, is simply resentment and hatred mixed with inchoate personal ambition. Lohse’s life changes when he encounters a Dr Trebitsch in the Efrussis house. Beguiled by Trebitsch’s spade beard and stream of talk, Theodor tries to impress Trebitsch by boasting of his service in the regiment of a Prince the doctor has mentioned.

Thus Trebitsch arranges Theodor’s attendance at a dinner with the Prince, after which the royal personage brings Theodor to his chambers and they have a sexual encounter. Trying to wipe this from his mind the next day – for his own tastes run to “girls with wide hips… he loved to find a refuge and a home in women. After the consummation he liked to be mothered by the all-embracing, to lay his head between big, kindly breasts” – he is inducted on the Prince’s recommendation into SII, a cell of right-wing agents provocateurs.

Lohse enters a world of betrayal, of secret societies and public meetings, of beer-hall oratory and mess-room sedition. He infiltrates left wing groups to betray them, and arranges the bloody suppression of strikes. For all his anti-Semitic rhetoric and anti-socialist actions, his ambition is his real driving force. Indeed, he makes contact with socialist groups when it seems expedient to do so. He becomes as much a prisoner of events and ideology as their maker. By the end, if he is not doomed utterly, he is unmistakably captured and shacked by the work which seems to have chosen him as much as he chose it.

If there is a criticism to make of this short, beguiling novel, it is that Lohse is too obviously a bad ‘un, so to speak, from the start. He is a little too much the personification of resentment and envy, his hatred of the Jews stems a little too obviously from the circumstances of his own life. It would be interesting to read of a more sympathetic protagonist’s decline into the mire of ultra-nationalism.
The poet Michael Hofmann has done sterling work translating Roth. John Hoare does translation duty here, and the text reads smoothly and clearly. Not being familiar with the original German text, I cannot comment on its fidelity but can commend its fidelity to the atmosphere of the times it describes. The novel ends inconclusively, for Roth himself would not know the full horror of the Reich’s Götterdamerung, drinking himself to death in Paris with perfect timing in 1939.

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