By Joseph Roth. Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann.
256 pages
London: Granta Books, 1987 (From the 1939 German -- DIE GESCHICHTE VON DER 1002EN NACHTS.)
ISBN: 1-86207-254-X

Comments of Bob Corbett
April 2001

I was quite disappointed with this novel, as I was with the other Joseph Roth book I read a few years ago, THE RADETZKY MARCH. However, this work was even much less satisfying than the other. The story has elements which I guess we are supposed to find cute or funny. I found them to be neither, but simply silly. A Persian ruler in the late 19th century decides to visit Vienna and while at a state ball becomes enamored of a lady of high society. He demands she be brought to him, and a clever Captain of the Horse solves the diplomatic difficulty by bringing instead a prostitute friend of his who looks exactly like the famous society beauty. The monarch gives the woman an extremely valuable string of pearls in reward for her quite unsatisfying evening, and the pearls actually bring the woman a great deal of grief. In the process the Captain of the Horse is also brought down and eventually commits suicide.

Presumably the story is relatively unimportant, just a vehicle to carry Roth's descriptions of life in the collapsing Habsburg empire. If it had actually done that and were Roth to have written well about the period in which the novel was set, then his fantastic setting might well have been excused or overlooked. Or, if he had managed to treat it with more realistic humor it might mildly have amusing. For me in only managed to make me laugh AT the author, not with him.

More importantly, the novel is pretentious in that it seemingly attempts to reveal something of the collapsing empire, but doesn't succeed at all. Instead we get the detailed personal portraits of two characters, Mizzi Schinagl and Captain Baron Taittinger. Each is an appropriately believable character out of the period Roth is writing about, yet each fails to achieve the universality of the characters of Arthur Schnitzler who writes about the same period (and from the period) with much greater power and vividness.

Mizzi is an underclass woman who first has an affair with Taittinger and then a child and, after being abandoned by him, ends up in a high class house of prostitution where she again meets the Baron. He arranges to have her impersonate the upper class woman the Shan-in-Shah wants, and thus she gets the string of pearls. She can't manage the wealth and gets taken by various scam artists and eventually is lured into a plan where she gets stuck with debts and a charge of fraud and spends several years in prison. Her life ends up quite a mess and in unhappiness.

The Baron's is both more tragic and less. He is an unthinking creature of habit, one of the most empty headed major characters of literature I have ever read. After publicity concerning the Shan-in-Shah's episode he loses his position in the cavalry, his personal estate has been ruined and much of his wealth stolen by his estate staff and squandered by his cousin. When he cannot get reinstated into even the army he simply cannot bear his life and shoots himself.

Both Mizzi and the Baron seem quite typical of the period and the Baron's situation with his staff and cousin all seem realistic, as does the sordid relationship of Mizzi and the Baron and the debacle of their bastard son. However, while historically accurate for the period, Roth manages to write them in such a way that they appear much more like time-less individuals who would have come to virtually similar grief in any period in which they might have lived. The only rather specially later 19th century Vienna that I gathered from the book was the nature of the affair between the Baron and Mizzi and his treatment of her after she became pregnant.

However, on the whole I was bored and quite disgusted with the character of Baron Taittinger who, in the face of personal adversity of all sorts, just stupidly caves in without being able to make the slightest adjustment. He is either about the dumbest character imaginable, or, which I suspect, Roth is trying to make some statement that this resignation is "typical" of the period. It's hard for me to take Roth very seriously having just read several works of Arthur Schnitzler who is simply much better at doing the period. A Schnitzler characters might well have found themselves in the sorts of pickles which Mizzi and the Baron get into, and like them would have been victims in some sense of the general social collapse going on around them, but they would at least have struggled against them with some quality of believability, not the dumbness of an animal being led to slaughter.

I think I've probably just read my last Joseph Roth book.

Bob Corbett

Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett