By Joseph Roth.

Comments of Bob Corbett
July 1996 with added note from April 2001

[Note from April 2001: I've just finished reading Joseph Roth's novel THE STRING OF PEARLS and didn't like it much. I then remembered that I had read a Roth novel once before, THE RADETZKY MARCH. I no longer remember the details of the novel, but it had been sent to me by a friend in Austria where I'd just finished a 6 month's visit. I had read it and didn't like it, so I wrote my friend to encourage some discussion. Last night I began to hunt for my letter to him and I found it, the parts relevant to the novel and discussion I reproduce below. However, I am sorry to report that I recall my friend responded with serious disagreements with my position, but I don't have his letter and no longer recall what his counter-arguments were. Nonetheless, for what they are worth, I report the bit below on the novel.

Ironically, the main character in THE STRING OF PEARLS seems to hold much the same views which I denounce above. I begun to suspect this view somewhat defines Joseph Roth.

On a completely unrelated topic: At the time I wrote this note my Austrian friend did not have e-mail, thus I reverted to regular postal mail as I had used extensively in corresponding with my friend and his whole family for years. I have a hard time believing this sort of letter with the detail I include, would have gone into an e-mail. The medium presses for greater brevity. Ah, but at what cost in social relations and depth of discussions carried on by correspondence? Hard to say. The two forms of communication are so very different, each with strengths and each with weaknesses. I do recall that my friend responded, but it was well over a month later, which was not at all an unusual time lag when I wrote to folks in Austria, and by that time much of my passion for the argument has dissipated. Were we communicating by e-mail my initial letter would most likely have been quite brief, but would might well have exchanged a dozen such notes before the week was out.


Comments of Bob Corbett: to my friend in Graz, Austria who had sent me a copy of the Roth novel.
July 1996

It seems to me that Roth is both resolved to the dissolution of the empire, yet at the same time regretful that the mode of life of the empire cannot continue on. If I am right about this analysis of his stance, then I must say, I have some stern disagreement with his treatment of this theme.

There seem to me to be several things going on here. First is just the historical situation that things are changing in one's world and one is used to the past, likes the past better and wishes the world would not change. That is probably one of the most common views of humanity in all of history, and completely understandable. But this seems to me not to be Roth's point. Such a view would be mere sentimentality and I think he is saying something more provocative (and more perverse!).

The second view would be to see him simply bemoaning the death of the Habsburg empire. This view is actually a slightly more historically situated view of the one above, and no less romantic and ahistorical. Again, I think Roth is saying something more and more troublesome.

The way I read the book, something much bigger is going on, and the death of the Habsburg empire is merely the actual historical event that he uses to get to something at it. Let me try that analysis and see what you think.

On this view, Roth sees a very orderly world dying. It need not be the world of the best of all possible orders, but it is nonetheless a world of clear order and clear rules and regulations for living. People know who they are, where they fit and how to behave and what their lives mean and so on. This is lost on Carl Joseph (the third and last of the Trottas). He doesn't fall into the politically charged Socialists or Communists, but he is some sort of free floating individualist (albeit one without a clear consciousness of who he is, just someone for whom the old order ceases to mean anything).

His father, the district captain -- that's important, throughout the book; that IS his identity, to the be district captain -- is someone who defines his life in terms of the social order, not in terms of his own being. Carl Joseph doesn't even define himself, he simply floats, but nothing means much to him except himself, he's just not very self-reflective about it.

Yet Roth's message is clear. Live like this and you will ruin your life like Carl Joseph did, both in meaninglessness and pettiness.

We are in a difficult place in history, you and I. The world of clear order, or preordained "places" began a very slow death in the 17th century, but was hastened by the doctrine of the rights of man, the French and American revolutions and the birth of both democracy and capitalism. In our western world the major collapse of that world seems to me to have been the First World War and the collapse of the order which Roth speaks of.

Since then there has been a tremendous struggle for "how to be in the world." Some of the dominant choices are and have been:

Each of these forms has practical difficulties. The former, the world of order, has the great advantage of ORDER at the heavy expense of the individual. The individualists (of either sort) have the difficulty of how to get along in society and how to deal with other people. The various forms of utopian new social orders simply have a most difficult time in organizing the world.

Add to this an entire century of mind-numbing technology which has made the whole problematic more complex and difficult that before, and it is no wonder that we lived in such very difficult and trouble times.

I don't have the answer. I prefer reflective radical individualism, but I'm not convinced that this is the long-term answer for the species. On the other hand I do find that people who represent the view that I pin on Roth -- the desire to return to OLD systems of order that have simply passed their period of historical success -- well, that seems to me less hopeful than almost any other the other options.

In my several visits to Austria in the past 25 years I've come to see Austria as a place where there is a phenomenal nostalgia for the past, and an astonishing degree of local success in retreating or remaining in a world that has died in most other places. Perhaps such a form of life can hang on in some residual manner in a rather small country, but I can't imagine such a form of life surviving the early part of the coming century given the rapid increasing and relentless globalization of the world. I just don't see this living in retreat as much of an option.

OK, I've rambled on long enough to hopefully open a discussion. Please let me know what you are thinking about all this.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu