Modernist Nostalgia: Joseph Roth’s “The Coral Merchant,” translated from German by Ruth Martin

By Kata Gellen

Ruth Martin’s translated collection of short fiction by Joseph Roth, The Coral Merchant: Essential Stories, skilfully captures much of what makes the literary writing of the great Austrian modernist so powerful and distinctive: direct and detailed language, a realist style that remains accessible and current today, subtle shifts in tone from earnestness to irony and dry humor, and characters that are tragic, endearing, and a bit mysterious. Most impressively, perhaps, Martin’s translation transmits the distinctive mood that pervades Roth’s fictional work: a resigned melancholy, infused with glimmers of the miraculous. She transports us to the sites Roth mobilized to create his unique brand of modernist nostalgia, caught between East and West, shtetl and metropolis, traditional homelands and contemporary homelessness.

Martin has selected six of Roth’s most beautiful and penetrating stories, written between 1920 (the year Roth moved from Vienna to Berlin) and 1939 (the year Roth died in his Parisian exile), for this volume. This sequence produces a cumulative narrative that encompasses many of Roth’s major literary preoccupations. It presents a multi-faceted conflict between the old world and the new, in which the shocks of urban and technological modernity generate a particular kind of nostalgic longing for the past. This longing, in Roth’s work and Martin’s translation, is anything but naïve or straightforward. Rather, it is a kind of curated and self-conscious romanticization of a lost ideal, born less out of actual historical experience than out of reluctance and confusion toward present-day realities.

The first two stories, the satirical “Career” and the tragic “The Blind Mirror,” focus on the alienation of modern city life. They are both office stories with young protagonists who try to negotiate contemporary norms surrounding work, sex, and bourgeois respectability, and who are brutally exploited along the way. Here, for example, is a description of young Fini, the central figure in “The Blind Mirror,” who longs for a reunion with her sweetheart Ernst as she quietly submits to the sexual advances of the menacing Ludwig: “Once a week, or twice, they slept together on the sofa in the studio, a dismal surrender, accompanied by hidden tears, like the desperation of a birthday party thrown for a dying patient” (72). The succinct analogy perfectly captures the heartbreak of Fini’s predicament, not least because at the outset of the story she is a picture of cheerful and innocent adolescence. The third story, “The Rich House Opposite,” by far the shortest in the collection, feels like an interlude, or a preliminary conclusion to the first section of the volume. It is a brisk, quirky meditation on curiosity and covetousness, reminiscent of a parable, but lacking any overt moral or lesson. Like the two stories that precede it, it demonstrates how the central preoccupation of modern man, money, often leads him astray.

The second half of the volume consists of three masterpieces of short fiction, each of which intimately probes what Roth’s Austrian contemporaries called “The World of Yesterday” (Stefan Zweig) or the “Disintegration of Values” (Hermann Broch)—in short, the sense that human beings in the modern world had lost their bearings. The fourth and fifth stories, “The Bust of the Emperor” and “The Leviathan,” are two of Roth’s deepest and darkest reflections on the decline of the multilingual and multiethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire and its accompanying heroes, institutions, and values, including the emperor Franz Joseph, the Catholic church, traditional Jewish life in Galicia, and the disgraced nobility. These stories center around tragic figures who are caught between bygone norms and practices, which they cling to despite their obsolescence, and newfangled modes of life, which are characterized by vulgarity, falsehood, and new technologies. In “The Bust of the Emperor,” Count Morstin, a living Habsburg relic, is thrown into a state of uncharacteristic rage when he experiences the excessive stimuli of an evening in the American Bar: “The lighting, the gramophone, the noise of the cocktail mixer, the women’s cooing and screaming, all sent Count Morstin into an astonishing fury” (110).

In “The Leviathan,” the hero Nissen Piczenik is a traditional Jew who lives a simple life devoted to his faith and his craft, selling corals. Piczenik’s downfall is directly linked to the arrival of the slick urbanite Jenö Lakatos, who lures all the customers with “raucous songs” that play from the gramophone in his shop and cheap fake corals made of celluloid (172). It is not a coincidence that film stock is also made of celluloid or that the bar Morsin enters is called the American Bar; Hollywood was Roth’s bête noire, or at least one of them. Despite the general mood of mourning and loss, these stories also make ample use of hyperbole and irony, and they each contain a spark of hopefulness as well, which reveals that Roth’s perspective on the demise of the empire was more ambivalent and unstable than some readers and critics acknowledge.

The final story in the collection, “The Legend of the Holy Drinker,” tells an improbable tale of an impoverished drunkard who wanders around Paris experiencing a series of “miracles”—nothing supernatural, but fortuitous encounters, the beneficence of strangers, and a few strokes of incredibly good luck. The story ends with his death in a Parisian church, followed by the words, “May God grant us all, we drinkers, such an easy and beautiful death!” (222). This makes for a particularly poignant ending, given that Roth, who may have converted to Catholicism toward the end of his life, died of alcoholism the same year he wrote this story.

Roth’s biography is woven throughout these stories. He was born in Galicia, the easternmost province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and later lived in Vienna, Berlin, and Paris, cities that feature implicitly or explicitly in Martin’s collection. Roth had intimate experiences with Jewish life in the shtetl, the devastation of World War I, the fall of the Habsburg Empire, Catholicism, alcoholism, homelessness, vexed romantic relationships, and existential despair, topics and themes that play a role in these six stories. I think it is helpful to make readers aware of these connections, since Anglophone readers might know little about the author’s life. It is also worth noting that Roth is primarily known for his novels and journalism, rather than his short fiction.

Martin did not include an introduction or afterword, perhaps in order to preclude readers from interpreting the stories through a purely biographical or historical lens, or in relation to his other better-known publications, which could lead them to ignore how fascinating and rich these stories are as literary works in their own right. However, in my opinion, background information about Roth’s life and literary career enhances rather than detracts from readers’ engagement with these works. It allows them to relate – and hopefully not to reduce – these intricate stories to the personal experiences and historical contexts from which they emerged. Despite this minor criticism, I would concede that the language and themes of the stories are accessible and universal enough to absorb all readers, regardless of what they know or don’t know about the author.

Martin’s collection of stories by Joseph Roth left me with one question: why is it called The Coral Merchant, when none of the stories included bears this title? The penultimate story in the collection, “The Leviathan,” was originally published in 1934 under the title “Der Korallenhändler,” which translates as “The Coral Merchant.” It should be obvious to anyone who gets to this story – though not to someone who only looks at the table of contents – that this is what the title of the volume is referring to, since “The Leviathan” recounts the fate of an Eastern European Jewish coral merchant. Thus, the title does in fact connect to one of the stories in the collection, though this is not apparent at the outset.

The absence of paratext takes nothing away from Ruth Martin’s masterful translations of Joseph Roth’s stories, which are a gift to generations of readers to come. Her renderings convey the ambiguities and contradictions of Roth’s modernist nostalgia with precision, subtly, and with grace.

Roth, Joseph. The Coral Merchant. Translated by Ruth Martin. Pushkin Press, 2020.

Kata Gellen is an Associate Professor of German Studies at Duke University, where she is also affiliated with the Center for Jewish Studies. Her book, Kafka and Noise: The Discovery of Cinematic Sound in Literary Modernism, appeared with Northwestern University Press in 2019.

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