Most of the wonderful stories and novellas collected in this volume represent worlds in which the characters act in ways that seemed destined, the figures themselves moving forward in life without seemingly knowing what motivates them and how they might have in any way transformed their own worlds.
His glowing reports, ceremonially folded, were kept in a large
brick-red envelope next to the album of specially beautiful
Yet Anton, moving quietly though his life, is not a happy child, but one "consumed by a burning ambition," we are told, by "An iron desire to shine, to outdo all his comrades...." Beloved by his proud parents, Anton returns no emotion. As Roth tells us "He lacked heart," and his first relationship with a young woman, Mizzzi Schinagl, is run more like a campaign to win her mother and father's respect than to romance the girl herself. As he moves into the Gymnasium, he easily forgets her and moves on to a relationship with the daughter of a more successful individual, Court Councilor Sabbaeus Kreitmeyr, eventually winning her hand in marriage over the more romantic entreaties of the artist Hans Pauli.
I hated the assistant railwayman. He was freckled and unbelievably tall
and erect. Every time I saw him, I thought of writing to the Railway
Minister. I wanted to suggest he use the ugly assistant railwayman as a
telegraph pole somewhere between two little stations....
I couldn't explain my hatred for this official. He was exceptionally
tall, but I don't have principled hatred for anything exceptional. It seemed
to me that the assistant railwayman had shot up so much on purpose, and
riled me. It seemed to me that he had done nothing else since his youth
but acquire freckles and grow. On top of everything else, he had red hair.
One day he discovers, while dining in a nearby restaurant, a beautiful woman in the Postmaster's home who completely captures his attention. Another day he nods to her, and everyday thereafter they greet one another from a distance, the storyteller imagining that she comprehends what is on his mind. The narrator is told that she is the Postmaster's daughter, who is ill. Soon the narrator discovers himself in love with this beautiful woman, but, unable to communicate with her, he determines that he need leave this small town.
It was so ridiculous, I thought, for me to hang around night after night
in front of the windows of a girl who's about to die, and whom I won't
ever be able to kiss. I'm not that young any more, I thought. Every day
is a task, and each one of my hours was a sin against life.
As he enters the train to leave, he sees the abhorrent assistant railwayman, the beautiful girl in the window trailing after.
"Stay, won't you!" I heard the railway employee say to her. "I'm almost
But the girl didn't listen to him. She looked at me. We looked at each
other. she stood upright, and she was wearing a white dress, and she was
healthy, and not at all lame, and not at all tubercular. Obviously, she was
the assistant railwayman's fiancée or his wife.
The irony of the situation sends the story's narrator on a long voyage to New York.
Fallmerayer looked at the Count's long, yellow, bony face, with
its sharp nose and bright eyes and the thin lips under the drooping
black moustache. The Count was wheeled along the platform like
one of his many pieces of luggage. His wife followed the wheel chair.
As the wife plumps up one of her husband's pillows, Fallmerayer says good night, never to be seen again. For his life, if he were to stay with the Countess, would now mean his own attentive devotion to the old man.
Many, many women passed me in the street, and some of them smiled
Go on, I thought, smile, smile, turn, look over your shoulders, swing your
hips, buy yourselves new hats, new stockings, new bits and bobs! Old age
will catch up with you! Give it another little year or two! No surgeon will
be able to do anything about it, no wigmaker. You will be disfigured, em-
bittered, disappointed, you will sink into your graves and then further, into
Hell. But go on, smile, smile!...
The last tale of this marvelous collection, "Leviathan," also is a story of a secret life. In the town of Progrody lives Nissen Piczenik, a renowned coral merchant, a successful Jewish businessman. Secretly, however, corals are not just the source of Piczenik's income, but represent an obsession, a kind of madness that includes all things connected with the ocean. When a local boy who has joined the navy returns for a visit home, Piczenik takes up with him, questioning him about everything to do with ocean waters, for Nizzen has never himself been to sea. So compelled is the coral merchant with the subject that, when the young man must return to his ship, he accompanies him to Odessa, claiming he is the boy's uncle and joining him for a tour of the vessel and staying on in the city for three days.
Los Angeles, September 24, 2001