By Joseph Roth
Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann
121 pages. Everyman’s Library. $24.
By Hugo Hamilton
261 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $28.
Andreas Pum is a hard character to forget. The protagonist of “Rebellion,” the Austrian writer Joseph Roth’s short but potent 1924 novel, Andreas loses a leg during World War I. He doesn’t really mind. He believes in a just God, “one who handed out shrapnel, amputations and medals to the deserving.”
We first see Andreas at a military hospital, preparing to re-enter an unnamed German-speaking society. He learns that the government will favor those returned soldiers who have shell shock — a condition suffered by only one of the 156 men at the hospital. But appearing before a commission that assesses the men, Andreas suddenly and genuinely exhibits symptoms of the disorder. He’s issued a barrel organ, and a permit to play it anywhere he’d like in the city so he can make a living. He proudly, defiantly imagines showing the permit to policemen who might stop him on the street. “One need fear no danger; indeed, there is none to fear,” he thinks.
Government is similar, in Andreas’s mind, to God; it “overlies man like the sky overlies the earth.” It might be benevolent or punishing, but its ways are not ours to question. He considers those who rail against the country’s leaders to be “heathens,” a favorite word of his. These heathens are “digging their own graves! Why should the government look out for its enemies? Himself, though, Andreas Pum, it surely would look out for.”
So the words “rude awakening” fairly blink in neon letters on the horizon from the opening of this book.
But before Andreas is disillusioned, his luck continues. He meets a very, very recent widow (her husband died the day before) who asks him to play something melancholy for the departed. Before long, the two marry, and Andreas finds domestic happiness with his new love and her 5-year-old daughter.
In the brilliantly executed chapter that deforms Andreas’s fate, he finds himself on a tram with Herr Arnold, the director of a haberdashery. Arnold has been one of society’s truly protected and well-to-do, but he’s bristling at the increased entitlement of those below him. (He has sexually harassed one of his employees, and the employee’s fiancé has had the temerity to show up and complain.) Arnold makes a scene on the tram, loudly calling Andreas a Bolshevik who is faking his war injury. Another passenger says, “I expect it’s a Jew!” Eventually confronted by a policeman, Andreas discovers that his daydream of being coequal with the authorities is a terrible joke. He is sentenced to six weeks in prison.
Roth’s most securely canonical work is “The Radetzky March,” a sweeping novel about the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. “Rebellion,” like his “Job,” another fable-inflected novel about faith and disillusionment, seems more modest at first glance but is profound and worthy of enduring. Andreas’s naïveté and eventual enlightenment might have been cartoonish in the hands of someone less ironic and wise than Roth. Instead, he is sympathetic as well as comical, and his closing cri de coeur against God is one for the ages.
“Rebellion,” which had regrettably been out of print, was recently reissued by Everyman’s Library, in time to coincide with the Irish writer Hugo Hamilton’s latest novel, “The Pages.” Hamilton’s book is narrated by a first edition of Roth’s novel.
That was not a typo: A copy of “Rebellion” narrates Hamilton’s novel. This is clearly high-risk/high-yield territory, but surprisingly, “The Pages” doesn’t really soar or fail based on its unusual conceit.
The edition of the novel whose company we keep was rescued from an infamous night of book burning by university students at Berlin’s Opera Square in May 1933. The professor who owned it passed it to a student for safekeeping. In the current day, that student’s granddaughter, Lena Knecht, possesses the book, and is traveling from New York to Berlin to investigate what she might find at a rural location crudely mapped by the original owner on a blank page at the back.
Hamilton hops around several stories: Lena’s quest to follow the map; her increased estrangement from her husband back in New York; her meeting a Chechen man, Armin, and his sister, Madina, who were orphaned during the second Chechen war.
These contemporary strands are well handled, give or take a distracting subplot or two, and build to an effective thriller-like finale.
But perhaps predictably, given the novel’s central inspiration, Hamilton is at his best in several sections about Roth and his wife, Friederike. It’s in these moments that “The Pages” feels most effortlessly immersive, shrewdest in its psychological insights and most moving. We see them getting married and, later, arguing about the nature of fiction. (“You can’t be jealous of characters,” Roth tells his wife. “That’s like shouting at the screen in a movie. That’s what Stalin does.”)
Friederike begins to suffer from mood swings: “She would go from happiness to regret like a person crossing the street.” Her mind eventually worsens and she is placed in a sanatorium; we see her there in piercing detail. One wishes that Hamilton had written more about the couple, perhaps an entire book.
The strangest thing about “The Pages” ends up being its narrator — not for the audacity of the choice but for its lack of necessity. When the book is talking to us, the result is often misty (“I have accumulated the inner lives of my readers. Their thoughts have been added in layers underneath the text, turning me into a living thing”) or worse (the novel describes the “collective hum” of other books in a library greeting it with cheers, like the dolls coming alive in “Toy Story”).
But the sentient novel disappears for long periods of time, and we’re presented with plenty of things that the book wouldn’t have been privy to. It’s hard to believe that “The Pages” wouldn’t be even stronger if it were more conventionally told.
Turning to fiction for newsy resonance is overrated in this reviewer’s opinion, but these books certainly arrive at a time when readers who want to can resonate and resonate. Roth was born in what is now western Ukraine, and he spent his too-short life as a journalist and artist documenting the tumult, violence and displacements in Europe. (He died at 44, in 1939.)
“The past is no longer safe,” Hamilton’s narrating “Rebellion” thinks at one point. “My time is coming back. Listen to what my author wrote to his friend Stefan Zweig a hundred years ago — the barbarians have taken over.”
In this unlikely pair of novels, one finds an original source with eternal rewards and an admirable, serious-minded homage.
John Williams is the assistant editor on the Books desk and a staff writer at The Times. Follow him on Twitter: @johnwilliamsnyt.
Source: NY Times