RIGHT AND LEFT and THE LEGEND OF THE HOLY DRINKER by Joseph Roth

RIGHT AND LEFT and THE LEGEND OF THE HOLY DRINKER

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KIRKUS REVIEW

 The situation is hopeless but not serious, they used to say in Vienna. The great post-WW I Austrian moralists, Kraus, Musil, Roth, couched the gloomiest judgments in light, entertaining forms. The English-speaking world is just catching up with these modern masters. This, the tenth in Overlook's Roth series, makes a good introduction to his incomparable work. With Stendhalian clarity and brio, with a Balzacian, not to say Marxian, grasp of society's inner workings, in writing that is precise in image and profound but never ponderous, Roth graphed the aftershocks of empires' collapse and the addled lives of sons who lack their fathers' vitality and their hold on simple truths. Right and Left is more malicious than Roth's loving Trotta family saga (The Radetzky March, The Emperor's Tomb) because he's writing about ascendant Germany. With great acuity, he charts the slow metamorphosis of a 1920's Berlin dandy, an Anglophile, into a chemical industry magnate, and the transformation of his proto-Nazi brother into a trendy left-wing journalist. In the post-WW I generation of hollow men, ``right'' and ``left'' are interchangeable, and a taste for culture leads right to the manufacture of poison gas. Pulling the plot-strings here is a fascinating character patterned on Balzac's Vautrin. Nikolai Brandeis has shed his illusions, his vanity, and has only a kind of philanthropic contempt for others. He builds a financial empire and then walks away from it in disgust. His mysterious disappearance on the book's last page suggests that in the age of mass media, the pursuit of truth requires silence, exile, and cunning. The companion piece, Legend of the Holy Drinker, shows a series of small miracles restoring the dignity of a homeless drunk; it breathes a democratic compassion and delicate tact utterly lacking among us. The second of these was Roth's last work, his graceful exit, in 1939, from a world that didn't deserve him. The very British translation is loyal to his light, ironic touch.

Pub Date: May 4th, 1992
ISBN: 0-87951-448-5
Page count: 303pp
Publisher: Overlook
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 1992




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