An important collection of 17 stories and (brief) novellas, all written between 1916 and 1940 by the Austrian writer whose superb novels (including The Silent Prophet and The Radetzky March) rank among the finest rediscovered fiction of recent decades.
Roth (1894–1939), a Jew born in Galicia, spent much of his brief life in exile, from the rise of Nazism and from his own ironist’s awareness of rigidly ordered old “worlds” collapsing (such as that of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy). Accordingly, his stories concentrate on ambitions unfulfilled and loyalties betrayed, as in the limpid “Barbara”(about a loving woman who means nothing to the men in her life, including the son for whom she sacrifices herself), and “April” (which might have been written by a clinically depressed Turgenev), about a young man on the make who quite casually moves on after his dalliance with a girl who’s too fragile to live. Roth’s genius for brisk characterizations and urgent empathetic voice effortlessly solicit our identification with such wounded and searching characters as the elderly nobleman (of “The Bust of the Emperor”) who continues to perform dutiful acts of charity even after a ruthlessly efficient (Polish) “republic” renders his commitment to noblesse oblige obsolete, and the eponymous protagonist of the Flaubertian “Stationmaster Fallmerayer,” whose romantic obsession with a Russian countess injured in a train wreck slowly, surely detaches him from all his responsibilities and relationships: it’s a compact tragedy of passion concentrated into a harsh, unforgettable 20 pages. Best of all is Roth’s last completed novella “The Leviathan,” about a coral merchant engrossed in a sustaining fantasy suggested by the curious exotic life forms that provide his livelihood, and eventually tempt him to ruin. It all turns on a masterly metaphor for the fragility of a life “that had not been linked to that of any other human being in this world.”
Essential, deeply satisfying fiction from one of the least known of the 20th-century’s greatest writers.