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THE TALE OF THE 1002ND NIGHT by Joseph Roth


by Joseph Roth

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-312-19341-6
Publisher: St. Martin's

Thirteenth novel, and the last published (in 1939), by the Austrian author (1884—1939) whose richly textured fiction has earned him comparisons with Kafka, Musil, and Mann. As in Roth’s other work (including, notably, The Radetzky March and Job), the corruption and fragility of the Habsburg Empire symbolize the crisis of an arrogant old order powerless to resist encroaching modernity. But there’s a twist to this Tale: a state visit to Vienna in the latter 19th century (a visit that frames the story) by the Shah of Persia, who is himself seduced by the pleasures of that cosmopolitan city, and whose own willful wealth and power (embodied by a priceless string of pearls) destroy their would-be beneficiaries. Roth’s plot focuses on the cavalry officer (Baron Taittinger) enlisted to satisfy the Shah’s voluptuary whims, and on the luckless woman (Mitzi Schnagel) who was the Baron’s mistress, who has borne his illegitimate son, and who is drawn into an elaborate ruse that imperils them both as well as others who unwisely stray into their orbits. Roth ranges with imperturbable skill among the viewpoints of several more major characters, including the Shah’s wily “Chief Eunuch,” Patominos; the greedy procuress Josephine Matzner (an unforgettable study of a lone woman terrified by the specter of poverty); and the venomous “crime reporter” Lazik, whose scheming hastens the sequence of misadventures that bring down the complacent Taittinger. It’s a scathing cautionary tale that demonstrates with masterly economy its characters’ desperation to retain whatever wealth, status, and security they’ve managed to acquire—and the ruin to which their hungers drive them. Baron Taittinger is a tremendous figure: a self-justifying sensualist and weakling whose precipitous decline oddly recalls that of Hurstwood in Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. One of the best novels of one of 20th-century Europe’s greatest writers.