25 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Brady Evan Walker on Joseph Roth’s Job, which was recently retranslated by Ross Benjamin and published by Archipelago Books.

Brady Evan Walker is a writer who splits his time unequally between New Orleans and Brooklyn, constantly on the run from the horrors of NY winters and LA (Louisiana, not L.A.) summers. He blogs infrequently at The Hole in Thin Air.

Joseph Roth is one of the greats of European Literature. A number of his books—including the epic Radetzsky’s March—are available from Overlook. Job was first published (and translated into English) in 1930, and was long overdue for a new translation. For more information on Ross’s translation and the history of this book, I’d highly recommend listening to this interview that Bill Marx of PRI’s The World Books did with Ross last fall.

Here’s the opening of Brady’s review:

Job, recently published by the consistently incredible Archipelago Press in a new translation by Ross Benjamin, is the first, and still only, book by Joseph Roth—a household-canon-grade writer in Europe—I have read. (I did have to get this review out in a timely fashion, and his other, more infamous masterpiece, Radetzsky’s March, is over 500 pages and sounds like an Austro-Hungarian version of One Hundred Years of Solitude, of which reading would have undoubtedly delayed this review.)

Job is one of those lyrically imbued novels packed with poetic turns of phrase and unwieldy sentences, slipping, slaloming, galloping and tumbling by with such rhythmic intent that it’s hard, as a writer, not to underline, annotate and copy down at least one thing on any given page. Joseph Roth, a widely-traveled journalist, undoubtedly found in the novel a place to let his verbosely winding hair down.

When we meet Mendel Singer, the “pious, God-fearing and ordinary . . . everyday Jew,” he is a mediocre children’s bible teacher with a dull home and emotionally distant family. When his fourth child is born sickly and skeletally contorted at the opening of the novel, Singer’s average life tips toward the downhill slope. It’s interesting that Roth, himself a Galician-born, shtetl-raised Jew, used village life as the basis for his retelling, where the original Job’s great wealth and influence had no place. Benjamin’s afterword sketches a brief biography, wherein he says of Roth: “[I]t is no wonder that the centuries-old figure of the migrant Jew who is nowhere at home would strike the writer as an embodiment of the peripatetic nature of postwar modern life . . . prompting him to evoke the trope of Jewish exile in Job.”

You can read the full review by clicking here.

Job
25 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Job, recently published by the consistently incredible Archipelago Press in a new translation by Ross Benjamin, is the first, and still only, book by Joseph Roth—a household-canon-grade writer in Europe—I have read. (I did have to get this review out in a timely fashion, and his other, more infamous masterpiece, Radetzsky’s March, is over 500 pages and sounds like an Austro-Hungarian version of One Hundred Years of Solitude, of which reading would have undoubtedly delayed this review.)

Job is one of those lyrically imbued novels packed with poetic turns of phrase and unwieldy sentences, slipping, slaloming, galloping and tumbling by with such rhythmic intent that it’s hard, as a writer, not to underline, annotate and copy down at least one thing on any given page. Joseph Roth, a widely-traveled journalist, undoubtedly found in the novel a place to let his verbosely winding hair down.

When we meet Mendel Singer, the “pious, God-fearing and ordinary . . . everyday Jew,” he is a mediocre children’s bible teacher with a dull home and emotionally distant family. When his fourth child is born sickly and skeletally contorted at the opening of the novel, Singer’s average life tips toward the downhill slope. It’s interesting that Roth, himself a Galician-born, shtetl-raised Jew, used village life as the basis for his retelling, where the original Job’s great wealth and influence had no place. Benjamin’s afterword sketches a brief biography, wherein he says of Roth: “[I]t is no wonder that the centuries-old figure of the migrant Jew who is nowhere at home would strike the writer as an embodiment of the peripatetic nature of postwar modern life . . . prompting him to evoke the trope of Jewish exile in Job.”

The novel is divided between two sections, the first in Zuchnow (the Singers’ native home) and the second, America, where the Singers quickly immigrate in an effort to protect their promiscuous daughter from herself and her trio of horny Cossacks.

While the novel sees Mendel Singer through a series of misfortunes (a son gone missing in the Russian Revolution, a son dead at war, a wife dead of grief, &c., &c.), the center of the novel is Mendel and his wife’s relationship to their crippled son, Menuchim, whom they leave with friends in Zuchnow when they immigrate, thinking him too sick to endure the trip. Three quarters through the novel, Mendel finally gives up on God and humanity, then mopes through his days, more or less sapped of the will to live but for the hope of seeing his Menuchim.

The virtue of the novel lies in the synchronism between its lyrical rhythm and its portrayal of quotidian misery. In simple lines like “Today the dead seemed deader than usual,” or “Nothing happened. Yet infinite things seemed to want to happen,” serve as punctuating stops between epic flights like:

She neglected her duty at the stove, the soup boiled over, the clay pots cracked, the pans rusted, the greenish shimmering glasses shattered with a harsh crash, the chimney of the petroleum lamp was darkened with soot, the wick was charred to a miserable stub, the dirt of many soles and many weeks coated the floorboards, the lard melted away in the pot, the withered buttons fell from the children’s shirts like leaves before the winter.

What a sentence! What a dully unpleasant (yet so beautiful-sounding!) existence.

Though Roth has no compunction about cruelty to his characters, there are certainly moments in which he allowed bits of saccharine fairy tale-telling to creep. (In the afterword, Benjamin reveals that Roth once confessed that he couldn’t have written the ending had he not been drunk.) (NB: Roth died of alcoholism.) But because the novel works on such an entrenched psychological level, digging deeply into its characters, the sudden turn of fortune doesn’t elicit that deus ex romantic comedy sigh of frustration that might come of any sudden, punctuating upswing, rather I, at the very least, found myself turning the pages, curious how this bedraggled and tortured man would react to something good, not so much interested in the odd event itself. And it was all still as compelling and sweetly limned as all of that bad.

31 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Bill Marx’s new PRI’s The World World Books podcast features an interview with Ross Benjamin, recipient of this year’s Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize for Speak, Nabokov and translator of Joseph Roth’s Job, which is due out in November from Archipelago Books.

It’s clear from this interview that Ross not only is a great translator, but also an amazing reader, and after listening to this, I feel like I need to read more of Roth’s works . . . starting with this one. (And his comments on why books need to be retranslated—not always because the original translation is flawed, but sometimes because the new translation can enrich the work—are pretty interesting.)

From the Archipelago website:

Job is the tale of Mendel Singer, a pious, destitute Eastern-European Jew and children’s Torah teacher whose faith is tested at every turn. His youngest son seems to be incurably disabled, one of his older sons joins the Russian Army, the other deserts to America, and his daughter is running around with a Cossack. When the parents flee with their daughter to America, further blows of fate await them. In this modern fable based on the Biblical story of Job, Mendel Singer witnesses the collapse of his world, experiences unbearable suffering and loss, and ultimately gives up all hope and curses God, only to be saved by a miraculous reversal of fortune.

And speaking of Archipelago, their Fall 2010 catalog arrived yesterday, and as always, they’re bringing out some great books, including:

Stone Upon Stone by Wieslaw Mysliwski, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston, which is “a profound and irreverent stream of memory cutting through the rich and varied terrain of one man’s connection to the land, to his family and community, to women, to tradition, to God, to death, and to what it means to be alive.” (Check out this recent RTW Podcast for more info on Stone Upon Stone and Bill’s translation.)

and

My Kind of Girl by Buddhadeva Bose, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha, which is “a Bengali Decameron for the twentieth century.” (Although much shorter.) The novella takes place in a railway station where four strangers are trapped overnight. “The sight of a young loving couple prompts them to share their own experiences of the vagaries of the human heart with each other in a story cycle that is in turn melancholy, playful, wise, and heart-wringing.”

and

The Chukchi Bible by Yuri Rytkheu, translated from the Russian by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse, which is “a collection of the myths and tales of Yuri Rytkheu’s own shaman father. The stories compose both a moving history of the Chukchi people who inhabit the shores of the Bering Sea, and a beautiful cautionary tale, rife with conflict, human drama, and humor.”

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