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.
“Rambling Jack—what’s that?”
“A novel. Novella, I guess.”
“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
“Sorta. It’s a duel language book, so really, only about… 50 pages total.”
“And this—what. . .
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