In the past couple of decades the Austrian writer Joseph Roth (1894Ė1939) has evolved from being a minor early-20th-century European novelist much admired by the cognoscenti to a minor early-20th-century novelist with a decent readership. All of his 15 novels have been translated into English and at least one, The Radetzky March, has entered the Euro-pantheon alongside The Magic Mountain, The Trial, et al. This emergence from long neglect would suggest that Roth somehow speaks to our time ó and if he does, it would have more to do with his approach than with his subject matter. Roth has often been described as the great elegist of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and in that respect Radetzky is an epic of nostalgia. But he also has a satiric, even acerbic edge that at times he seems barely able to hold in check. He likes to give you the sense that youíre standing in a room redolent of a long-vanished order; then, just as youíre beginning to admire its well-appointed quaintness, he gives the rug under your feet a few sharp tugs. Itís this bitter joking rather than his longing for a gilded past that makes him seem prematurely modern, and that best expresses the nature of the man behind the words, the man who would become the exiled Jew drinking himself into an early death in Paris.
Roth was a prodigious journalist and novelist who apparently had no special gift or inclination for short fiction, as The Collected Stories bears out. Only a few of the entries here could be considered conventional short stories; the rest are fragments, what seem like detailed sketches for possible novels, beginnings of novels, and thinly disguised memoirs. Some are polished; others would have best been left in the drawer. Some are essentially serious; some are egregiously frivolous. The most widely praised story here, " Stationmaster Fallmerayer, " finds Roth on his best behavior, tonally consistent as he tells the story of a lowly stationmaster who pursues ó and captures ó a beautiful Russian countess. Roth treats his foolish hero with respect but is less kind toward the reader, ending his tale with an abrupt and enigmatic ending thatís open to several interpretations, the harshest being that he simply ran out of story.
His male protagonists tend to be natural outsiders with an analytical if laconic sense of self, like the narrator in " Strawberries " who says: " For six months, I was a trainee barber, even though I didnít know how to use the razor properly. I had heavy hands that were always cold. Anyway, I didnít like the faces. " Or Anton Wanzl in " The Honor Student, " a calculating automaton who achieves success unburdened by feeling; he laughs only when heís in his grave. Rothís men are alienated, either ridiculously, like the chronically indecisive bookkeeper in " Cartel, " or nobly, like Count Morstin in " The Bust of the Emperor. "
As for his females, nowadays we would say that Roth had " issues, " though he could be sympathetic to the smothering and sometimes fatal plight of women of humble means. " Barbara " sketches a blighted life with unrelenting gloominess; " The Blind Mirror " is written in a style that displays what Michael Hofmann, in his introduction, refers to accurately as a " somewhat fluffy sensitivity " ( " There is a big starry sky above us, too remote to be kind, too beautiful not to harbor God . . . maybe we would understand it if love were to visit us . . . " ). The story moves between the pulpishly maudlin and the genuinely devastating. On the other hand, when his women arenít being crushed by society or personating obscure objects of desire or ball-and-chain wives, he can be enthusiastically misogynist (the " Triumph of Beauty " is a real wince inducer in this regard).
Obviously this is no place to start if you havenít read Joseph Roth. Radetzky, The Legend of the Holy Drinker, and Rebellion, all readily available now, are more coherent examples of his genius for complicated fatalism laced with subtle but barbed humor and insightful asides. With Collected Stories you have to slog through some dubious prose and muddled concepts to get to the good bits. Itís worth the effort, but only if you already love him.