Sunday, July 08, 2007

Roth, Zweig and the Ostjuden

Yesterday I blogged about Josepth Roth and his nostalgic salute (in The Radetzky March) to his Galician homeland (link). The Galician salute was almost a superfluity in the novel, not at all necessary to the plot, although perhaps useful to suggest the breadth and diversity of the Austrian Empire.

The other great nostalgiast of the Austrian Empire is Stefan Zweig. Roth and Zweig are easy to confuse, but only from a distance. They were both Jewish; both industrious and productive practitioners of a kind of high-end journalism; they shared an affectionate, if ironic, affection for the Empire after its collapse in the debacle of World War I.

But the differences are dramatic. Zweig’s father was a rich textile manufacturer. He spent his young adulthood among the aesthete glitterati, scarcely aware that he was a Jew; for years he presided over a salon at Salzburg. The critic Joan Acocella remarks on “his willingness to disassociate himself from the poor, despised Ostjuden, who [in the early 20th Century] were pouring into Western Europe in flight from the Russian pogroms.” See her Introduction to the NYRB edition of Beware of Pity xv (2006).

Roth was one of the ostjuden. He was the orphaned son of a nobody from Brody near Lviv (Freud’s mother came from the same place).

No surprise that Roth salutes the ostjuden. More remarkably, there is a somewhat similar strain in Zweig’s only novel, Beware of Pity. The plot revolves around the household of Herr von Kekesfalva, seemingly a country aristocrat but in truth not at all what he appeared to be. We learn his story from another character, the all-seeing Doctor Condor (who himself may be modeled on Sigmund Freud, but that is yet another matter). Dr. Condor says:

Perhaps we had better begin at the beginning and for the moment leave our aristocratic friend Herr Lajos von Kekesfalva completely out of the picture. For when my story begins no such person existed. There was no landed proprietor in a long black coat, with gold-rimmed spectacles, no Hungarian nobleman. There was only, in a wretched little village on the Hungarian-Slovak frontier, a keen-eyed, narrow-chested little Jewish lad called Leopold Kanitz, familiarly referred to, I believe, as Lämmel Kanitz. …

Yes, Kaniktz—Leopold Kanitz, I can’t change that. It ws only much later that on the recommendation of a Minister the name was so sonorously Magyarized and decked out with the prefix of nobility. … Kekesfalva’s father, or rather Kanitz’s father, then, far from being an aristocrat, ws the poverty-stricken, be-ringleted Jewish landlord of a wayside tavern just outside of town. The woodcutters and coachmen looked in there every morning and evening to warm themselves with a glasss or two of kontuschowska before or after their drive through the Carpathian frost. Sometimes the fiery liquid went too quickly to their heads; at such times they would smash chairs and glasses, and it was in a brawl that Kanitz’s father received his death blow. …

Dr. Condor indulges himself with a leisurely and loving account of Kanitz’s maturation. It turns out he was another of those traders of whom Roth spoke:

He became what is known in Galicia as a “factor”, a man who trades in everything, acts as middle-man for everything, and in all sorts of ways spans the bridge between supply and demand. … [H]e knew everything and was an expert on everything; was there a widow, for example, who was trying to marry off her daughter, he would come out in the role of marriage broker; was there someone who wanted to emigrate to America and needed information and papers, Leopold would procure them. In addition, he bought and sold old clothes, clocks, antiquarian articles, valued and exchanged land and goods and horses, and when an officer wanted a loan, he always managed to procure it for him.

--Stefan Zweig, Beware of Pity 95-97 (NYRB Classic 2006)

There is much more of this; clearly, Zweig enjoys it at least as much as Dr. Condor. It’s readable and engaging, yet I don’t think it strikes quite the right note. Joan Acocella says: “Zweig’s portrayal of Kekesfalva’s early years is what, today, many of us would call anti-Semitic writing.” Id. I don’t think it is quite that – there is nothing here any more harsh than “Figaro qua! Figaro là!” I think the problem, rather, is that it doesn’t quite work: Zweig is trying has hard as he knows how to understand Kanitz, but his product has a manufactured tone about it. Roth’s effort seems to me, on the one hand more spooky and remote, and on the other, more engaged and ultimately more plausible.

Beware of Pity is, in its own way, a wonderful novel: both Roth and Zweig paint indelible portraits of life in the old Empire. But at the end of the day it is Roth the nobody who does a better job with life among the nobodys.

Sadly, there are other points of convergence between Roth and Zweig. Both found their lives destroyed by the Nazis. Zweig committed suicide in Brazil in 1942; Roth preceded him, having died of alcoholism (suicide by bottle?) in Paris in 1939.

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