Job by Joseph Roth (trans. Ross Benjamin). Archipelago Books. 250 pp., $17.00.
For thirty years, English-language readers have been enjoying ever-increased access to Joseph Roth (1894-1939), a writer canonical in Europe. The Overlook Press kicked off a parade in the 1980s when it reprinted a whole shelf of translations completed during Roth’s lifetime. Those editions have been steadily supplemented and, in a few cases, supplanted by the more recent—and herculean—efforts of Michael Hofmann, who has translated three books of Roth’s non-fiction, volumes of his stories and letters, and five novels, including Roth’s masterpiece The Radetzsky March. Now, this November, Archipelago Books has joined the fortuitous procession by publishing Ross Benjamin’s inspiring new translation of Roth’s “other” masterpiece Job: the Story of a Simple Man.
For readers who like their classics served with contextualizing commentary, Benjamin has provided an illuminating postscript that describes Roth’s struggles with his Jewish roots, the ambivalent migrations that marked his adult life, and how Job (1930) and The Radetzky March (1932) together convey “the fundamental homesickness of the author’s life and work.” Roth wrote in German, though it wasn’t his first language. Born in the heavily Jewish town of Brody, in what is now Ukraine, what was then Galicia, Roth attended the University of Lemberg in Lviv; then traveled to Vienna to complete his studies; and then went to war, fighting in World War I on the side of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Afterwards, in Berlin, he became a prolific and widely-traveled journalist, only to be displaced again when Hitler rose to the Chancellorship in 1933. Roth moved to Paris, where a life of heavy drinking caught up with him and he eventually died of alcoholism.
One need not know Roth’s biography to enjoy the story in Job; it stands perfectly well independent of historical context (and therefore I wholeheartedly agree with Archipelago’s decision to place such information after the text). But after a first read, it may be valuable to look back upon some of the frames that Benjamin suggests for the book: there is not only Roth’s wandering life, but also his journalism about other displaced persons. Benjamin suggests that “it is no wonder that the centuries-old figure of the migrant Jew who is nowhere at home would strike [Roth] as an embodiment of the peripatetic nature of postwar modern life, ultimately prompting him to evoke the trope of Jewish exile in Job.” It is also a clue why the book can resonate so easily with modern readers: the chaotic age Roth was witnessing has not really ended.
The translation current until now (the one published by Overlook Press) was done in 1931, only a year after the German original, by Dorothy Thompson, the influential American journalist and broadcaster who was expelled from Nazi Germany in 1934 for her consistently unflattering treatments of the Führer in print. It could certainly be argued that Thompson’s translation has withstood the test of time. Her style is not particularly dated, and her rendition of Roth’s prose is dry and straightforward, and crisp in its coloring. Here is her version of the book’s second paragraph, in which Roth paints the physical appearance of the protagonist Mendel Singer, a pious, ordinary, and unsuccessful Bible teacher in Zuchnow Russia:
As insignificant as his nature was his pale face. A full beard of ordinary black framed it. The mouth was hidden by the beard. The eyes were large, black, dull, and half veiled by heavy lids. On the head sat a cap of black silk rep, a stuff out of which unfashionable and cheap cravats are sometimes made. His body was stuck into the customary half-long Jewish caftan of the country, the skirts of which flapped when Mendel Singer hurried through the street and struck with a hard regular tact like the beat of wings against the shafts of his high leather boots.
While Thompson-the-journalist was fully in sync with Roth-the-journalist, there is more to Roth’s art, significantly more than exquisite realism. As that final image of the caftan indicates, Thompson can be workmanlike when trying to convey the magic of Roth-the-poet. And this is a serious loss: Michael Hofmann has recounted a comment related to him by Joseph Brodsky—and I join in the chorus of those who would repeat it third-hand—that there is a poem on every page of Roth. Brodsky’s assessment would seem senseless to readers of Thompson’s version; happily, however, Ross Benjamin’s new translation gives us both the realism and the poetry.
If there is a poem on Job‘s first page, it is the skirts of Mendel Singer’s caftan. Here is Benjamin’s version of the same text.
As insignificant as his nature was his pale face. A full beard of ordinary black framed it completely. The mouth was hidden by the beard. His eyes were large, black, languid, and half veiled by heavy lids. On his head sat a cap of black silk rep, a material out of which unfashionable and cheap ties are sometimes made. His body was wrapped in a customary half-long Jewish caftan of the country, the skirts of which fluttered when Mendel Singer rushed through the street, knocking with a hard regular wing beat against the shafts of his high leather boots.
Given the substantial overlap of the two versions, one must acknowledge the inescapable clarity with which Thompson captured Roth’s straightforward physical descriptions; but Benjamin, through rhythm and crucial syntactical choices, captures the wings—the migration—knocking, beating like a riding crop at the heels of an “ordinary, entirely everyday Jew.” And that, as the saying goes, makes all the difference.
For those familiar with Thompson’s version, as with those who may never have read any Roth before, Benjamin’s translation will be a revelation: Job, opened to any page, offers something of beauty. The evocative worlds of the shtetl, the border town, and (in part two) New York are all expertly detailed, and inhabited by passionate inner subjectivities drawn with lyrical grace; we are gripped not only by Mendel Singer, but also by his wife Deborah and their daughter Miriam, each of whom makes sudden, stirring leaps into the ineffable as they navigate between the tragic and transcendental.
With a plot supposedly constructed of jobations, we might expect a steady stream melodrama, but Job is subtler in its study of suffering than its biblical analog. It is one of the sober pleasures of the text to trace Roth’s careful cascade of causes: aside from the youngest Singer boy Menuchim’s infirmities, the “punishments” in part one are man-made and simply the calamities of human passion and frailty (no matter how heavy and heaven-sent Mendel Singer may feel them to be); it is only in part two, once the family has put itself on the road, that chaos and forces beyond the family’s control really begin to take their savage toll. Roth, in other words, delays his use of melodrama until the family has abandoned its home (to flee their own mistakes!); and by preserving the power of melodrama for the novel’s second half, where it can give specific form to the characters’ dislocation, Roth deepens the narrative’s emotional weight all the way to the story’s miraculous ending.
After almost a full century of wars, refugees, dictatorships, newly independent countries, and constantly redrawn maps, we have become used to authors excavating—and stealing occasional stones from—their cultures’ mythologies; it is in such cultural foundations that essential materials and structures can be found for authors combating exile or the destruction of what they’ve known, authors striving to create from words a home. One might think of James Joyce, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Eugene O’Neill, or a score of others. With Job Joseph Roth travels back to the Galician-Russian border, the shtetl, and the bible to gather cultural touchstones; but he manages to escape the past, too; page after page he eschews nostalgia. During the most mournful hours in New York, Mendel Singer may momentarily forget his tremendous losses:
It was as if he had only just now lost his homeland. . . . He hadn’t wanted to go, to wander around in the world. Deborah, Miriam, Shemariah—they had wanted to go, to wander around the world. They should have stayed, loved horses, drunk schnapps, slept in the meadows, let Miriam run around with Cossacks and loved Menuchim.
But immediately afterwards, he recognizes the train of thought as dangerous and pointless: “Have I gone mad, that I’m thinking this way? Does an old Jew think such things?” It’s clear that there is no going back; this tale of uprooting never malingers in the unrecoverable past. Roth pushes the story relentlessly, sweetly forward, if only in the hope that there must be something to hope for. The result is a beautifully written, and in the end uplifting, parable for an era of upheaval. Unfortunately, it will probably remain timely for a long time to come—especially when we have access to such an excellent translation.
Hugh Ferrer is the associate director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, and the fiction editor of The Iowa Review.
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