Sunday, February 12, 2012

Joseph Roth’s Miraculous Job

Joseph Roth’s Job, translated from the original German Hiob, Roman eines einfachen Mannes by Ross Benjamin, is a dark but lovely short novel about one Jewish man’s tribulations, the power of questioning and patience, and the potential for miracles. (Yes, this post contains spoilers.)

Roth’s Mendel Singer, whose friends compare him to (the Biblical) Job in the second half of the book, is a poor Torah teacher in a small village in the borderlands of the waning Russian Empire. Mendel and his wife Deborah have four children: three sons, one of whom is disabled, one of whom leaves for the U.S., and a third who joins the Russian Army, plus a daughter whose dallying with Cossacks in the fields prompts the family to follow their son to America. Life in America isn’t always easy, either. Somehow New York’s bedbugs and other parasites, and Deborah’s undying habit of hiding money under floorboards, stuck with me most.

What struck me about the novel, though, wasn’t the plot, which contains elements I’ve seen before, but Roth’s storytelling, which, in Benjamin’s spare translation, offers a matter-of-fact account of intense emotional suffering. Most wrenching: the Singers leave their youngest child, Menuchim, in the village when they leave for America, sad that a rabbi’s promise of a miracle hasn’t transformed Menuchim. Further family tragedies, in America, are difficult for Mendel, too, causing him to question his faith and choice of residence. Though the Singers travel from what they believe to be necessity and Roth includes references to wandering Jews, Mendel wonders where he is in a taut piece of geographical and psychological ostranenie/defamiliarization that falls in the middle of the book, just after the Singers arrive in New York:
What do these people have to do with me? thought Mendel. What does all of America have to do with me? My son, my wife, my daughter, this Mac? Am I still Mendel Singer? Is this still my family? Am I still Mendel Singer? Where is my son Menuchim? He felt as if he had been cast out of himself, he would have to live separated from himself from now on. He felt as if he had left himself behind in Zuchnow, near Menuchim. And as his lips smiled and his head nodded, his heart began slowly to freeze, it pounded like a metal drumstick against cold glass. Already he was lonely, Mendel Singer: already he was in America…
Part of the appeal of Job is that Roth juxtaposes what I labeled “cosmic stuff” in a margin note—“…he believed he felt distinctly for the first time in his life the soundless and wily creeping of the days, the deceptive treachery of the eternal alteration of day and night and summer and winter, and the stream of life, steady, despite all anticipated and unexpected terrors.”—with earthy material like the peasant cart driver Sameshkin propositioning Deborah.

There is also a wonderful scene where Sameshkin and Mendel have a cart accident and must spend the night together beside the road. Mendel sobs and Sameshkin comforts him:
Then he put his arm around Mendel’s thin shoulders and said softly: 
“Sleep, dear Jew, sleep well.” 
He stayed awake for a long time. Mendel Singer slept and snored. The frogs croaked in the morning.
The end of Job brings Mendel an out-of-the-blue miracle that seems to reward his suffering and refusal to completely abandon God. Benjamin writes, in an afterword, that Roth “once confessed he could not have written [the ending] had he not been drunk.” Though the scene is one of book’s most emotional, Roth maintains his composure, even at the most crucial moment, writing: “All rise suddenly from their seats, the children, who were already asleep, awake and burst into tears. Mendel himself stands up so violently that behind him the chair falls down with a loud crash.”

I found Roth’s blend of miracle and matter-of-factness especially interesting because it seems to place the book in the middle of a continuum of novels about Jewish life in the borderlands and the United States that I’ve read over the last several years. On one end, Steve Stern’s The Frozen Rabbi contains lush language, magical miracles, and the slapstick effect of a Polish rabbi thawing out after a freezer loses its power decades after the man froze. But in Margarita Khemlin’s stories and novels of the everyday life of Jewish people in Soviet Ukraine, the language, humor, and authorial emotions are tamped down—as they are in Job—and the primary miracle is surviving World War 2, which hovers over her characters’ lives for decades. I’ve translated a bit of Khemlin’s work, which I love for its loaded concision and suspect Roth’s German in Job has a similar feel. I look forward to reading more of Roth’s fiction. 

Disclosures: A big thank you to Archipelago Books for a review copy of Job and to my friend and fellow blogger Amy Henry, an Archipelago Ambassador, for introducing me to Archipelago.

Up Next: Probably C├ęsar Aira’s Varamo