The Coral Merchant: Essential Stories by Joseph Roth

Review by Eleanor Updegraff

Translated by Ruth Martin

Austrian author Joseph Roth is best known – if indeed he is known at all – for his sometimes relatively lengthy novels exploring Judaism and the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the two topics that almost single-handedly shaped his personal and professional life. Born to Jewish parents in 1894 in what is now Ukraine but was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Roth served in the First World War but spent the majority of his life as a journalist, living out his final days in Paris where he died prematurely in 1939. A melancholy and rather mysterious figure, he haunts the annals of Austrian literature like so many of his contemporaries who saw their lives, careers and people ruthlessly persecuted and destroyed by the rise of National Socialism.

My previous encounters with Roth’s work have yielded mixed results, but I was enthusiastic about the prospect of a new collection of his short stories, translated from the German by Ruth Martin and published by Pushkin Press. Part of the Pushkin Collection, the book itself is an absolute delight – smaller than your average paperback, perfectly weighted and with an attractively designed cover. Secondary considerations compared to what lies within, of course, but still elements of the overall reading experience that really do matter.

Fortunately, what lies beneath that beautiful cover doesn’t in any way disappoint. The six stories that have been selected span the years 1920 to 1939 – Roth’s most creative period – and offer an insightful introduction to the major themes and styles inherent in his work. Anyone who has never attempted Roth or feels put off by the length and density of novels like Radetzky March would do well to begin here­; diminutive though it may be, The Coral Merchant offers an impressively broad-ranging taste of Roth’s fiction.

Varying in length – some are a matter of pages, others are more novellas divided into different chapters – each of the stories contained in this collection is distinct in its narrative voice and style. Ranged in chronological order, I enjoyed the feeling of watching Roth’s craft develop and the themes that would later characterise his work enter his fiction. In the very brief ‘The Rich House Opposite’, for example, we get a first glimpse of his preoccupation with the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which comes into its own in stories like ‘The Coral Merchant’ and, most especially, ‘The Bust of the Emperor’. This latter is the first of three longer tales that ache with nostalgia for a vanished world and radiate Roth’s intense melancholy at the thought that the country he was born into had ceased to exist. It’s an attitude that is often found in Austrian literature of the period, putting me in mind particularly of his contemporary Stefan Zweig, and making me in some ways glad to think that Roth never lived to experience the full horrors of the Second World War.

In part because of their emotional weight, but also because of their style, language and deft characterisation, it was these final three stories that I enjoyed the most. ‘The Leviathan’, in which the coral merchant of the collection’s title comes into play, is a neatly observed portrait of inexplicable emotions and human failings, while ‘The Legend of the Holy Drinker’ has a ribbon of dark humour running through it but is made all the more poignant when read in the context of Roth’s final, wandering, drink-soaked years in Paris. All three stories are bound by a sense of searching that I felt keenly, and give voice to characters that might seem brash on the surface but are frail underneath.

If there is any one thread to link all six stories, it would be this: Roth’s perception of and compassion for the individual. His characters tend to be riddled with faults, even dislikeable, but they are all immediately recognisable and authentic portraits of human beings. The one exception to this rule, I would say, is the young girl Fini in ‘The Blind Mirror’, which was the only story that I found myself struggling with. As well as being narrated in rather overblown prose, which switches seamlessly between the third person and first person plural, I felt that Roth’s attempts to describe a teenage girl having her first period and subsequently falling in love with an older man often fell rather wide of the mark. There are many good elements to the story – his depiction of the tender reserve between father and daughter, for example, and his evocation of city streets by night – but from a contemporary female perspective I couldn’t quite appreciate it. Such stories do, however, need to be seen as a product of their time, and as a stepping stone on Roth’s writerly journey it no doubt has its place in the volume.

For a concise collection, The Coral Merchant offers readers immense literary scope and engages with themes and emotions that are as relevant today as they were when these stories were first published. Ruth Martin has captured their variations perfectly, giving us sparkling translations that are full of vigour and lean into Roth’s changing tone of voice – sometimes melancholic, sometimes full of ironic wit – with admirable dexterity. Subtitled ‘The Essential Stories’, The Coral Merchant really is just that: a compelling introduction to a complex period of history and one of the brilliant minds that tried so hard to make sense of it.

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Eleanor is a freelance writer, translator and proofreader/copy-editor, living in Austria. She blogs at The Monthly Booking.

Joseph Roth, The Coral Merchant (Pushkin Press, 2020). 978-1782275978, 222pp., flapped paperback.

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