Sunday, 14 November 2021

The Emperor's Tomb, Joseph Roth,

Erich Auerbach wrote Mimesis in Istanbul between the wars, at the eastern edge of Europe, without many of the books he was writing about. Though nothing is that simple and there's probably a very good library and a talky literate café down the street in Istanbul in the 1930s. This image of a man writing about books he read in the past, who has incorporated European Literature, can consult at will Emma Bovary and The Idiot, Odyssey and Thebeiad, perhaps even more vividly when he has been pushed to the edge of Europe through one of those geopolitical bumps we must all learn to accommodate.

I have just finished reading Joseph Roth's The Emperor's Tomb in my room in Inniscarra, at the western edge of Europe. There isn't a very good library, or a talky café, down the street. Erich Auerbach might have felt at home in Istanbul. I might feel at home in Inniscarra. 

This is how at home Joseph Roth feels, writing in Paris in the 1930s. 

My people's roots are in Sipolje, in Slovenia. Sipolje no longer exists, hasn't for a long time. It's been assimilated with several other villages to form a middle-sized town. As everyone knows, that's the trend nowadays. People are no longer capable of staying on their own. They form into nonsensical groups, and it's the same way with the villages. Nonsensical structures come into being. The farmers move into the cities, and the villages themselves — they want to be cities.

Everything that starts—a life, a marriage, a war—every nonsensical structure has the kiss of death. In Paris. Istanbul. Inniscarra.

I kissed my mother's hand, as I always did. Her hand — how could I ever forget it — was slender and delicate and veined with blue. The morning light swept into the room, a little dimmed by the dark red silk curtains, like a well-behaved guest dressed in formal attire. 

Joseph Roth tells his tale and takes it away in the same breath. The narrator signs up for World War One and soon is a prisoner of war. Around chapter XXII the narrator escapes from prison camp to a safe house and a new life. A prisoner in Siberia was where he felt most at home.

Our host belonged to the long-established community of Siberian Poles. He was a trapper by profession. He lived on his own, with a dog of no certifiable breed, a couple of hunting rifles, a number of home-made pipes in two spacious rooms full of scruffy furs. His name was Baranovich, first name of Jan. He hardly spoke. A full black beard enjoined him to silence.

In Siberia there is peace. Eventually the narrator and his friends are sent back to prison camp, for arguing. You can't argue in a safe house. This is how the new life ends. Until, after the war, the next one begins. And the one after that.

But from the moment I held my son in my arms, I experienced a dim version of that incomprehensibly lofty satisfaction that the Creator of the world must have felt when he saw his incomplete work nevertheless as done. 

Two chapters later the narrator no longer has a house or a home. His mother is dead. His wife has gone to Hollywood to be an actress. He sends his son away to a friend in Paris and spends his days waiting for his dearly loved evenings, in which he can stretch the story this way or that in short order; and then die of it.

Towards the end of The Emperor's Tomb the tale starts to limp. He repeats himself, especially on the subject of his mother; he is weakening. It doesn't matter what he plucks from his tale now that his tale is ready to pluck him. 

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