I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up this novel, written in 1939 by Joseph Roth. Roth was a Jew caught up in Austria just before the second World War, and a heavy drinker (who can blame him?). I caught the fabulist streak in the title, but I was prepared for rather a grim fable. Instead, I found, as his translator Michael Hofmann put it, “a fairy tale that had swallowed a novel,” an exquisitely-crafted story with no word out of place, and in which its very human characters are sexy, knowing, wise, witty, innocent, elegiac, funny, ironic, and sad. I haven’t been able to stop trying to unravel it since I read it: let me work at some of the knots — no, the beautiful braids and tassels — here.
Roth opens with the Arabian Nights bit: the Shah-in-Shah of Persia makes a visit to Vienna to find romance, to settle a lurking dissatisfaction. He is drawn to a beautiful woman, a countess, and demands her that very night, but of course propriety forbids the Viennese to offer the countess to him. Baron Taittinger, a raffish army officer, has the answer: find the woman’s double (and he just happens to know such a woman — his own former mistress, Mizzi Schinagl, who is now working in Frau Matzner’s brothel.) From there, the story shifts from one character to another, watching their fortunes: Mizzi, who goes from the arms of the Shah into wealth and then into prison; the money-hungry Frau Matzner; “poor” Baron Taittinger, who loses his reputation after having pandered to the Shah’s whim, and on and on, like the great pearls on the string the Shah gives Mizzi after their night together.
The first thing I noticed about this novel is that, despite the fact that it’s in translation, it’s beautifully written. Open the book anywhere, and you’ll find marvelously revealing, condensed passages like this one, about the Baron Taittinger, who has just received a letter from Mizzi in prison:
The Captain of Horse had signed for it, absentmindedly opened the envelope, and then glanced at the letterhead. “Female Penitentiary, Kagran,” it read. That exhausted his curiosity. He had never been particularly inquisitive. Such a letter, with such a ridiculous, pathetic, and boring heading, ranked with the other inexplicable phenomena that occasionally dogged Baron Taittinger, like the letters from his tenant farmer, Brandl, the bills from the headwaiter Reitmayer, or all the unnecessary communications from the Mayor of Oberndorf, where he had his estate. To him these were like occult phenomena. They were not about love, or Viennese society, or the cavalry, or horses. And that made them not just irksome: they were “ennuyeux!” — the utmost in tedium.
As the book went on, I began to notice a strong effect of doubling or repetition. Of course, there is the doppelgänger effect of the Countess and her double, Mizzi, but there are perhaps a dozen other examples in the book. The Shah sees a fabulous display of prancing Lipizzaner stallions, and wants to buy a magnificent grey; later, Baron Taittinger must sell his own grey stallion Pylades. The Countess’s husband is paralyzed; Mizzi’s father is, too. In the most obvious example, the Shah returns to Vienna at the end of the novel, to find that his first visit has been recreated in a wax museum, so lifelike that no one can tell whether Mizzi is real or wax.
But the doubling is not exact. These are not mirror images. For instance, when Baron Taittinger meets his illegitimate son Xandl, he sees only a twisted resemblance:
His son! His son looked as though Nature had played a joke on the Baron. The brow was similar, the hairline, the chin, the eyebrows, the shape of the eyes. “Good morning!” said the boy. He had his cap in his hand. He had changed — he had become considerably uglier — but even so, it was as though the Baron had seen him only yesterday.
I finally seized on the metaphor, which is at the center of the novel in the form of the carousel Mizzi Schinagl determines to buy when she gets out of prison. The Tale of the 1002nd Night is not a mirror, nor even a wax museum full of lifelike (but lifeless) doubles. It is a merry-go-round. As the carousel goes around, figures make way for others who are similar but not identical; it is lights and music and entertainment on the one hand, and a bad dream or a futile effort based on the sweat of the animals who push it along, on the other.
The novel is full of inverted stereotypes. Those who should be knowing — the Shah, the whore, the army officer — are the most innocent. Those who should be powerless — the child, the working man, the eunuch — are dangerous. Nothing is as it seems, which is as it should be in a fairy tale, but everything is profoundly human, which is as it should be in a good novel. And this was a very good novel. I recently saw an excellent review of what most people consider Roth’s masterpiece, The Radetzky March, over at Book Group of One. It’s going straight on my list. If it’s better than this, it’s really something.