By Joseph Roth
Translated from German by Michael Hofmann
121 pages. Everyone’s library. $24.
By Hugo Hamilton
261 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $28.
Andreas Pum is a hard character to forget. The protagonist of “Rebellion”, the short but powerful novel by Austrian writer Joseph Roth from 1924, Andreas loses a leg during the First World War. It doesn’t really bother him. He believes in a just God, “the one who distributed shrapnel, amputations and medals to the deserving”.
We first see Andreas in a military hospital, preparing to reenter unnamed German-speaking society. He learns that the government will favor returning soldiers who have shell shock – a condition from which only one of the 156 men in the hospital suffers. But appearing before a commission that assesses the men, Andreas suddenly and genuinely shows symptoms of the disease. He was given a barrel organ and a permit to play it anywhere in town so he could earn a living. He imagines himself proudly, defiantly, showing the license to the police who might arrest him in the street. “There is no danger to fear; indeed, there is nothing to fear,” he thinks.
Government is like, in Andreas’ mind, like God; it “covers man as the sky covers the earth”. He can be benevolent or punitive, but it is not for us to question his ways. He considers those who attack the country’s leaders to be “heathen”, one of his favorite words. These pagans are “digging their own graves!” Why should the government be wary of its enemies? Himself, however, Andreas Pum, would surely be one to watch.”
So the words “rude awakening” are quite flashing in neon letters on the horizon as soon as this book opens.
But before Andreas becomes disillusioned, his luck continues. He meets a very, very recent widow (her husband died the day before) who asks him to play something melancholic for the deceased. Before long, the two marry and Andreas finds domestic bliss with his new love and 5-year-old daughter.
In the brilliantly executed chapter that twists Andreas’ fate, he finds himself on a streetcar with Herr Arnold, the manager of a haberdashery. Arnold was one of the members of the society really protected and well-to-do, but he bristles at the increased rights of those below him. (He sexually harassed one of his employees, and the employee’s fiancé had the temerity to come forward and complain.) Arnold makes a scene on the tram, loudly calling Andreas a Bolshevik who is faking his war injury. Another passenger said, “I guess he’s a Jew!” Finally confronted by a policeman, Andreas discovers that his daydream of being the equal of the authorities is a terrible joke. He is sentenced to six weeks in prison.
Roth’s surest canonical work is “The March of Radetzky”, a far-reaching novel about the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. “Rebellion,” like his “Job,” another fable-like novel about faith and disillusionment, seems more modest at first glance but is profound and worthy of enduring. Andreas’ naivety and eventual enlightenment might have been cartoonish in the hands of someone less ironic and wise than Roth. Instead, he’s both sympathetic and comedic, and his final heartbreaking cry against God is one for the ages.
Sadly out of print, ‘Rebellion’ was recently reissued by Everyman’s Library, in time to coincide with Irish writer Hugo Hamilton’s latest novel, ‘The Pages’. Hamilton’s book is narrated by a first edition of Roth’s novel.
That wasn’t a typo: a copy of “Rebellion” retells Hamilton’s novel. It’s clearly high-risk/high-reward territory, but surprisingly, “The Pages” doesn’t really soar or fail due to its unusual conceit.
The edition of the novel whose company we keep was rescued from an infamous night of book burning by university students on Berlin’s Opera Square in May 1933. The professor who owned it passed it on to a student to keep it. In the present day, this student’s granddaughter, Lena Knecht, owns the book and travels from New York to Berlin to investigate what she might find in a rural location roughly mapped by the original owner on a blank page. in back.
Hamilton hops around several stories: Lena’s quest to follow the map; her increased estrangement from her husband in New York; his encounter with a Chechen man, Armin, and his sister, Madina, who were orphaned during the Second Chechen War.
These contemporary strands are well-handled, give or take an entertaining subplot or two, and build into an effective thriller-like finale.
But perhaps predictably, given the novel’s central inspiration, Hamilton is at his best in several sections about Roth and his wife, Friederike. It’s in these moments that “The Pages” feels most easily immersive, shrewdest in its psychological insights, and most moving. They are seen getting married and, later, arguing over the nature of the fiction. (“You can’t be jealous of characters,” Roth tells his wife. “It’s like yelling at the screen in a movie. That’s what Stalin does.”)
Friederike begins to suffer from mood swings: “She would go from happiness to regret like a person crossing the street.” Her mind eventually worsens and she is placed in a sanatorium; we see her there in piercing detail. We wish Hamilton had written more about the couple, maybe an entire book.
The weirdest thing about “The Pages” ends up being its narrator – not for the audacity of choice but for its lack of necessity. When the book speaks to us, the result is often nebulous (“I have accumulated the inner life of my readers. Their thoughts have layered themselves under the text, making me a living thing”) or worse (the novel describes the “humming collective” of other books in a library that greet it with cheers, like the dolls that come to life in “Toy Story”).
But the sensitive novel disappears for long stretches, and we’re presented with a lot of things the book wouldn’t have been aware of. It’s hard to believe that “The Pages” wouldn’t be even stronger if told in a more conventional way.
Turning to fiction for topical resonance is overrated in this reviewer’s view, but these books certainly come at a time when willing readers can resonate and resonate. Roth was born in what is now western Ukraine, and he spent his all-too-short life as a journalist and artist documenting the turmoil, violence and displacement in Europe. (He died at age 44, in 1939.)
“The past is no longer safe,” Hamilton’s “Rebellion” narration thinks at one point. “My time is coming back. Listen to what my author wrote to his friend Stefan Zweig a hundred years ago: the barbarians have taken over.
In this unlikely pair of novels, there is original source material with eternal rewards and admirable, earnest homage.
John Williams is an associate editor in the Books Office and an editor at The Times. Follow him on Twitter: @johnwilliamsnyt.