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Art and Culture

Likely Stories: The Collected Stories of Joseph Roth by Joseph Roth

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Chekhovian style stories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the days around World War I. 

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

For the seventh anniversary of the first segment of Likely Stories, I choose a collection of short stories by Joseph Roth, author of The Radetzky March.  That novel mesmerized me, and led me to other of his works.  The Collected Stories of Joseph Roth contains the seeds and the imagination which led to his masterpiece.

Joseph Roth was born in Galicia and he died at the young age of 44 in Paris on May 27, 1939.  He served in the Austro-Hungarian army for a couple of years.  In 1923, he began a distinguished career with the Frankfurter Zeitung.  His themes of the simple man dominate his fiction.  Some critics consider his stories and novellas as “literary perfection.” 

The Collected Stories of Joseph Roth contain some undated and some incomplete pieces, and three novellas.  Poet and essayist, Joseph Brodsky, stated in a blurb, “There is a poem on every page of Joseph Roth.”  I agree; Roth does have an impressive way with words. 

My favorite from the collection is a story from 1916, “The Honor Student.”  Roth writes, “Anton, the son of the postman Andreas Wanzl, was the oddest child you ever saw.  His thin, pale little face, with its sharply etched features, emphasized by a grave beak of a nose, was surmounted by an extremely sparse tuft of white blond hair.  A lofty brow lorded it over a practically nonexistent pair of eyebrows, below which two pale blue deep-set eyes peered earnestly and precociously into the world.  A certain stubbornness showed in the narrow, bloodless lips, clamped tight.  A fine, regular chin brought the ensemble to an unexpectedly imposing finale.  The head was perched on a scrawny neck; the whole body was thin and frail.  Altogether incongruous on such a frame were the powerful red hands that looked as though they had been glued on at the delicate wrists.  Anton Wanzl was always neatly dressed and in clean clothes” (17).  Roth’s detailed descriptions of his characters reminds me of Chekhov -- the preeminent master of the short story, in my opinion.

He also has a talent for the locale of his stories.  In a brief story, “The Grand House Opposite,” he writes: “I found a small hotel that was only different from any of those I had patronized hitherto by virtue of the fact that it was in a wealthy suburb.  My neighbors were rich people fallen on hard times, unwilling to leave the proximity of money because they evidently believed that, that way, when their fortunes finally changed, they would have less time and trouble.  In the same way, a dog one has put out will stay close to the door by which it was made to leave.  Opposite my small, narrow window was a large broad mansion.  Its brown gate was shut, and in the middle of it was a golden knob that caught and intensified and reflected the light” (134-35).

Start with Roth’s The Radetzky March, and then move to The Collected Stories and you will travel to the world of the 19th and early 20th centuries.  5 Stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  You can read more at RabbitReaderBlog.com.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!