Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Distracted by life and the passage through the Symplegades(*) of history

Moses Joseph Roth. Famous journalist and writer extraordinaire, alcoholic orphan of the Habsburg Empire, Roth died down and out in Paris in 1939. He was the author of the famous "Radetzky March" and many other novels and stories written in a style of distilled economy. One of his last works was “Die Legende vom Heiligen Trinker” (The Legend of the Holy Drinker) which he wrote in that last year of his life where one can imagine that the inspiration for his fiction came directly from his own experiences living almost as poor and destitute and drunk as Andreas Kartak, the tramp protagonist of this beautiful novella. In the story, the life of Andreas the tramp is suddenly transformed by a series of miracles and the promise of redemption. The illumination of Andreas’ life in these last days and the squaring up of the will against life's distractions brings to mind the myth of Sisyphus. And when redemption comes, it is all in the mind and not in reality, as Andreas mistakens a paris café for a chapel and a young girl for the saint. This wonderful novella ends with the phrase “May God grant us all, all of us drinkers, such a good and easy death”. It was not to be for Joseph Roth and his friends, Ernst Toller, Ernst Weiss and Stefan Zweig.

They grew up between the centuries. When empires crumbled and ideologies were still something worth fighting for. Having already experienced the massacre of the first world war, they were then caught in the historical turmoil of the period brooding the second. The 20s and 30s. They were all writers and jews. They all suffered and had to flee from Germany with the rise of Nazism and the long descent into madness.

Ernst Toller, playright and revolutionary was detained by the Nazis in Germany in 1933. Whilst in the concentration camp he was tortured by the guards who made him eat a complete volume of one of his novels and force fed him castor oil. Ernst Weiss, a doctor and good friend of Franz Kafka wrote many works in many different styles and remains underappreciated. Stefan Zweig, a pacifist, is rightly considered one of the most famous writers of the 20s and 30s.

Disillusioned and broken by tragic events in their own lives and by re-living the depresive ravages of war, they all ended up commiting suicide. What precipitated Joseph Roth's final collapse was hearing the news that his friend, Ernst Toller, had hanged himself in New York. Ernst Weiss commited suicide in Paris in 1940, just before Hitler marched victorious into the city. Stefan Zweig commited suicide in Brazil with his wife in 1942, refusing to be a part of a world that gave birth to such attrocities. Their lives were crushed but their spirit lost only a few tail feathers and their work safely sailed through the symplegades of time and history.

(*) Symplegades were the Clashing Rocks, which smashed together upon any ship passing between them. Jason and the Argonauts had been advised to avoid this trap by causing a bird to fly ahead of their vessel. The Symplegades clashed together on its tail feathers, then drew apart in readiness to clash again. At this moment, the Argonauts sailed through safely, with only minor damage to the stern of their ship.

No comments:

Post a Comment