Job, Joseph Roth (1930)

I only discovered Roth a couple years ago and have been reading him with delight and astonishment ever since. Reading his Right and Left on a bench with a view of the Riechstag was the highlight of my trip to Berlin a couple years ago, and his interlocking masterpieces, The Radetsky March and The Emperor’s Tomb brilliantly capture the cultural and political tipping points of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Job is an earlier novel, and quite different in tone and scope; instead of taking on gigantic issues of historical shift and representing the characters as bits of flotsam carried on the tide, Roth gives us a warm, touching novel that moves in the opposite direction, telling with great sympathy and attention the story of a particular family of shetl Jews. The history’s here, of course, but only insofar as it affects the lives of Mendel Singer and his family, who begin in Russia in extreme poverty and end in America with some hope. This isn’t a story about immigrants triumphing and prospering in the new world, though. Indeed, the main reason the Singers overcome their troubles is that they remain faithful to no one but each other and their traditions. Gorgeous book, and one which shows that Roth is just as capable of subtle characterization as he is of incisive political allegory.

03.18.06