By Joseph Roth
Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann
121 pages. Everyone’s library. $24.
By Hugo Hamilton
261 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $28.
Andreas Pum is a difficult character to forget. Andreas, the main character of ‘Rebellion’, the short but powerful 1924 novel by Austrian writer Joseph Roth, loses a leg during the First World War. He doesn’t mind. He believes in a just God, “one who distributed shrapnel, amputations, and medals to the deserving.”
We see Andreas for the first time in a military hospital, preparing for a return to an unnamed German-speaking society. He learns that the government will favor returned soldiers who have shell shock – a condition that affects only one of the 156 men in the hospital. But when he appears before a committee assessing the men, Andreas suddenly and sincerely shows symptoms of the condition. He has issued a barrel organ and a license to play it wherever he wants in the city so that he can earn a living. Proud, defiant, he imagines showing the permit to police officers who might stop him on the street. “One need not fear danger; indeed, there is no one to be afraid of,” he thinks.
Government is comparable to God in Andrew’s mind; it is “above man as the sky is above the earth.” It may be benevolent or punitive, but it is not for us to question it. He considers those who rail against the country’s leaders to be “pagans,” a favorite word of his. These pagans “dig their own graves! Why should the government watch out for its enemies? However, Andreas Pum would certainly look out for it.”
So the words “rude awakening” fairly flash in neon letters on the horizon from the beginning of this book.
But before Andreas is disillusioned, his happiness continues. He meets a very, very recent widow (her husband passed away the day before) who asks him to play something melancholy for the deceased. Before long, the two get married and Andreas finds domestic bliss with his newfound love and her 5-year-old daughter.
In the brilliantly executed chapter that warps Andreas’s fate, he finds himself on a tram with Herr Arnold, the director of a haberdashery. Arnold has been one of the societies really protected and well-off, but he struggles with the increased rights of those under him. (He sexually harassed one of his employees, and the employee’s fiancée had the audacity to show up and complain.) Arnold makes a scene on the streetcar, loudly calling Andreas a Bolshevik, pretending his war wound. Another passenger says, “I expect it to be a Jew!” Andreas is eventually confronted by a police officer and discovers that his daydream of being equal with the authorities is a terrible joke. He is sentenced to six weeks in prison.
Roth’s most reliable canonical work is “The Radetzky March,” a riveting novel about the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. ‘Rebellion’, like his ‘Job’, another fabulous novel about faith and disillusionment, seems more modest at first glance, but is profound and worth persevering. Andreas’s naivete and eventual enlightenment may have been cartoonish in the hands of someone less ironic and wise than Roth. Instead, he is both likeable and comical, and his closing cri de coeur against God is one for all time.
Sadly sold out, ‘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 told through a first edition of Roth’s novel.
That wasn’t a typo: A copy of “Rebellion” tells Hamilton’s novel. This is clearly a high risk/high return area, but surprisingly “The Pages” doesn’t really rise or fail based on its unusual conceit.
The edition of the novel we’re holding on to was rescued in May 1933 from an infamous night of book burning by university students on Berlin’s Opera Square. The professor who owned the novel gave it to a student for safekeeping. Today, that student’s granddaughter, Lena Knecht, owns the book and travels from New York to Berlin to research what she might find in a rural location roughly mapped by the original owner on a blank page in the back.
Hamilton jumps around in several stories: Lena’s quest to follow the map; her increased estrangement from her husband in New York; her meeting with a Chechen man, Armin, and his sister, Madina, who had been orphaned during the second Chechen war.
These contemporary strands are well handled, give or take a distracting subplot or two, and build up to an effective thriller-esque 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 effortlessly immersive, smartest in its psychological insights, and most moving. We see them getting married and later arguing about the nature of fiction. (“You can’t be jealous of characters,” Roth tells his wife. “That’s like yelling at the screen in a movie. That’s what Stalin does.”)
Friederike begins to experience mood swings: “She would go from happiness to regret as someone crossing the street.” Her spirit eventually deteriorates and she is placed in a sanitarium; we see her there in penetrating detail. You wish Hamilton had written more about the couple, maybe an entire book.
The strangest thing about “The Pages” is ultimately the narrator – not because of the brutality of the choice, but because of the lack of necessity. When the book speaks to us, the result is often foggy (“I have collected the inner lives of my readers. Their thoughts have been layered under the text, making me a living being”) or worse (the novel describes it). “collective buzz” of other books in a library that greets it with cheers, such as the dolls that come to life in “Toy Story”).
But the novel in question disappears for a long time and we get to see many things that the book would not have been familiar with. It’s hard to believe that “The Pages” wouldn’t be even stronger if told more conventionally.
Going to fiction for news resonance in this reviewer’s opinion is overrated, but these books certainly come at a time when readers who want to can resonate and resonate. Roth was born in what is now eastern Ukraine, and he spent his too short life as a journalist and artist documenting the tumult, violence and displacement in Europe. (He died at age 44 in 1939.)
“The past is no longer safe,” Hamilton’s narrative “Rebellion” thinks at one point. “My time is coming back. Listen to what my writer wrote to his friend Stefan Zweig a hundred years ago: the barbarians have taken over.”
In this unlikely pair of novels, one finds an original source of eternal rewards and an admirable, earnest tribute.
John Williams is the assistant editor of the book desk and a staff writer at The Times. Follow him on Twitter: @johnwilliamsnyt†