Living Life in Reverse and the Perfection of Joseph Roth

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So much of what I see and experience in Romania recalls a history that for Americans is difficult to fathom. The invasions, the wars, the peasants, the kings, the culture, the decay, the refinement.

Just by walking the streets of Bucharest and driving the hills and mountains to the north, I conjure a romanticized version of this diverse and rich past without any great difficulty. Indeed, much of that time seems yet to remain. Poverty, though unwelcome, keeps the cities unpolished and the villages unkempt so that this past still lives on with relics brought forward to the present in ways no longer found in more prosperous, updated, and repainted nations.

Yes, it has been among my greatest pleasures to live in a country which so quickly and gently transports me back through translucent imagination to a time of King Carol and Mihai Eminescu and some indefinite years when the mansions were lighted and filled with family and guests, and the countryside slowly paced with landed gentry and peasants. I’ve had four years of life here and in much of that time, I’ve squinted my eyes and strained to see the life then.

And all the while I’ve done this, peering in those grand, imagined windows of a glowing fanciful past, I always cast myself as visitor, the one who has arrived on some strange, exotic shore.

So for me it was startling, suddenly, recently, to be shown some of my life, in a sense, in reverse. Unexpectedly. Succinctly. And beautifully. Because most of the time I’ve been here, I’ve focused on my discoveries. What is strange. What is sad. What is beautiful and fresh. In short, what it’s like to land someplace new.

But in a sense, of course, none of this is new. For millions of Americans, we too share your past, the one that was here or in this region at large. From here to the Baltics, this is the “Old Country” for us. In fact, for many, this past that we Americans come and struggle to see is the one that our ancestors once struggled to flee.

For it was during that time, the one I now imagine as so golden, that a mass migration was occurring from this part of the world. From Romania on north, a flood of poor immigrants was pouring into America, to the land of prosperity, to the garden of freedom.

Indeed, in just four short decades, until the early 1920s, more than two million Jews from the Russian empire, Romania and Austria-Hungary fled the rise of the pogroms and to seek a new life. There is no indictment in this fact. It is just history and past.

And among those two million was my grandmother, Sarah, who at the age of 12 left her small village and her home with an orchard just a few miles on the Polish side of the Russian border.

This history I’ve known. And though I have considered traveling to find our family’s lost village, it all seemed so old, so past, so gone. Even as a child, when I enjoyed what remained of Manhattan’s Jewish ghettos on the Lower East Side, only fresh pickles and fish (at least that’s all I recall) remained for a while.

That is, until earlier this week, when I stumbled across some words that unexpectedly made my family’s past come alive. There it was fresh. Standing before me. I could hear it. I could smell it. I was asked to pause for a moment from considering my life, the one I’ve examined since I packed up and came here.

In just a few pages, I was forced to consider what it must have been like to pick up from here and move over there. To leave these small villages, like the old ones I visit, and land in New York, the town that I’m from. For I was placed with a family, perhaps like my own, and reminded of that familiar, strange onslaught when a new culture is confronted and it is slowly (and not easily) observed and absorbed. I still live that today, like my family back then, but now (as I said) it’s lived in reverse.

And so I offer you these excerpts from Joseph Roth’s Job, which tells a simple story of Mendel Singer and his family – immigrants to New York from a small Russian village in the early 1910s.

For those of you not familiar with Roth, I share it so you can discover and enjoy his typical perfection in words and in sentences that ring with the precision of finely tuned bells but hit with the impact of shiny steel hammers.

Whether you know him or not, I share it also because it is good, and it is right, to have the past come alive and to be shown the world beyond romance and imagined lighted windows. And it is especially good to be reminded and to consider just how far (I hope) we’ve all come through these years.

[Upon arrival in New York:]

“It was a bright and hot day. Mendel and Deborah sat facing forward, Miriam, Mac and Sam opposite them. The heavy wagon clattered through the streets with a furious power, as it seemed to Mendel Singer, as if it intended to shatter stone and asphalt for eternity and shake the houses to their foundations. The leather seat burned under Mendel’s body like a hot stove. Even though they stayed in the dark shade of the high walls, the heat blazed like gray melting lead through the old cap of black silk rep on Mendel’s head, penetrated into his brain and soldered it up, with damp, sticky, painful intensity. Since his arrival he had scarcely slept, eaten little and drunk almost nothing at all. He was wearing his native rubber galoshes over his heavy boots and his feet were burning as in an open fire. Tightly clamped between his knees he had his umbrella, the wooden handle of which was hot and couldn’t be touched, as if it were made of red iron. Before Mendel’s eyes wafted a densely woven veil of soot, dust and heat. He thought of the desert through which his ancestors had wandered for forty years. But they had at least gone on foot, he said to himself. The mad haste in which they were now racing along aroused a wind, but it was a hot wind, the fiery breath of hell. Instead of cooling, it blazed. The wind was no wind, it consisted of din and noise, it was a wafting din. It was made up of the shrill ringing of a hundred invisible bells, of the dangerous, metallic roar of the trains, of the blaring calls of countless trumpets, of the beseeching screech of the tracks at the curves of the streets, of the bellowing of Mac, who explained America to his passengers through an overpowering megaphone, of the murmur of the people all around, to the raucous laughter of a strange fellow passenger behind Mendel’s back, of the incessant talk that Sam flung into his father’s face, talk that Mendel didn’t understand, but at which he constantly nodded, a fearful and simultaneously friendly smile around his lips like a painful clamp of iron.

“Even if he’d had the courage to remain earnest, as befitted his situation, he wouldn’t have been able to remove the smile. He didn’t have the strength to change his expression. The muscles of his face were paralyzed. He would rather have wept like a small child. He smelled the sharp tar from the melting asphalt, the dry and desiccated dust in the air, the rancid and greasy stink from sewers and cheese shops, the acrid smell of onions, the sickly-sweet gasoline smoke of the cars, the putrid swamp smell from fish halls, the lilies of the valley and carbolic acid from the cheeks of his son. All the smells mingled in a hot vapor that struck him, along with the noise that filled his ears and wanted to burst his skull. Soon he no longer knew what was to be heard, to be seen, to be smelled. He was still smiling and nodding his head. America besieged him, America broke him, America shattered him. After a few minutes he fainted.”

[Sometime later:]

“A few hundred years earlier an ancestor of Mendel Singer had probably come from Spain to Volhynia. He had a more fortunate, more ordinary, in any case less noticed face than did his descendants, and as a result we don’t know whether it took him many or few years to settle into the strange land. But of Mendel Singer we know that he was at home in New York after a few months.

“Yes, he was almost at home in America! He already knew that “old chap” meant father in American and “old fool” mother, or the other way around. He knew a few businessmen from the Bowery with whom his son associated, Essex Street, where he lived, and Houston Street, where his son’s department store was, his son Sam. He knew that Sam was already an “American boy,” that one said “goodbye,” “how do you do?” and “please,” if one was a refined man, that a merchant from Grand Street could demand respect and sometimes might live on the river, on that river for which Shemariah too yearned. He had been told that America was “God’s own country,” as Palestine once had been, and New York actually “the miracle city,” as Jerusalem once had been. Praying, however, was called “service,” and so was charity. Sam’s small son, born scarcely a week after his grandfather’s arrival, is named nothing less than MacLincoln and in some years, whoosh goes the time in America, will be a “college boy.” “My dear boy,” the daughter-in-law calls the little one these days. She is still called Vega, strangely enough. She’s blond and gentle, with blue eyes that reveal to Mendel Singer more goodness than intelligence. Let her be dumb! Women need no intellect, God help her, amen! Between twelve and two it’s time to eat “lunch,” and between six and eight “dinner.” Mendel doesn’t observe these times. He eats at three in the afternoon and at ten at night, as at home, even though it’s actually day at home when he sits down to his evening meal, or perhaps early morning, who knows. “All right” means agreed, and to give assent one says “yes!” If one wants to wish someone something good, one wishes him not happiness and health, but “prosperity.” In the near future Sam already intends to rent a new apartment, on the river, with a “parlor.” He already owns a gramophone, Miriam borrows it sometimes from her sister-in-law and carries it in faithful arms through the streets, as if it were a sick child. The gramophone can play many waltzes, but also Kol Nidre. Sam washes twice a day; the suit he sometimes wears in the evening he calls “dress.” Deborah has already been to the movies ten times and to the theater three times. She has a dark gray silk dress. Sam gave it to her. She wears a great golden necklace around her neck, she’s reminiscent of one of the women of pleasure who are sometimes mentioned in the holy scriptures….”

And at the end of this scene, I’m left with the memory of Sadie, as she was known, my grandmother, in her Brooklyn apartment, near to her death after 80 years in New York, when she would weep for those days and her mother in their orchard.

[Excerpted from the Archipelago Books, 2010 edition. Ross Benjamin, Translator.]

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