Before his death in 1939, Joseph Roth produced 13 works of fiction–most of them sardonic valentines to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As a Galician Jew, not to mention a biting social critic, Roth knew that life under the Dual Monarchy was not exactly flawless. Yet he retained a deep attachment to the old regime, which must have looked more and more civilized as the Nazis came to power. In 1933 he fled to Paris, where he commenced a slow, alcoholically induced suicide–managing, however, to write several more books, of which The Tale of the 1002nd Night was the last to appear.
Like so many of Roth’s novels, this one is a celebration of Vienna in its pre-Anschluss days–during the 1870s, to be precise. “At this time,” we’re informed, “the world was deeply and frivolously at peace.” In keeping with the frivolity, perhaps, Roth puts a fairy-tale-like spin on his memories. He opens The Tale of the 1002nd Night with a state visit by the Shah of Iran, transforming historical fact into whimsical fiction. And once he shifts the narrative to Vienna proper, his characters make their entrances and exits with brilliant, dreamlike rapidity. It would be tempting to compare the entire story–which revolves around the seduction and abandonment of the prostitute Mizzi Schinagl by the boneheaded Baron Taittinger–to a puppet show. But these puppets are capable of registering deep pain and transformation. Taittinger, for example, gets to utter the first honest sentence of his adult life: “He had caught himself telling the truth; and for the first time in many years he blushed, the way he had once blushed as a boy when he’d been caught telling a lie.” And even Mizzi, the flattest character in a book full of wafer-thin ones, has her moments of electrifying humanity:
She became terribly sad. Her simple soul was briefly illumined, indirectly and at a lower wattage, by the light that makes older and wiser people so happy and so sad: the light of understanding. She understood the sorrow and futility of everything.
Roth, too, understood that sorrow. But in The Tale of the 1002nd Night, which has been beautifully translated by Michael Hofmann, he counters its gravitational pull with small, stunning perceptions and a kind of bemused decency. Indeed, Roth the novelist has precisely the “calculating kindliness” he ascribes to one Herr Efrussi–and this, he goes on to point out, is “the only sort that doesn’t wreak destruction on this earth.” –James Marcus