Joseph Roth (1894 to 1939) - The Stages of a Life
Thirty days ago I had never heard of Joseph Roth. After now having read five of his works I regard him as one of my favorite writers, it feels like I should have been rereading him from decades ago. One of the very sad facts of The Reading Life is I know I will die never having even heard of 100s of wonderful writers. I am just thankful on this Thanksgiving Day that Joseph Roth is not among them.
In the translator's after note to Three Novellas by Joseph Roth Michael Hoffman tells us that "The Legend of the Holy Drinker" was Roth's last work of fiction. He knew he did not have long to live, he was terribly addicted to alcohol and living, as he did for many years, in a cheap hotel. Hoffman tells us that Roth was at this point in his life writing at a frantic pace for money but he slowed down and took the last four of five months of his life to prefect "The Legend of the Holy Drinker". Hoffman says Roth knew he was producing his final masterwork and took great pride in its construction.
"The Legend of the Holy Drinker" is about the final days of a vagrant living in Paris under the bridges of the Seine. He came to Paris long ago when he heard in his native Ukraine that France needed coal miners (I flashed to Germinal). He worked for a while at this until he killed the husband of a woman with whom he was having an affair. When he emerged from two years in prison, a bit of a light sentence but maybe normal or maybe Roth is making a point about the value of life, he was a broken man. He lived from what ever day work he could find. One day a well dressed stranger approaches him and asks him if he needs money. The Holy Drinker is not without integrity and he hesitates telling the man he can make no clear plans to pay him back. The man tells him he too has had troubles. All he asks is that if he ever has the two hundred francs to spare he gave him he is to give it to a priest at St. Teresa's Cathedral to aid the poor. This money changed the drinkers life. He did not become a saint. He drank with it, he hired prostitutes from cheap bars (I admit I wondered if this story was partially autobiographical as it is clearly a scene Roth would have known well). We follow along as his live changes and we are there when he dies. I will leave much of the marvelous story untold.
There is deep wisdom and terrible sadness in "The Legend of the Holy Drinker". Hoffman tells us Roth died from suicide by alcohol.
There is an excellent essay by Joan Acocella in The New Yorker that gives a very good overview of Roth's life and writings.