The Tale of the 1002nd Night by Joseph Roth

(c1939)  1998 St. Martin’s Press

How surprising that a novel by Roth should only find English translation (by Michael Hofmann) and publication nearly fifty years after it was written.  It’s an unusual book, not so much a story as a series of vivid scenes of Vienna life in the last years of change and decay before the Great War, scenes strung together like the pearls of the fabulous necklace gift of the Shah.

Roth conjures the physical Vienna with great specificity, walking us around the city with the details that prompt that “I know that place, I’ve been there” feeling in any visitor.  But we know only too well that the social world is decayed and dying.  We meet characters across the social spectrum but there will be no happy ending for any of them.  Roth is an incomparable stylist whose work gives the reader an exquisitely melancholy pleasure.

“…she sometimes surrendered to her dangerous dreams, knowing full well how foolish they were, and how bleak and bitter it was to wake from them.  Ridiculous dreams, fleetingly kind and beatific, for all the misery of waking from them.”

The last word from the waxworks sculptor: “I might be capable of making figures that have heart, conscience, passion, emotion, and decency.  But there’s no call for that at all in the world.  People are only interested in monsters and freaks, so I give them their monsters.  Monsters are what they want.”

Author: abookwomansholiday

The perfect holiday for a lifelong reader is one with a stack of books and few distractions. Retiring after three decades as a bookseller, I look forward to reading my way through the stacks and shelves and lists of books waiting for me. This blog will be something of a grab bag or commonplace book of reviews, quotations, notes on the history of books, the contemporary book trade, and anything connected with books and language. Reading is a great pleasure. Thinking and talking about books multiplies and intensifies that pleasure.

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