The Leviathan
by Joseph Roth (Der Leviathan, 1938)
translated from the German by Michael Hofmann (2002)
New Directions (2011)
58 pp

I am thrilled to post about another book in New Direction’s Pearl series, now nine books strong with another two due out later this year (Nikolai Gogol’s The Night Before Christmas and Victor Pelevin’s The Hall of the Singing Caryatids). The most recent addition is Joseph Roth’s The Leviathan. I’m also thrilled to post about another book translated by Michael Hofmann, a translator I’m inclined to follow anywhere — if he translated it, it’s worth reading; if he translated it, his translation is worth seeking out. Sadly, it’s that last sentence that has caused a bit of a delay in my Joseph Roth reading. It has been recommended that when reading Joseph Roth, wherever possible, I should get Michael Hofmann’s translation. Unfortunately, other than The Leviathan, it appears he’s only translated The Radetsky March, and that edition is not readily available in North America. Consequently, I am only now beginning to read Roth, and my introduction is this seemingly slight but actually heavy and charged novella.

The book takes place in the provincial setting of Progrody, a town deep in the Russian interior where there is no sign of anything that could be called a body of water. There lives the renowned coral merchant Nissen Piczenik, a man completely devoted to his trade. Somehow, his corals are richer and more refined than others. He employs several girls who thread the coral; one of these is his wife, though to him she’s just another threader who, after ten years of marriage, is less attractive than many of the others. They have no children; consequently, he sees little point in their relationship. But where he focuses his energy we find a magical result:

As you see, then, Nissen Piczenik didn’t have a shop as such. He ran his business from home, which meant that he lived among the corals night and day, summer and winter, and as all the windows in his parlor and kitchen opened onto the courtyard and were protected by thick iron bars, there was in his apartment a beautiful and mysterious twilight that was like the light under the sea, and it was as though corals were not merely traded here, but that this was where they actually grew. Furthermore, thanks to a strange and canny quirk of nature, the coral merchant Nissen Piczenik was a red-haired Jew with a copper-collored goatee that looked like a particular kind of reddish seaweed, which gave the man a striking resemblance to a sea god.

Nissen Piczenik might even believe he is some kind of sea god in exile. Certainly he resents the land-locked setting of Progrody. Despite his love of the ocean and of corals in particular, he has never seen the sea. That large body of water (any sea is the sea) is mythic; he’s a firm believer in many superstitions about the sea and its effects on people. In particular, he believes in — he has seen — how coral effects and is affected by the women who wear it:

Only there, on the fine, firm white throat of a woman, in close proximity to the living artery — sister of the feminine heart — did they revive, acquire luster and beauty, and exercise their innate ability to charm men and awaken their ardor. 

Another myth he believes in is the Leviathan itself:

Not, the ancient god Jehovah had created everything, the earth and the beasts who walked upon it, the sea and all its creatures. But for the time being — namely, until the coming of the Messiah — he had left the supervision of all the animals and plants of the sea, and in particular of corals, to the care of the Leviathan, who lay curled on the seabed.

In a fantastic passage where Nissen Piczenik follows a young sailor around town during the sailor’s leave (Hofmann hints of homosexuality in the afterword, showing how much this book contains) begging him to tell him any stories at all about the sea. In a stroke of luck, Nissen Piczenik finds himself invited to travel to Odessa with the sailor. He barely mentions this to his wife and eventually ends up staying in Odessa for three weeks, hating the thought of going home and leaving the sea air.

When he does return home, much has changed. The story is set in the early twentieth-century and modernism brings to a neighboring town a new coral merchant with — if it’s possible — even better coral.

The plot, with its mystical and questing elements, sounds like a moral fable, and it can be read that way, but there is more to it than that. First, there was much to love about the depictions of provincial Russian life in the early twentieth century. It’s brief, but in quick sentences Roth brings his characters to life. There is also the fact that this story contains a great deal in such a short amount of space. Hofmann brings this up in his afterword and I’d like to put it here: “It is set at the edge of an empire, and on the cusp of an age, even though most of its personnel are innocent of both. It accommodates an outbreak of diphtheria, a coma, a run on the bank, emigration, the imputation of homosexuality (with “young Komrower” — or is that a shameful thought?), the modern sales techniques of Jenö Lakatos, the end of a marriage in sexual indifference and alcoholism and overwork, a false product, and a true death.” Indeed, if read as a fable, most of these elements would be glossed over; in fact, they are the heart of the story about this remarkable coral merchant who would like to live his life on another plane but is stuck with the one he’s been given.

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