Joseph Roth: Weights and Measures – Das falsche Gewicht (1937)

Weights and Measures

How does an upright, steadfast man survive among corruption, hypocrisy, and crime? Roth’s answer to this question, which lies at the heart of Weights and Measures – Das falsche Gewicht, is pretty simple: he doesn’t. Either he is tainted or he will go down.

Anselm Eibenschütz, a former officer, leaves his soldier’s life behind and becomes the inspector of weights and measures in Zlotogrod. He hasn’t changed profession by choice but because his wife urged him too. The change is hard on Eibenschütz. He’s not used to this region; it’s colder and rougher than where he used to live, and he isn’t cut out for the job. It’s not to his liking and since he is incorruptible and upright, he clashes with the merchants of the region. Hardly anyone conducts honest business. They all rely on extra-money, coming from the use of false weights and measures and smuggling. While the old inspector was open to bribes, Eibenschütz is not. He reports every single misconduct and sends even the poorest to prison. A kind man at heart, this is especially hard on him. He doesn’t want to punish those who have nothing, but can’t make exceptions because the richer would find out and he would be denounced. He finds ways to help the poor though. Either he doesn’t check on their shops or he warns them somehow.

Eibenschütz blames his wife for his misfortunes. Why did she have to talk him into leaving his former life? He begins to hate and neglect her and when he finds out she’s cheating on him, it offers him an excuse to neglect her even more.

In the province of Zlotogrod is a border tavern that is visited by smugglers. Jadlowker, the owner, is a profiteer and famous everywhere for his criminal activities. He lives with a beautiful gypsy woman, Euphemia. When poor Eibenschütz sees her for the first time he falls in love and becomes a regular customer.

From that moment on it goes downhill for Eibenschütz. Even though he is able to arrest Jadlowker and is named supervisor of the tavern, he doesn’t find happiness, but turns into an alcoholic. Eibenschütz isn’t the only one who is tested. There’s an unseasonably warm winter towards the end of the book; a cholera epidemic breaks out and kills hundreds. Because people fear to touch the dead, prisoners are used as undertakers. Jadlowker grabs the opportunity and flees. The end of the book is foreseeable and tragic.

I thought this was an absolutely remarkable novel for many reasons. The main theme is the clash between an honest man and a corrupt system, but what is amazing is how the story unfolds in front of the background of the disintegrating Austro-Hungarian monarchy and serves as a mirror. The book really gives you a feel for how huge this monarchy was, how extended, and how many cultures were part of it.

What I liked most is how Roth used the descriptions of the place and the weather to show Eibenschütz’s emotions and to underline the wild remoteness of this region. There were many beautiful small scenes and episodes. Eibenschütz is upright and stiff, but he’s also very emotional and feels deeply. His life as a soldier sheltered him emotionally; experiencing heartache and passion, unhinges him. When he falls in love he discovers nature. Before his “awakening” nature is just a phenomenon he sees but barely notices. The changing seasons bring rain or snow, breaking ice or sunshine, but that doesn’t affect him. Once he’s “awake” he feels the seasons, feels he’s part of it.

Weights and Measures is a wonderful book. Short, complex, and filled with poetic descriptions. Knowing that Roth battled alcoholism all of his life, gives Eibenschütz’ descent into alcoholism an even deeper meaning.

Here’s a wonderful review by Max (Pechorin’s Journal) which contains quotes.

36 thoughts on “Joseph Roth: Weights and Measures – Das falsche Gewicht (1937)

  1. This sounds great, as does everything by Roth, it seems. Is his awakening to nature an acknowledgement that a little flexibility with the rules is the natural way and that anyone who is too inflexible will break because they are fighting against nature?

    • It is great, Seamus.
      Interesting question. I read it little differently. For me it rather was a sensual awakening and that’s what broke him because he wasn’t equipped. I would have to reveal too much about the book but if his love affair with Euphemia had been different and not as chaotic as it was he might have been able to cope and the his newfound felxibility wouldn’t have turned into a curse.

  2. Oh, this sounds absolutely tremendous, especially given the focus on the moral and ethical choices this man has to make. I’ve yet to read Roth, but I’ve enjoyed seeing the reviews flying around the web in the last couple of days. I’ll have to add Weights and Measures to my list. Thanks for this review.

  3. There’s a review of this one at mine. I’m delighted to see someone else read it, it’s a bonus to then have such a perceptive review. I particularly like your point on him awakening to the seasons. Roth really is a marvel.

    • Yes he is a marvel. Thanks for the the kind words. I’m looking forward to read your review. I don’t remember seeing it.
      I’m surprised every book is so different in tone and choice of themes.

  4. Beautiful review, Caroline. I want to read this book. The main theme of ‘Weights and Measures’ is very interesting. It is sad that things end dark and bleak – I wish there was a third option for a honest man other than becoming part of a corrupt system or going down. Mysterious gypsy women characters come all the time in Russian novels and movies. I didn’t know that they made an appearance in Joseph Roth novels too. I loved your comment – “I thought this was an absolutely remarkable novel” – now I know who one of your alltime favourite authors is 🙂 I love that cover image of the book. I love Peter Owen editions and it was no nice to see that cover – it has a noir feel to it.

    I haven’t read a Joseph Roth book yet. I should be able to do something about that in the next few days 🙂 I just started reading ‘Flight Without End’ and I am loving it just after three pages. He is a wonderful writer.

    • Thanks, Vishy.
      Flight Without End is very different. It’s even humurous in place but I like it too.
      Weights and Measures is more poetic. Just for those descriptions of nature it would be worth to read it but Radetzky March is still his masterpiece. I’m slowly reading all of his books.
      The one Stu reviwed sounds very tempting too. And of course Hotel Savoy is a favourite of mine.
      I would have wished another option for Eibenschütz but the only option he had would have been to leave. But he feel in love . . .

  5. The tragic decline of individuals can make for such strong fiction.

    The ethical questions do sound interesting, as based on your commentary it was not the protagonist who was really flawed but was brought down by the ills of society.

    I have not read Roth but I want to.

  6. Excellent review of a brilliant book. There is also a movie by Bernhard Wicki with the unforgettable Helmut Qualtinger (“Herr Karl”) in the leading role based on the novel. Also very much recommended.

  7. This sounds wonderful. It must have been so hard for him to write alcoholic characters, because alcoholics are usually in denial and don’t want to think about it, let alone write about it. I think he was brave. That whole moral courage thing is so difficult to get right in fiction and it sounds as though he succeeded here. My Roth list is growing….

    The ‘snow’ on your site made me laugh. It’s the first day of summer in Australia. We’ve actually had some nice spring weather in Western Australia and it’s not hot yet, though. 🙂

    • This is such a beautiful book. I don’t think Roth was ever in denial of his drinking. He and Irmgard Keun must have been quite a pair.
      It was interesting reading these two books one after the other. One is witty, the other one fill of amazing descriptions.
      The snow puzzled me as well. It’s an automatic thing. I could turn it off but since we never ger snow – or only every ten years or so – I like it.
      I saw someone mention summer and was so startled and then I remembered – of course, he lives in Australia. 🙂

  8. This sounds good, too! To be honest this story appeals to me a bit more than the War & Lit readalong book by him. I have an interest in stories set during those days of the Austro Hungarian Empire (Zweig has also written about that period). It’s not one my library has but maybe I can find a used copy somewhere. Have you read most of his work?

    • This was fanatstic and it would have been the perfect choice. Still, I think you’d like Hotel Savoy but thsi sis a great starting place too. It’s just a very different Roth.
      I’ve not even read a ll of the most famous book – I still need to read Job – but I’ll read most of them eventually.

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