Joseph Roth: Flight Without End – Die Flucht ohne Ende (1927) Literature and War Readalong November 2014

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I’ve read a few novels by Joseph Roth now and every time I’m surprised how different they are. Die Flucht ohne EndeFlight Without End is no exception. This is a Roth I’ve not encountered so far, or only in snippets. Flight Without End clearly shows the mark of the journalist, but it’s also the book of someone who cannot take the society he lives in seriously. Rarely have I seen him this sarcastic, mocking individuals and groups of people. And rarely have I come across a Roth that was this funny. I had to laugh out loud more than once and truly wish the translator was able to capture this. Roth’s wit and humour is very subtle and although a translation could be literal, the humour might get lost in translation as it’s often tied to one word that changes the meaning. Mostly he uses it when describing someone. Here’s just a short example.

Eine junge Schauspielerin, die zwar mit dem dicken Zweiten Bürgermeister geschlafen hatte, aber unbeschädigt aus seiner Umarmung wieder herausgekommen war und teilweise sogar erfrischt.

A young actress, who indeed slept with the fat second mayor but came out of this embrace undamaged, partially even refreshed.

I take just one element of the sentence to explain what I mean. It’s entirely possible to choose the word unharmed instead of undamaged but it would remove a lot of the fun. “Unbeschädigt” means both unharmed or undamaged, but normally you’d use it for an object, while unharmed would rather mean a person. Roth chose undamaged very consciously.

What struck me too in this book was how cosmopolitan Roth was. The book starts in the Russian steppe, moves to Baku, from there to Vienna, then to a unamed city on the Rhine, and ends in Paris. Each place is described masterfully, its essence captured, its character laid bare.

The story is a bit more problematic. I’ve seen this book mentioned as one of Roth’s weakest works, which would have needed some editing. I agree to some extent. I didn’t mind the lack of plot. What we find here is basically the story of a quest. Franz Tunda, former officer, then captive of the Russian army, escapee, revolutionary, drifter and private tutor, lacks one thing – a home. What is home for a man like Tunda? If he can be of some use, he’s adopted everywhere, but never really welcome. He stays an outsider and this makes him a keen observer. He sees behind everyone’s masks, doesn’t buy any of the big theories on progress and wealth. He’s as wary of the communists as he is of the socialist’s and the bourgeoisie. They all have a hidden agenda. That’s why his flight is without end because, as vast as the world may be, society ultimately makes it very small and there’s no home for those who don’t play along. When I get so much insight and analysis of people and countries I don’t mind a lack of plot. My reservation has something to do with the structure of the book. It’s presented as if we were reading an account of someone who is Tunda’s friend. At the same time there are accounts that are directly made by Tunda and it switches occasionally from third to first person. I think this would have needed editing but it’s a minor flaw.

One of the most poignant scenes is when Tunda visits the grave of the unknown soldier, under the Arc de Triomphe, in Paris.

The blue flame burned not to honor the dead soldiers, but to reassure the survivors. Nothing was more cruel than the blissfully ignorant devotion of a surviving father at the grave of his son, whom he had sacrificed without knowing it. Tunda sometimes felt as if he himself lay there in the ground, as if we all lay there, all those of use who set out from home and were killed and buried, or who came back but never came home. For it doesn’t really matter whether we’re buried or alive and well. We’re strangers in this world, we come from the realm of shadows.

Flight Without End doesn’t show us a poetic or lyrical Roth. It’s not elegiac or nostalgic. It’s sarcastic and ironic. It’s the work of someone who saw the downside of globalisation long before anyone else and who was no fool when it came to human beings. There are a few good ones out there but they hardly ever occupy the big stages; they might be hidden somewhere in the Taiga, doing their thing quietly and unseen.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s witty, irreverent, unflinching and astute. It may not be the best book for someone who hasn’t read Roth yet, but it’s a must-read for those who already like him.

 

Other reviews

Vishy (Vishy’s Blog) 

 

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Flight Without End is the eleventh book in the Literature and War Readalong 2014. The next book is Letters from a Lost Generation by Vera Brittain and four of her friends. Discussion starts on Monday 29 December, 2014. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Literature and War Readalong November 30 2014 Meets German Literature Month: Flight Without End – Die Flucht ohne Ende by Joseph Roth

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Jospeh Roth, one of the greats of Austrian literature, seemed like a wonderful choice, not only for the Literature and War Readalong in which we focus on WWI, but also as part of German Literature Month. And because he’s such a fine author, there will not only be a readalong but the last week of GLM ( 24 – 30 November) is dedicated to his work. After some rather unfortunate readalong choices, I’m confident this one will not disappoint.

Joseph Roth

Joseph Roth was an Austrian-Jewish writer and journalist. He died at the age of forty-seven in Paris. His early death was probably brought on by his alcoholism. His last book, called The Legend of the Holy Drinker, is inspired by his own battle with alcohol.

Some of his books deal with the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (The Radetzky March, The Emperor’s Tomb), others like Job focus on Judaism. Although he was Jewish, Catholicism was important for Roth and it’s assumed that he converted towards the end of his life.

Here are the first sentences of Flight Without End

Franz Tunda, first lieutenant in the Austrian Army, became a Russian prisoner of war in August 1916. He was taken to a camp a few versts north-east of Irkutsk. He succeeded in escaping with the help of a Siberian Pole. On the remote, isolated and dreary farm of this Pole, the officer remained until spring 1919.

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

Flight Witout End – Die Flucht ohne Ende by Joseph Roth (Austria 1927) WWI, Classic,  144 pages

Flight Without End, written in Paris, in 1927, is perhaps the most personal of Joseph Roth’s novels. Introduced by the author as the true account of his friend Franz Tunda it tells the story of a young ex-office of the Austro-Hungarian Army in the 1914- 1918 war, who makes his way back from captivity in Siberia and service with the Bolshevik army, only to find out that the old order, which has shaped him has crumbled and that there is no place for him in the new “European” culture that has taken its place. Everywhere – in his dealings with society, family, women – he finds himself an outsider, both attracted and repelled by the values of the old world, yet unable to accept the new ideologies.

 

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The discussion starts on Friday, 28 November 2014.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.