Undercover: Desolation Row, 1927 (03/09/78)

Joseph Roth was born in 1894 in Galicia (at that time part of the Austrian empire, Galicia now belongs to the Soviet Union); he worked as a journalist and novelist in Vienna and Berlin, left Germany in 1933, and died an anti-Fascist in Paris in 1939. Though I had never heard of Roth before coming across his 1927 novel, Flight Without End (recently published for the first time in this country by Overlook/Viking, 144 pp., $8.95), almost as soon as I started to read I was struck by a sense of familiarity, of postwar (our war) modernity. Roth simply understood that, after the First World War, social structures and social movements could no longer provide psychological support for those who were part of them, and this may be a central message of modern fiction.

Roth focuses on the texture of ordinary life. With cool, almost emotionless prose—though he is not sardonic and is only rarely ironic—Roth sought to make even the most unusual or spectacular events seem ordinary; he grasped that it was precisely a lack of drama—or the impossibility (immorality?), after a World War, of authentically dramatizing anything that had to do merely with one person—that exposed the gap in the modern soul. Drama refers to a public, which implies a coherent society, or at least to an audience: one is in the arena, others watch and respond. Roth—most especially like Peter Handke, but also like the Czech writer Ludvik Vaculik (The Guinea Pig) and the young German director Wim Wenders (in his movie The American Friend)—understood that the flat tragedy of the present day is that the connection between the individual and the public cannot be made, from either side.

Flight without End tells the story of Franz Tunda, a friend of Roth’s who, while serving in the Austrian army on the Eastern front, is captured by Russian troops in 1916. He is taken to a camp in Siberia; he escapes, is befriended by a man whose name he later takes, and waits—as does, he hopes, his fiance back in Austria.

The war over, Tunda sets out, on foot, for home. But the war is not really over; now it is the Russian Civil War that he must dodge. Tunda is captured by White Guards, and then by Red troops, and he fights on their side. He becomes a revolutionary, partly because he has fallen in love with a female comrade, partly for reasons that remain obscure. He fights, he kills, he commits atrocities; once, he hears Trotsky speak—“the hard factual speech of the Revolution.” He lives as an individual, confused by and devoted to his love; and as a citizen of History—as more than a man, and maybe less. With the Revolution over he faces the fact that History has lifted him out of himself, taken his old identity without quite giving him a new one.

“Tunda sought enduring, well-tried and reliable definitions in order not to be swept away by his own experiences,” Roth writes. But it is in the nature of revolutions that such definitions do not work; even if the society does not really change, one believes that it will, or anyway should, and so one cannot accept the solace of what is well-tried. One seeks that connection between oneself and something larger: that drama. Tunda becomes a government functionary; the life he lives begins to recede from his consciousness.

From time to time, Tiinda’s vocation took him to Moscow. Every night he visited the Red Square. The Red Square was silent, all the gates were closed, the sentries at the entrances to the Kremlin stood like wooden figures in their long cloaks, Lenin’s mausoleum was black; up on the roof the red flag licked the sky, illuminated from below. Here was the only place where one still felt the Revolution, and midnight the only time when one dared to feel it.

Tunda marries; he works; and, the connection between himself and his experience dissolving, begins to spend his time watching for ships at the harbor of his town. He abandons his wife and Russia and heads back to Austria—to find his old fiance, though he goes less like a lover than like an adopted child searching for his real lost parents. His return is a long, slow disaster, not only because too much time has passed, but because while in the
country of the Revolution he could find no identity in the part he played in it, once outside he can find no other. “When we were fighting for the Revolution,” the returned Tunda writes to Roth, “we thought we were fighting the world, and when we were victorious we thought that victory over the whole world was near. Even now, over there, they have no idea how firm this world is.”

So he wanders on, chasing his old love—and of course he no longer loves her, or even much loves the idea of loving her, he simply has no other way to go—and finally, as the book ends, he is standing on a Paris street, less changed by History than wiped out by it The reader understands, fully, that Tunda’s life is over; that he is just thirty-two is no irony, but merely a horror.

Flight without End is a small, almost perfect book—but it is marred by a loathing for women too strong and too casual to write off to Roth’s time and place. Roth simply doesn’t believe women are human—they can’t think or feel—and there are far too many female characters for a reader to note such attitudes and then move on. They keep coming. This didn’t destroy the book for me, partly because the book is not about compassion—Roth’s for Tunda, or Roth’s for humankind. Other readers may feel differently.

Rolling Stone, March 9, 1978

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