I have never read Roth, indeed, I have never heard of him. No, no, not that Roth, the other one – the one you’ve never read or heard of either.
I’m talking about the great Austrian writer Joseph Roth.
Michael Hofmann, who has devoted many years to translating Roth’s body of work (and still going), offered the following except in a recent article. (The Age, 25 March 2006)
The paragraphs appear at the beginning of Chapter 8 of the book The Radetzky March.
It is, as Hoffmann says, moving and majestic.
Read it and be moved, or read it and be envious of the clarity and elegance of the writing.
“In the years before the Great War, at the time the events chronicled in these pages took place, it was not yet a matter of indifference whether a man lived or died. When someone was expunged from the lists of the living, someone else did not immediately stop up to take his place, but a gap was left to show where he had been, and those who knew the man who had died or disappeared, well, or even less well, fell silent whenever they saw the gap.
When a fire happened to consume a particular dwelling in a row of dwellings, the site of the conflagration remained for a long time afterwards. For masons and bricklayers worked slowly and thoughtfully, and when they walked past the ruins, neighbours and passers-by alike recalled the form and the walls of the house that had once stood there. That’s how it was then! Everything that grew took long to grow; and everything that ended took a long time to be forgotten. Everything that existed left behind traces of itself, and people then lived by their memories, just as we nowadays live by our capacity to forget, quickly and comprehensively.”
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