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Joseph Roth: Die Geschichte der 1002. Nacht (The String of Pearls; The Tale of the 1002nd Night)

This book was nominally published in 1939 but some early copies got out in 1937. However, the books were all destroyed when the Germans invaded the Netherlands in 1940. It was not republishted in German till 1959 and not published in English till 1998. This is somewhat surprising, because it is really a fascinating novel, dealing with some of Roth’s avourite themes – the glories but also the pitfalls of Vienna, sudden wealth, the bourgeoisie and the poor and how they intersect, the army, corruption in high places, opportunists and, of course, an appearance from the Emperor.

As always there are several stories going on but the inadvertent catalyst of the main story is the Shah of Persia. This is not quite as fanciful as it may seem as the Shah did visit Vienna in 1873 and even kept a diary of his visit, which was later published and later still translated into English (translator credit: James Redhouse). You can read a summarised version here and get it here.

However, Roth’s Shah of Persia may not be entirely historically accurate for, as with several of the characters in this book, he is gently mocked by our author. The Shah is getting fed up and his favourite eunuch adviser recommends that he travel to seek variety to convince yourself that it doesn’t exist. He suggests Vienna, a place Muslims last visited en masse two hundred years ago. So off he goes to Vienna, where we meet the main character of this book.

I am reluctant to call Baron Taittinger a hero as, though not a bad person, he is seriously flawed – egotistical, irresponsible, no concern for the welfare of others and not as competent as he thinks he is. When we meet him he is on special secondment” to the Court and Cabinet Office. It is he who greets Kirilida Pajidzani, the Shah’s adjutant, and becomes close to the adjutant, so much so that he becomes seemingly more knowledgable about Muslims than the experts in Vienna, in particular as regards their drinking habits.

However, there are two key features we need to know about the Shah. Firstly, when he wants something, he expects to get it. Secondly, he likes women. He has a harem of three hundred and sixty-five women but is somewhat bored with them as they are all the same. They are just naked bodies. However, when he come to the Austrian Grand Ball, he is fascinated by the women who are both kinds of women (in his classification), namely naked bodies and arrangements of drapery. His eye alights on Countess W. He wants her so he shall have her.

Countess W is married (though that is not very relevant). More particularly, Baron Taittinger was very much attracted to her. It looked as though they were going to have an affair but it did not quite work out. One day, he enters the pipe shop and is struck by the woman behind the counter. She is, in his eyes, the spitting image of the Countess W. He starts an affair with her. Her name is Mizzi Schinagl. However, he soon gets bored with her and she ends up in the brothel of another key character in this book, Frau Matzner. She has already had a son by the Baron but, though he is aware of this, he has not seen the boy nor paid child support.

Meanwhile the Shah’s people and the Viennese court are wondering what to do about Countess W. She cannot, of course, be summoned to have sex with the Shah. The Baron has an ideal solution. Send a substitute. He has the perfect candidate. The Shah is disappointed after his night of passion but he does give give Mizzi a pearl necklace.

From this point, it goes wrong for our main characters. Mizzi’s wealth does not bring her happiness but misery. The Baron is sent back to his regiment the next day. Frau Matzner’s business and then health take a downturn.

We have not seen the last of the Mizzi-Baron relationship nor of the Shah’s night of passion. The Baron thought virtually no-one knew about the escapade with the Shah and Mizzi but, it turns out, a lot of people knew and a bored and impoverished gutter journalist gets wind of the tale and decides to investigate. When this gets publicised by the journalist, the army is not amused. Meanwhile the Baron’s own affairs, long neglected by him, are taking a turn for the worse. Mizzi gets inadvertently and innocently caught up in dirty deeds while Frau Matzner finds that her establishment is no longer popular. And it all ends the way it began – with a visit by the Shah to Vienna.

Roth starts off in a mocking tone, making fun of the Shah’s weaknesses and arrogance, of the Baron’s peccadilloes, even of Mizzi’s activities, but, gradually, he seems to have a certain amount of sympathy for his characters as they sink further down.

The Baron may well be egotistical, irresponsible, unconcerned for the welfare of others and not as competent as he thinks he is, as I mentioned, but, gradually, he starts to have something of a conscience about his treatment of Mizzi. Moreover, it seems abundantly apparent both to us and to him (He knows he’s not really cut out for this world) that he cannot cope outside the regimented and rule-driven sanctuary of the army and, when he tries to do so, he fails dismally. Mizzi, too, needs her shelter and protection from the world and when she tries to be someone else, she, too, falls flat on her face. Her mistake is, to a great extent, falling for the baron and seemingly remaining in love with him till the end, even though this love is not even vaguely reciprocated. As for Frau Matzner (who is not a Frau but a Fräulein), she has her business and is comfortable with that but once it no longer works, she, too, goes slowly to pieces. In short, the moral seems to be: know your place and stick to it.

Roth has not been averse to mockery in his previous books so when you start this book, you may well be thinking this is going to be another mocking novel but, as mentioned, the mockery slips away and he starts being serious about his characters and their basic weaknesses. These are not important people, as we see in his other books. Even the Baron is a very minor and essentially almost impoverished baron. Though their actions do not change the world, with the possible exception of the key event, namely the Baron procuring Mizzi for the Shah, they often seem to affect other people but, ultimately, these people are going to be forgotten as the second visit of the Shah makes clear.

Radetzkymarsch (The Radetzky March) may well be his best and certainly best-known book but I really enjoyed this one and think it as fine as Radetzkymarsch (The Radetzky March).

First published in 1937 by De Gemeenschap
First English translation in 1998 by St. Martin’s Press
Translated by Michael Hoffmann