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The Legend of the Holy Drinker , by Joseph Roth

Die Legende vom heiligen Trinker - Joseph Roth


[This book has been translated into English with the title The Legend of the Holy Drinker.]


Born on the outskirts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1894, Joseph Roth became a star journalist in Vienna, Frankfurt and Berlin while publishing a fair amount of fiction on the side. But on January 30, 1933, the day before Adolf Hitler became Germany's Chancellor, Roth left all that for exile in Paris, where he spent most of the rest of his life. In a letter to Stefan Zweig written around this time he displayed a very clear understanding of the significance of Hitler's ascension to power:


Inzwischen wird es Ihnen klar sein, daß wir großen Katastrophen zutreiben. Abgesehen von den privaten – unsere literarische und materielle Existenz ist ja vernichtet – führt das Ganze zum neuen Krieg. Ich gebe keinen Heller mehr für unser Leben. Es ist gelungen, die Barbarei regieren zu lassen. Machen Sie sich keine Illusionen. Die Hölle regiert.


(In the meantime it will be clear to you that we are headed towards great catastrophes. Leaving aside the privates ones - our literary and material existence is destroyed - the whole thing leads to a new war. I wouldn't bet a penny on our lives. They have succeeded in letting barbarism rule. Don't give yourself any illusions. Hell rules.)


With the Nazis burning his books, Roth had to publish them henceforth in Holland. Cut off from his journalistic activities and most of the market for his books, his money began to run out. Already a heavy drinker, the many catastrophes he clearly foresaw slid him down the slope of alcoholism. He died of double pneumonia exacerbated by alcoholism in a charity hospital in Paris on the 23rd of May, 1939, not long after he had finished his last novella, Die Legende vom heiligen Trinker.


Particularly interested by what he would write under such extremely somber conditions, I chose to read that book first, which was published posthumously in Amsterdam. 


The set up: Andreas is a homeless drunkard living under the Seine bridges and begging for change to buy a little food and a lot of cheap liquor. At one time, many many years before, he was a hardworking coal miner and manual laborer, but now... A wealthy born-again Christian, who has seen the light and is giving away his money to the homeless to atone for his sins, hands 200 francs over to Andreas, who promises to pass it on, in turn, to the priest at the church where the donor made his conversion. Suddenly, things start going well for Andreas - well paid work is offered to him by yet another man, he runs across his old girlfriend (the one he went to prison for - this reunion turns out to be a mixed blessing), etc., etc. He tries and tries to keep his promise, but circumstances and, yes, drink distract him again and again. It does not end well for Andreas.


The wonder of this novella is the cool distance, the Sachlichkeit brushed by the lightest touch of irony, with which Roth describes the events of this sad, unlikely story and the acts of this sorry and very believable character Andreas, who, after all, was not entirely alien to Roth himself at that time. What could have been going through Roth's mind as he coolly described the behavior of an alcoholic while writing in a cheap hotel room over the bar where he, Roth, drank himself into a stupor every damn night? The final sentence of the novella gives a rather clear indication...