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the Complete Review
the complete review - biographical


Wandering Jew

Dennis Marks

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To purchase Wandering Jew

Title: Wandering Jew
Author: Dennis Marks
Genre: Biographical
Written: 2011
Length: 132 pages
Availability: Wandering Jew - US
Wandering Jew - UK
Wandering Jew - Canada
Wandering Jew - India
  • The Search for Joseph Roth

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Our Assessment:

A- : very good, compact study

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 2/3/2012 Simon Schama
The Independent . 1/3/2012 Paul Bailey

  From the Reviews:
  • "[A] brilliant little study" - Simon Schama, Financial Times

  • "[A] thoughtful monograph" - Paul Bailey, The Independent

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Wandering Jew is in part a personal account, Marks describing his own fascination with Joseph Roth (1894-1939, best known for The Radetzky March, which Marks calls: "one of the masterpieces of modern German fiction"), and his efforts to better understand the author and his writing, but the focus is properly on Roth and not so much the quest for Roth -- even as the subject remains elusive. On-site observations and travels through Roth's Europe -- especially the changing landscape (and borders) of the former hinterlands of the Habsburg Empire, where Roth was born and which, as Banks makes clear, informed so much of his writing -- do add a personal touch, but are also effective in making some of Marks' points.
       This is not a biography -- that's still missing: "Even today there is no English biography of Joseph Roth and only a couple of academic studies", Marks notes -- and while there is much that is likely of interest even for those largely unfamiliar with the author, at least some familiarity with Roth's work is necessary to truly appreciate Marks' deep engagement with the material.
       If Stefan Zweig is the more popular of these two Austrian authors who were so very successful in the period between the wars -- and the one whose work has enjoyed a greater present day revival in English -- recall that translator Michael Hofmann called him: "the Pepsi of Austrian writing" (and noted that Roth: "has certainly spoiled me for Zweig"). [Hofmann has translated several of Roth's works -- and his piece on My Life with Roth as well as a letter to the editor, responding to a J.M.Coetzee review, Translating Joseph Roth are both worth reading as well.] But of the two peripatetic and ultimately lost writer-souls, Zweig has had the easier time finding popular success again. Roth is in some ways hampered by having one towering work -- The Radetzky March -- while Zweig's talents seem more evenly spread across his work (though one could make the argument for the novella The Royal Game (a.k.a. Chess Story)), and though arguably more rooted in Habsburg Austria, and especially its eastern lands, Roth certainly isn't quite as readily accessible as Zweig.
       Marks does a very good job of describing Roth's Galician roots -- and, usefully, what that means, noting how the very territory is itself rootless, with borders variously redrawn over the course of the century. (As he notes more generally, this displacement -- which happened all across the eastern former Habsburg territories and left populations in newly founded countries that they were linguistically and culturally separate from (Hungarians in Romania, etc. etc.) -- has had far-reaching consequences, with tensions still present in the present-day.)
       As Marks show, Roth's identity as 'Austrian' and 'Jewish' are more complex than those easy labels suggest, with Roth very much a product of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and eager to claim Austrian citizenship (rather than the Polish one allotted to him after the break-up of the Empire) but barely a presence in the new republic, while from early on -- guided in no small part by a protective mother -- he was surrounded by but not fully immersed in Judaism. Even as Roth's writing is almost entirely rooted in the Austrian, it is that of the older, greater Austro-Hungarian Empire rather than the rump-state; even as his books are populated with Jews, it's remarkable, for example, how few of these characters can in any way be considered successful.
       Marks' close, knowledgeable reading of Roth's work makes for a study that moves easily in its examples of generalizations across the author's entire output -- from the best-known to some obscurer, small pieces -- and Marks handles this material with easy familiarity. Helpfully, he also situates Roth in a variety of ways -- including geographically and literarily -- through comparisons, not just to Zweig but also, for example, Robert Musil, and in the process shows considerable insight into these other figures and places as well (and offers entertaining titbits too, such as, regarding Musil, that flight from the Nazis to South America was unthinkable for him because that was where Zweig had gone ...).
       So, for example, Marks writes:

     The contrast between centripetal Musil and centrifugal Roth is evident on every page. Musil had little interest in Austria-Hungary's remote provinces. [...] On the single occasion when one of Musil's characters reflects on the nature of the Dual Monarchy, it is like reading a mathematical treatise [.....] There is only one Jewish character in the entire book [The Man without Qualities] [.....]
     Nothing could be further from Roth's fractured kingdom of the displaced. [...]
     The two novelists could be describing completely different empires a thousand miles apart. They each observe a world that has expended its moral capital but come to the opposite conclusions.
       Marks notes from the beginning that Roth was a "prodigious liar", and that he: "systematically obscured almost every aspect of his early life", and the complex personality remains difficult to really get any sort of grasp of -- but it's the works that matter. These are, of course, informed by context -- personal and historical -- and Marks does a good job of making these connections; at times, the (often rather unpleasant, it seems) real-life person seems to get in the way of the works, but Marks navigates this quite well and conveys the (sometimes overlooked) richness of Roth's work beyond just The Radetzky March, as well as the continued present-day relevance of so much of his writing.
       Familiarity with Roth's work helps in appreciating this far-reaching but compact little study, but with his presentation, including a few contemporary and personal touches, Marks gives even the uninitiated an entrée to this writer -- and makes a strong case for his continued relevancy.

- M.A.Orthofer, 31 December 2016

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Wandering Jew: Reviews: Joseph Roth: Dennis Marks: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Dennis Marks (1948-2015) worked in film and broadcasting.

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© 2016 the complete review

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