Gerhard Roth - a triumphant refutation of the death of modernism: a lucid, morbid and impossible account of what cannot be said, a deranged existence pieced together, an individual at total odds not only with the world and its structures, but with the chemical and biological basis of his own thought.
Gerhard Roth, The Autobiography of Albert Einstein, Trans. by Malcolm Green, 1993. [1972.]
Gerhard Roth’s first “novel,” originally published in 1972, is a triumphant refutation of the death of modernism: a lucid, morbid and impossible account of what cannot be said, a deranged existence pieced together, an individual at total odds not only with the world and its structures, but with the chemical and biological basis of his own thought.
Gerhard Roth, born in 1942 in Graz, Austria, is perhaps the most important writer to emerge from that “hot-bed of geniuses,” the Forum Stadtpark, which has radically influenced German letters in the last two decades. His broad range of works, from experimental novels to plays and a children’s book, has earned him a number of major prizes, and several of his books have been filmed. An uncomfortable writer whose work revolves around extreme mental states and behaviour.
Gerhard Roth's the autobiography of albert einstein is not an autobiography of Albert Einstein; indeed, it has relatively little to do with Albert Einstein -- though it does begin with a description (and drawing of !) Einstein's embryonic form (" the actual configuration of the albert einstein embryo formed quickly"). There is this brief introductory section, as well as an autopsy report to close the book, but there are three main sections to the novel -- the first: 'the voyeur', the third: 'the observer (a sketch)'. So, yes, there's much detailed observing going on here.
the autobiography of albert einstein is written almost entirely without capitalization, though there are some sentences and a few words entirely capitalized. In look and feel, Roth's 1972 debut reminds of the works of Konrad Bayer ( the head of vitus bering) and Oswald Wiener (die verbesserung von mitteleuropa -- yes, those Austrians really went for not capitalizing for a while there). This isn't straightforward narrative, with the blocks of text ranging from word-lists to actual events being recounted. Throughout there's a sense of straining for just the right words: there's an incredible variety of vocabulary here-- though, coupled with the tendency to list that also lends parts of the text a thesaurus-like feel, a game that can feel too forced (though it is all very gamely translated by Malcolm Green).
This is a book of close observation, the narrator -- mentally ill, by the standards of the day and his environment -- intently focused on the self. So right at the start:
i swim, swim in a flickering. the relays clutter in my head ... dreamy phase ! i race through the convolutions of my brain, i look through the vitreous spheres of my eyes ... exquisite speech bubbles burst in my brain, bespatter my perception, drip from furniture.
He lists "what i am" -- everything from a louse and an atom to Feodor Dostoevsky -- and his account is one of trying to fix (in all senses of the word) his identity, especially in the world around him. At one point, he suggests: "i am AE, a formula"; he tries to explain how it applies, but it is just another flailing attempt.
He is hyper-verbal -- and knows as much:
word eczemas broke out all over my inflamed cerebral membranes
At times, language itself becomes deformed:
in yer brain yerve gorrabaat 15 tharsand millyun nerve sells runnin' riot, in yer sereebull cortecks there's 100,000 nerve sells 'nevry kewbick millymeater ov yer brain jelly !
Many of the observations and analysis (and justifications) for the approach taken here are old hat by now (and were back then, too) but they are still spelled out:
1) time is mashed up and its tatters can be used qite arbitrarily
2) thoughts, fragmentary scenes, facts torn from apparent contexts. there are no more contexts
7) the difficulty in committing oneself. the reduction to an empty page. the pattern of the words on paper. poems as patterns.
9) the trivial gains in significance. life becomes art. art flows into life. qotes, footnotes, scientific style, even if partially ironic. short instructions for use etc.
His is the familiar dilemma:
wasn't i qite consciously negating reality, wasn't i playing a game without end, simply involving reality in order to change it as if it were my invention. wasn't i letting my very inventions become reality by forcing my environment to accept them as facts and react accordingly ? i turned reality into my invention, i forced it into this, my mind, into my lump of brain, forced it through the filter of my inventions, through, that's right, through my own impressions ...
It comes as no surprise that the postmortem report notes "Severe epistaxis" -- nosebleeds -- and that he haemorrhaged to death, his brain surely practically exploding under the pressure.
This is a first novel -- much of Roth's later work is considerably more conventional -- and has the feel of a writer experimenting. In the context of when and where it was written it was hardly particularly radical (or unusual), but it's not fiction of the sort one finds a lot of any longer. It's not particularly approachable, but, at less than a hundred pages, certainly manageable -- and there's enough here that is inspired and clever for it to be worthwhile. Still, readers should be aware: this is not your usual contemporary fare.
Also: there's not very much about Einstein (don't be fooled by the opening pages). - M.A.Orthofer
Gerhard Roth, The Plan, Trans. by Todd C. Hanlin, Ariadne Press, 2012.
From The City: Discoveries in the Interior of Vienna
Since 1974 Gerhard Roth has frequently employed the genre of the crime novel to explore contemporary individuals and their relation to society. In The Plan, Roths main character, Konrad Feldt, is not properly a criminal his supervisor privately hands him a stolen Mozart autograph along with the name of an art dealer prepared to purchase it, before he commits suicide in Feldt's presence; however, Feldt is indirectly complicit in the crime by not reporting it and by not surrendering the costly artifact. He takes the autograph and travels around the world to Japan in hopes of exchanging the invaluable autograph for a million dollars. For Feldt, a middle-aged, middle-class civil servant, a librarian in Vienna's National Library addicted to reading, this prize represents a fleeting opportunity to alter his structured, hollow existence. But our educated European finds himself in an unfamiliar environment -- the inscrutable language and culture of Japan where his perceptions and thus his rational plan for wealth and a new life are jeopardized.-- In the wake of the unexpected success of Stieg Larsson's novels, American literary critics foresee increased reader interest in European murder mysteries, a trend that would clearly include many of Roth's outstanding novels, first and foremost The Plan.
The Plan, Gerhard Roth’s newly translated crime novel, tells of the transformation of Konrad Feldt, a sickly and isolated at Vienna’s Nationalbibliothek who finds himself in possession of a priceless scrap of manuscript after the original thief commits suicide. Planning to sell the document and change his life, Feldt journeys to Japan, where the illegible underbelly of an utterly foreign culture forces a change once again.
It’s a compelling story, rendered through Feldt’s semi-hallucinatory consciousness, rife with the odd details that make travel narratives so enticing (“down below, the man in the blue baseball cap had resumed sweeping the meadow”). Read this book and you’ll meet a maniacal volcanologist whose predictions are so deadly accurate that he must travel undercover to each new epicentre.
You’ll accompany Feldt through his labyrinthine mental libraries, and venture on a sinister scavenger hunt through the Kyoto of temples, Kabuki theatres and disheveled Ryokan inns. The plot winds through murder, accusations, paranoia, intrigue, brief encounters. As I said, it’s a great story.
Not meeting the gold standard
But there’s a problem: the translation.
The celebrated translator John Nathan, whose work undoubtedly helped Japanese novelist Kenzaburō Ōe win the Nobel Prize in 1994, once told me that a translation requires as much stylistic skill as the original. In other words, don’t translate if you can’t write.
Few works truly pass the Nathan test. The art, ease and, frankly, the quality of the original prose style are often lost in translation. German to English translation seems particularly vulnerable to cumbersome constructions. It doesn’t have to be this way. The crisp prose style with which Patrick Bowles translated Heinrich Böll’s Billiards at Half-Past Nine, for instance, delivers an English-language text as luminous as the original – if not (dare I say?) more so.
Todd C. Hanlin’s rendering of The Plan, out last year from Ariadne Press, does not meet this gold standard. Sometimes it does not meet even a bronze standard. Embarrassing phrasings like “in all the colours of the rainbow” (a formulation not in the original) or “lady-friend” (for Freundin) pop up every few pages. Moreover, the narration occasionally resorts to formulaic language like “first and foremost” or “for all intents and purposes”.
One suspects Hanlin has spent too much time reading German – or writing academic texts – to have a feel for the freshness of contemporary English idiom. Most unforgivably, there are moments of seeming carelessness. “Some restaurant’s garden café” is Hanlin’s unforgivably confusing translation of “a restaurant’s Gartenhof”, or garden courtyard. I could go on.
Casting such a judgement is painful. First, on principle, literary translations should be celebrated, especially into English. In the United States, for example, only about 3 per cent of all books published are works in translation.
While the American economy devours Japanese cars, Italian wine, Austrian handguns, their literatures are largely ignored. So much for Goethe’s prophesy that “the epoch of world literature is at hand…”
Second, we welcome every volume from the pioneering Ariadne Press, the California-based small press devoted entirely to Austrian literature. A miracle of survival in a savage book market, the ever-compelling Ariadne offers works ranging from Adolf Loos’ On Architecture to The Best of Austrian Science Fiction.
Third, and most to the point, we Anglophones need more translations of Gerhard Roth, one of most significant Austrian novelists alive today. Despite his formidable impact, Roth defies easy categorisation – his oeuvre is too protean.
In the early 1970s, he debuted with experimental novels, including The Autobiography of Albert Einstein and The Will to Sickness.
Over the past 40 years, he has explored many genres – popular novels, plays, photo books and essay collections (Eine Reise in das Innere von Wien deserves a read by those who attempt German).
But Roth is perhaps best known for his two novel cycles – Die Archive des Schweigens (The Archive of Silences, 1980-1991) and Orkus (Underworld, 1995-2011) – each born out of Roth’s conviction that social problems are too complex for the parameters of a single novel. The Plan, originally published in 1998, belongs to the Orkus-cycle.
In an unreadable world
The Japanese setting of The Plan provides a particularly dramatic study of a society as filtered through the perceptions of the individual. Japan renders Roth’s protagonist – a bibliophilic hoarder of cultural patrimony – functionally illiterate. Signs stop signifying. They exist only as abstract shapes.
In this respect, The Plan may be cast in a larger tradition of works in which Japan serves as a impenetrable backdrop for lost Westerners, such as Sophia Coppola’s 2003 film Lost in Translation and German director Doris Dörrie’s 2009 Cherry Blossoms.
Not coincidentally, the great French theorist Roland Barthes used his 1970 travel book on Japan to shift away from his earlier study of cultural “signs” to his later understanding of “empty signs” – of the fundamental slipperiness, instability and absence at work in all language.
Like an updated version of Thomas Mann’s Gustav Aschenbach in Death in Venice, Roth’s Feldt journeys beyond his at-home literary routines to a land where language becomes a curtain of sounds and life becomes lived, not read. - Meredith Castile
Gerhard Roth is one of the most prolific and challenging authors in contemporary Austrian literature. Since his literary beginnings in the early 1970s as a member of the “Grazer Gruppe” in “Forum Stadtpark,” a collaborative place for avant-garde artists, he has built up an impressive bibliography. As of 2013 his work includes over twenty novels and many dramas, essays, and photographic collections, even several radio dramas and screenplays. While Roth has been recognized as one of the most important authors in contemporary Austrian literature, only six of his novels have been available in English. Todd C. Hanlin’s translation of Roth’s 1998 novel Der Plan takes an essential step toward correcting this deficit. Hanlin’s skillful turns of phrase captures the novel’s suspense and the author’s literary finesse and thereby gives voice to the text for an English-speaking audience.
Roth’s significance for contemporary Austrian literature lies in his themes and unique literary style. Prevalent themes throughout his work are the search to define the self in an often alienating environment and the con-flict between convention and authenticity. Since the early 1980s Roth’s work combines these with an analysis of Austrian consciousness, as seen particularly in the seven-volume cycle Archive des Schweigens (1980–1991) and the eight-volume cycle Orkus (1995–2012). Der Plan is the second novel in the latter cycle, and like the other texts sends its protagonist to a foreign country (in this case Japan) in search of a greater understanding of self. The book utilizes the structure of a crime novel; as the protagonist, Konrad Feldt, attempts to sell a stolen Mozart autograph the narrative builds a suspenseful search to interpret puzzling events and crimes. Roth uses this construct, however, to highlight the problematic quest to understand the self and with it one’s familial and national past. Through this multilayered search Roth also critiques the social and political structures of Austria with their tendency to distort the past. This critique has earned him literary distinction and his reputation as an “unermüdlicher Rufer in den Wüsten des Vergessens und Verdrängens,” as Daniela Bartens and Gerhard Melzer put it in 2003.
One challenge to introducing Roth’s work to an English-speaking audience is his Austria-specific critique. Another is the author’s approach to his themes. Roth weaves a rich tapestry of motifs and cross references between the protagonists’ observations and recollections, the present and the past, fictional and historical events, and his own and other people’s artistic works. His novels thereby confront readers with a labyrinth of potential meanings and connections. Roth’s distinctive literary style fuels the labyrinthine portrayal of these themes with a combination of experimental and traditional narrative strategies. He channels detailed observations through hypersensitive protagonists with an often questionable gaze. Through their perspective the novels break down language into individual particles to then reassemble it in a new, often surprising way.
The greatest accomplishment of Todd C. Hanlin’s The Plan is the translator’s skill in capturing Roth’s style. His precise translation renders the details of the original and their effect. Hanlin captures the suspense of the crime plot and adeptly reproduces the protagonist’s copious detailed observations. Hanlin captures the beauty of descriptions that weave minute observations with the protagonist’s memories and associations into a rich tapestry of words. He also renders the protagonist Feldt’s manic attempts to make sense of incomplete bits of knowledge and partial observations. Finally, Hanlin’s translation captures the sense of permeable boundaries separating perception, dream, and reality that is characteristic of Roth. An additional welcome feature of Hanlin’s translation is his brief text analysis in the afterword. The original literary interpretation of The Plan draws analogies between Roth’s and Kafka’s narratives and it highlights the significance of the protagonist’s means of gathering impressions and of recurring omens in this novel. Hanlin concludes that the book depicts a character who, forced to surrender his “plan,” must “experience life in the moment, in the sequential present—a new life that he can neither predict nor plan, that he can at best anticipate” (249).
While Hanlin’s... - Anita McChesney
Gerhard Roth, The Will To Sickness, Trans. by Tristram Wolff. Burning Deck, 2005.
The latest release in Burning Deck's Dichten series focusing on contemporary German writers, THE WILL TO SICKNESS is Gerhard Roth's classic 1973 novella. It reveals Roth's "objective prose" at its finest, where aggregates of particular impressions merge with a quasi-scientific emphasis on individual minute details. The effect of this prose is surreal with an undertone of Angst that perceives anything as strange and menacing, the product of a hard-edged exploration of the strangeness of perception itself. "Shutting the window Kalb caught sight of himself for a moment in the mirror of the windowpane: his eyeballs looked exactly like a set of fried eggs" - from THE WILL TO SICKNESS.
Gerhard Roth burst on the German-speaking scene in the early 1970s with three fiercely experimental novels, among them our present DER WILLE ZUR KRANKHEIT (1973). It is here that Roth developed his “objective” prose, his aggregates of minute observations and impressions. The subjective narrator perceives, notes, thinks. Representation eludes his perspective. The effect is surreal with an undertone of Angst: “i am preparing a slow disintegration of the external world inside my head.”
Roth was part of the literary group known as “Forum Stadtpark” (later renamed Graz Writers’ Collective) where Peter Handke and Elfriede Jelinek also first made their mark. He has continued to explore the Austrian psyche and especially the fragile nature of “reality” and the political aspects of what society puts forward as such and what it glosses over. The genres he works in range from children’s books to screenplays, and, most impressively though also more traditionally, to the seven volumes of Die Archive des Schweigens. This “Archive of Silence,” which comprises a photographic anthology, a collection of essays, a biography and four novels, is widely considered Roth’s masterpiece.
Over the course of his career he has been honored with (among others) the Alfred Döblin, Marie Luise Kaschnitz, Peter Rosegger, and Bruno Kreisky prizes.
His urbane brain cut the most magnificent capers, as, chloroformed by fatigue, it directed its incoming perceptions along the most absurd paths and enjoyed the utter senselessness of its associations.
Hyper-consciousness of everything around, of everything inside, beneath the skin (organs, fluids, all sloshing together), tenuous connections with the outside world beyond the incessant observations and processing of said observations. Precise descriptions of the visceral appearance of bodies, preventing true/real connection, microscopic focus on parts not whole. Immaculate control of language, cinematic feel of the prose, like watching not reading Kalb and his (dis)orientation with the world around him, his desire/inability to sustain connection. Sickness as (un)conscious justification for symptomatic over-perception, this awareness both stimulating and stifling.
Kalb leaned back in his chair. He felt his shoulder-bones. The menu was laid before him. But Kalb had no money. The waiter’s sleeve brushed his hand. Kalb was on his own. His observations accumulated. The waiter’s suit was black. The determinacy of appearances and processes hovered threateningly, waiting to be recognized. He was silent. The words grew like ulcers in his head. At last he seized his opportunity to disappear inconspicuously. - Annotation by S. D. Stewart
Gerhard Roth, The Calm Ocean. Trans. by Helga Schreckenberger, Ariadne Press, 1993.
"Ascher, a city doctor, leaves his wife and child and flees to the village of Obergreith, Styria, where he assumes a false identity. He has been found guilty of malpractice and now hopes to come to terms with his feelings of guilt and disorientation. Although Ascher tries to maintain his distance from the villagers, he is immediately included in country life and its rituals. Slowly he overcomes his alienation until he finally reassumes his old identity and resumes his medical practice among the villagers.
The novel does not present an idealized depiction of life in the country. Ascher witnesses the hardship and destructive uniformity of rural existence, its resulting fatalism, resignation, and latent aggressions. When the possible threat of a rabies epidemic leads to an orgy of killing, the hunt takes on allegorical meaning, symbolizing the barely suppressed violence and brutality which govern life -- not only in the country."
Gerhard Roth, The Lake, Trans. by Michael Winkler, Ariadne Press, 2000.
The Lake is an intricately plotted and fast-paced story of multiple crimes. Its central plot revolves around Paul Eck, a traveling representative for a pharmaceutical company. His precarious search for an unloved but locally prominent father and for his own better self leads this reluctant hero into dangerous misapprehensions and potentially fatal situations. Traumatic memories return as he drives back to the places of his childhood. Conflicting opinions assault his disordered mind as he encounters the various people who inhabit a popular resort area along the Hungarian border, including those who are professionally attracted to a murder scene. In a series of snapshot portraits Roth ties the process of Eck's self-exploration to a confrontation with social attitudes. Written in an intensely realistic style with ironic touches, he makes persuasive use of what defines the literary appeal of the crime novel: subtle psychology, inquisitive intelligence, and sanguinary violence that sustain an interplay of the mysterious with the plausible and hold out hope for final understanding.
Gerhard Roth, The Story of Darkness, Trans. by Helga Schreckenberger and Jacqueline Vansant, Ariadne Press, 1999.
"The Story of Darkness tells the real-life story of Karl Berger, a Viennese Jew. Growing up in Leopoldstadt, the second Viennese district, he seems firmly established in his Austrian identity. But in the early thirties, the growing anti-Semitism and the hostilities towards the Jewish population make him realize that his secure identity was just an illusion. After the Anschluss, the eighteen-year-old Berger emigrates to England. He joins the Czech Exile Army and fights against the German troops in France and Germany. After the war, he attempts to settle in England and Israel. In 1962 he returns to Austria only to find out that he has become a stranger in his native country.
This work is one of seven volumes that form the cycle Archives of Silence, Roth's examination of Austria's past and present. Karl Berger's story presents a case study of a Jewish fate in this century. Anti-Semitism and National Socialism appear as logical outgrowths of the intolerant, normative social forces that Gerhard Roth criticizes in all of his works. In addition, this work serves as a warning against the dangers of undercurrent anti-Semitism in Vienna today.
Gerhard Roth’s slim documentary novel The Story of Darkness (115 pages, including an Afterword by Helga Schreckenberger of the University of Vermont) packs a powerful punch. It begins with Roth explaining the origins of the novel.
After having lived in the country for ten years, I moved to Vienna and into the apartment of a former fellow student of mine named Ascher. During the same time period, he committed suicide in my house on the Yugoslavian border.
Ascher is immaterial to the novel except to set the tone and to provide Roth with the apartment from which he explores the now-destroyed Jewish neighborhoods of Vienna, looking for a topic for his next novel.
I intended to write a novel about Austria, about the open insanity of the Austrian past and the hidden madness of Austria’s everyday life.
Walking through a Jewish cemetery, he settles upon the general idea of writing “the life story of an Austrian Jew who left Vienna in 1938 and returned after World War II.” Eventually, he finds such a person in Karl Berger.
It was in his little kitchen that I recorded in several notebooks what he had told me about his life. I am reproducing these notes, which I edited, without making any major changes, because I believe that Berger’s reports are so exemplary that they transcend the boundaries of documents and literature.
As scholar and co-translator Schreckenberger explains, we need to take this statement with a grain of salt. If, indeed, the work was written “truthfully” – or at least “honestly” – it was done so according to a carefully calculated aesthetic plan. Schreckenberger writes that Roth’s “preoccupation with the story and his lack of distance” made it difficult for him to find an appropriate form at first. However,
an encounter with the work of the sculptor Giacometti, who reduces the human body to tall, thin figures gave him the idea to cut his material radically. Looking at black and white photographs strengthened Roth in his resolve to limit the story to its essential message. Since the story was not simply a portrait of Berger but his entire life-story, Roth finally settled on the notion of creating a literary photo-album: ‘I wanted to structure the story as single pictures, pictures in black and white – as if taken with an amateur camera, blurry but authentic because of it. Not as classical “beautiful photography” but like a photo from a family album produced by an unskilled hand.”
Berger’s story is told in the first person, as if directly from the pages of Roth’s notebook. Here is my hyper-condensed version of Berger’s life. Born in Vienna in 1919, he flees to Slovakia (where he had relatives) immediately after the Anschluss in 1938. Shortly thereafter, Slovakia becomes part of Hitler’s territory, he returns to Vienna, witnesses Kristallnacht and emigrates to England. He tries to follow a woman to Canada by signing on as a seaman, only to be arrested after jumping ship in Canada. Returned to England, he is offered leniency if he will join the Czech exile army. Meanwhile he marries, has a daughter and is sent to fight in France after D-day. In Czechoslovakia at the war’s end, he locates his mother and sister, who survived Theresienstadt, and learns that his father was killed by the SS. Divorce and British citizenship. Stops seeing his daughter (“too painful”). In 1952, he emigrates to Israel, but lasts only a few months on a kibbutz and eventually returns to England, remarries, and moves to Scotland. (“For Israelis, leaving the country is the same as treason…”) In 1959, he returns to “repulsive” Vienna for the first time to visit his mother, but also begins to understand that he’s not really a “true” Englishman. After a brief stay in Germany, he and his family (there are eventually six children) return to Vienna. His twenty-five year old son commits suicide.
The book ends with Roth and Berger seated in Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts studying Hieronymus Bosch’s Last Judgment (perhaps a nod to Thomas Bernhard’s novel Old Masters). Appropriately, a museum guard looks on.
‘Earth is hell,’ Berger said in the quietness of the picture gallery, in which only the wooden floor squeaked, when the guard shifted his weight from one leg to the other.
Berger is no different from the people whose lives have been uprooted and set adrift in W.G. Sebald’s book The Emigrants. (Sebald’s book was first published in 1992, a year after Roth’s book. It is interesting to note that Sebald had written about two of Roth’s earlier books in 1984 and 1986.) In discussing Berger’s inability to feel comfortable anywhere after his initial exile in 1938, Schreckenberger turns to Jean Améry, a favorite of Sebald’s, for the explanation:
Améry defines “Heimat” not as a geographical place, but as a feeling of well-being and security resulting from the knowledge of being a legitimate and accepted member of a community.
Berger and the emigrants in Sebald’s book might find ways to “decode” and survive their adopted environments, but, according to Améry, “this remained an intellectual and never a spontaneous process and thus prevented the emotional feeling of security.”
(Thanks to Steve, for pointing me to this novel which is takes the opposite approach from Sebald’s work by building a novel around the concept of a photographic album without actually including any images.) - sebald.wordpress.com/category/gerhard-roth/
Gerhard Roth: Writer of Vienna
By Uwe Schütte
|© Philipp Horak|
‘There can be no doubt’, the renowned critic Ulrich Greiner remarked in 1979, ‘that Gerhard Roth, alongside Thomas Bernhard and Peter Handke, is one of the most important contemporary writers in Austria.’ In the three decades since Greiner made this remarkable statement, Roth has proved him absolutely right. His next novel, the semiautobiographical Stille Ozean (‘The Calm Ocean’) appeared in 1980 and triggered a most unusual literary project: a cycle of seven works called Archive des Schweigens (‘Archives of Silence’) comprising novels, essays and documentary volumes.
Roth completed his heptalogy in 1991 by framing it with a collection of essays on Vienna and a volume containing photographs of rural Styria, where he had settled in the early eighties. With the Archive des Schweigens, Roth achieved no less than a literary diagnosis of the Austrian psyche. He opened up the repressed, disavowed, and silenced parts of society to expose an uninterrupted tradition of fascist values in the Second Republic that included xenophobia, authoritarianism, anti-Semitism and an obsession with hunting.
Although the Archive des Schweigens consolidated Roth’s literary fame, and despite his popularity and media presence in Austria, he has never been as well known in Germany as Handke or Bernhard. Like his colleagues, he emerged from a humble, provincial background and took part in the literary movement of the sixties that turned the sleepy town of Graz into a hothouse of literary talent. Roth initially wrote experimental fiction but abandoned it in the mid-seventies to craft a number of realist novels. These books were structured as crime novels but were really about existential despair, the most accomplished example being his 1978 tale Winterreise (‘Winter’s Journey’), about a couple’s journey through Italy.
During the eighties Roth increasingly positioned himself as one of the foremost public intellectuals in Austria. His political interventions responded to the reactionary tendencies of Austrian society – not just the Waldheim controversy but also the everyday occurrences of anti-Semitism, the unstoppable rise of right-wing parties and the racist murder of four gypsies in the mid-nineties. Death threats followed but did not deter Roth. His passionate mission has a biographical background: his parents were members of the Nazi party and refused to discuss or even acknowledge Austria’s involvement in the Holocaust.
Roth’s political commitment may also explain his extraordinary literary productivity. Following his cycle of seven books Roth began a second eight-volume cycle called Orkus. Fascinatingly, these two large-scale endeavours are both subtly and explicitly interwoven, like an intertwined double helix – certain motifs and themes mirror each other, while characters from the first cycle reappear in Orkus and mysteries left open in Archive des Schweigens are resolved in the second cycle.
Although the Orkus cycle opens at Austria’s famous Neusiedler Lake, the title’s allusion to Homer’s Odyssey is telling: subsequent novels are set in Spain, Japan, Greece and Egypt, greatly expanding the narrative scope of the first cycle, which focused on Austria. Roth’s Orkus cycle also references major works of world literature from Dante’s Divine Comedy or Cervantes’ Don Quixote to modern classics such as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. While volumes such as Der Plan (1998), Der Berg (2000), Der Strom (2002) and Das Labyrinth (2004) are indispensable components of the second cycle, they are also selfcontained novels: travel stories based on first-hand research by Roth, but fictionalised and framed in suspenseful crime stories. This formula probably works best in Der Plan, which tells the story of a librarian who tears a sheet from a Mozart manuscript and attempts to sell it. Disaster strikes when he travels to meet his mysterious buyer in Japan.
In Die Stadt (2009), Roth collects a number of topographical essays dealing with sites in Vienna that are far off the well-beaten tourist track, such as the Institute of the Blind, the Museum of Forensic Medicine or a refugee camp. It is a veritable companion piece to his bestselling Eine Reise in das Innere von Wien (‘A Journey into the Inner Vienna’, 1991) from the Archives of Silence, which adheres to the same recipe and has achieved cult status amongst visitors to the Austrian capital.
Orkus is concluded by two major volumes, both in excess of 700 pages. Das Alphabet der Zeit (2007) is the autobiographical account of Roth’s childhood and youth. From playing amongst the ruins of the destroyed city of Graz, we learn how young Gerhard grew increasingly suspicious of the all-pervading conspiracy of silence that strove to blank out Austria’s involvement in the Nazis and the Holocaust. In Orkus. Reise zu den Toten (‘Orcus. Journey to the Dead’, 2011), the major characters of his literary double helix all congregate in Vienna to meet their author and Roth, too, turns into a literary character, disappearing in that strange dominion between fact and fiction, dream and reality.
After completing an enterprise undoubtedly unique in world literature, Roth might have deserved a rest, yet he keeps on writing. His most recent book, simply called Portraits, is a collection of essays on major figures of the Viennese cultural scene, with many of whom Roth was personally acquainted. Apart from literary colleagues such as Elias Canetti or Thomas Bernhard, we also find incisive portraits of the chancellor Bruno Kreisky and the (in)famous Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, along with touching essays on art brut artists. Engaging and varied, Portraits provides a perfect entry point to discover one of the most remarkable authors to have emerged in Austrian post-war literature.