Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Joseph Roth on a deadly barbershop bore

I finally found something less than delightful about Joseph Roth's observations of Berlin. His descriptions of the mechanization of daily life in the 1920s seem a bit less fresh than his observations of people and institutions, but that's probably because such descriptions have grown familiar over the years.

But other observations are as fresh now as they were ninety years ago:
"Here in Germany expert understanding tends to go hand in hand with barely comprehensible jargonizing. Expertise lacks style, knowledge stammers just as if it were ignorance, and objectivity has no opinions."
And, funniest and most chilling of all, his long description of a nationalistic bore in a Berlin barbershop, of which I present just excerpts here:
"His sentences grow ever shorter, he rattles subjects together, his words puff out their chests and march: one-two, one-two. It’s a nightmare. ...

"The ginger-haired gentleman has killed off the summery singsong atmosphere in the barbershop with his crashing sentences. His voice rattles along like a yellow weathervane. ...

"His words rattle, clatter, and bang. Batteries, mortars, rifles, running fire, all come spewing out of his larynx. World wars slumber in his bosom. ...

"...Herr Trischke is silent. Who isn’t? Even the fly, buzzing in so summery a fashion a moment ago, now adheres lifelessly to the ceiling, awestruck. ...

"No motor rattle, no belt drive, no clatter of horses’ hooves. He is the trench digger, the wire cutter, the whetstone, the insect powder, the coffee machine, the guaranteed-infallible lighter, the dry fuse. Only:

"He’s my friend from way back. He’s the aunt who scoured me every Saturday with a stiff brush. He’s the Kratzbürste.

"My neighbor was a glazier. His wife was a scold. He’s my glazier’s whining wife.

"Our living room had a clock in it that used to clear its throat before striking the hours. He is that harrumphing.

"My schoolmate was at the head of the class, and he had an impeccably neat notebook: The man in the barbershop is the neat notebook of my school friend; my school master’s class log; simultaneous equations; a book of logarithms!

"He is my headmaster’s address at assembly; the kiss of my old-maid aunt; dinner with my guardian; an afternoon in an orphanage; a game of dominoes with my deaf grandfather.
"He is duty and decency, sour-smelling and clean.

"One does run into people like that, in our part of the world, even in midsummer. It feels like encountering a schoolbook in the middle of a suitcase packed for the beach."
Roth had an eye for grating bores that I could never develop if I spent the next thousand years on a nightly pirla hunt. He may be the funniest observer of human character since Theophrastus, and certainly the funniest I've read since S.J. Perelman called some whiny bore "the most oppressive nudnik that ever abraded an eardrum."

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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14 Comments:

Blogger seana graham said...

Peter, you might also enjoy Robert Walser's Berlin Stories, which I read fairly recently. A different personality, but you might like his perspective alongside of Roth's.

December 18, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, these Berlin recommendations are starting to pile up. I think I've read Walser's name recently. Have you mentioned him? If not, perhaps a comment on one of my other Roth posts did.

December 18, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

Not sure. I might have. It would have been several months ago. Have you been to Berlin? I haven't.

December 18, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I was in Berlin for about a week maybe ten years ago. All kinds of construction was going as government and other functions flowed in from Bonn, so I probably caught a glimpse of the noise and uproar that captured Roth's attention in the early 1920s.

December 18, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

So maybe it was a bit more than ten years ago.

December 18, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You mentioned the Berlin stories here. And now I’ll look for your post about them. Thanks.

December 18, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

Oh, well--apparently, time isn't real.

It's interesting to think about seeing Ireland and Hong Kong in times of great growth, so there were cranes everywhere in the first and bamboo and green netting going up the sides of skyscrapers in the second. I've been to Denver in both boom and bust. And I think Liverpool at the beginning of the eighties must have been about the most depressing place I've ever seen.

December 18, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I remember seeing a fair amount of construction in Dublin in 2008 but also a taxi driver telling me how much things had slowed down. As for Hong Kong in 1990, I could not have imagined it was possible to build bamboo scaffolding that high.

I always tell people that Berlin is the last place I'd recommend to someone who wanted to travel to relax his or her nerves. The most typical sight for me was the Pergamon Museum: Stunning, mammoth reconstructions of the Pergamon altar, a market gate form Miletus, the Ishtar Gate, and so on. Good God, those Germans did things on a big scale.

I just read that the museum building was put up between 1910 and 1930. Joseph Roth might have winced at the tumult of its construction, in other words

December 18, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Thanks for sharing the excerpts. Any writer who can write about boredom without being boring is--well, he is a real writer.

I recall a creative writing exercise from long, long ago. Students like me were required to write a dramatic action scene that represented an abstract idea without ever mentioning the abstraction. Writing about abstract ideas (e.g., freedom [the abstraction I chose], compassion, happiness, sorrow, or boredom) usually winds up being--well, it winds up being boring; writing about abstract ideas by using only dramatic action without being boring is a challenge.

If your excerpts are representative, Roth clearly understood how to write effectively about an abstraction. His comparisons and analogues are perfect. Another expert at that art was George Orwell. If I were to wrack my brain a bit, I suppose I could come up with others, but my brain will not tolerate much wracking today.

Well, now that I got all of that out of my system, the way I have written it seems rather boring. Ah, well. Mea culpa.

December 18, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Which reminds how annoyed I get when someone describes some annoying quirk or trait by imitating that quirk or trait. What makes the teller think that his or her rendition is any less annoying that the original?

Roth does not just say "He's boring," he tells and shows what makes the man boring. Of course, the menacing undertone of war helps.

I like that writing exercise. I may administer it to myself one day.

December 18, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Ah, "show, don't tell." That writer's maxim has been around a long time, and it is always worth remembering.

As for my writing exercise, which I still remember from nearly 40 years ago at UC Berkley (of all places), involved a chicken making a break for it when the farmer came to collect Sunday dinner. Told from the chicken's point of view, my "freedom" tale was a big hit with the teacher who insisted upon reading aloud to the class while gushing over the dynamic, descriptive narrative. Actually, I think she had a cougar interest (which scared the hell out of me) rather than an interest in my writing. I rather felt like the chicken. Ah, the good old days!

December 18, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think I'll try a story about a chicken and a safecracker. Tentative title: "The Chicken, or the Yegg?"

December 18, 2012  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

I love the sense of humor in some of these. I especially enjoyed "Who isn't?"

December 29, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kelly, writing like this is supremely enjoyable for its own sake, but the time and place of its composition let me flatter myself that I understand Berlin in the 1920s. What a witness Roth was!

December 29, 2012  

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