Prisoner of the Deep
New Directions, 2011
by Joseph Roth
A book that contains a single short story carries a particular promise, and a risk—the story, we think on picking it up, had better be good. These expectations are only heightened when the title of the lone story seems to comment on the slenderness of its presentation. Joseph Roth’s The Leviathan weighs in at forty-six pages, slighter than a single claw of the behemoth who in the book of Job “makes the depths churn like a boiling cauldron” and “stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment.” And if comparing a book to a beast seems inapt, how about comparing one book to another? Roth’s Leviathan is almost as monumentally dwarfed by its other namesake, Thomas Hobbes’ 700-page reflection on the state as the monster whose protection we cannot do without.
Yet when Roth’s Leviathan was first published—in 1945, a decade after it was written—it was as a stand-alone book. This seems curious, given that the story is too short to be considered even a novella. The new edition merely follows this precedent—a sound one, it turns out. Novelistic in scope, The Leviathan is rich, artful, and mysterious. Its forty-six pages might be counted as ninety-two; like Job, one of its antecedents—retold in Roth’s 1930 novel, Job: The Story of a Simple Man—it should be read twice, once to follow its fabulous stream of events and again to begin to take stock of their meaning. The narrative moves fast, and although it is focused on the fortunes of a single character, these are shaped by the same grand themes that animate the more fully drawn episodes of The Radetzky March (1932), the novel that made Roth’s reputation in his lifetime and on which it rests today. The Radetzky March figures the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in that of the Trotta family, which serves the empire across three generations—the grandfather a decorated soldier, the son a government official, the grandson an army officer who dies childless in the First World War. The end of the line for the Trottas signals the end for the Habsburgs as well.
The protagonist of The Leviathan, a Jewish coral merchant living in a small town in the Ukrainian region of Volhynia, part of greater Russia instead of Austria-Hungary, has nothing in common with the Trottas. But Roth’s treatment of the merchant is similar. He succeeds in describing through him an analogous—albeit much less detailed—historical trajectory to the one described across generations in The Radetzky March.
When we meet the merchant, he lives in a state of simple righteousness. He has never left his home town and never missed his prayers. These devotions complement others that, taken together, are the pillars of his virtue: devotion to his business, his merchandise, his staff—the women who string the beads he has lovingly sorted sing as they work—and to his customers, to whom he opens his home and offers hospitality. “In the small town of Progrody,” the story begins,
There lived a coral merchant who was known far and wide for his honesty and the reliability and quality of his wares. The farmers’ wives came to him from far-distant villages when they needed an ornament for some festive occasion. There were other coral merchants who were closer at hand, but they knew that from them they would only get cheap stuff and no-good tat. And so, in their rickety little carts they traveled many versts to Progrody and the renowned coral merchant, Nissen Piczenik.
But Piczenik loves his merchandise too well; with his red hair and copper-colored goatee, his affinity for it seems too deep not to be idolatrous. Against the mistaken science of his day he believes that corals aren’t “plants at all, but living creatures, a kind of tiny reddish sea animal … [that] remained alive, even when they had been sawn, cut, polished, sorted, and threaded.” He harbors a secret longing for the sea, the underworld where his beloved corals are formed. His attempts to indulge this longing are Piczenik’s undoing. He accompanies a furloughed Russian sailor by train to his battleship in Odessa, receives a special tour of the ship, and idles away weeks at the port, neglecting both his prayers and his worldly affairs and giving himself over to dissipation. He returns home to discover that his trade is faltering. A new coral merchant has set up shop nearby, offering brighter, apparently superior beads for prices so far below Piczenik’s that his former customers suspect him of having cheated them. Piczenik visits the new shop. His rival is a devil whose beads aren’t real coral at all but celluloid imitations. The rival merchant offers Piczenik a stock of the fake beads. Piczenik resists temptation, then succumbs to it, mixing the fake beads with real ones. But his new, tawdry offerings fail to win back customers. His reputation is lost, and his pride is shattered. He burns the celluloid beads, packs the real ones, and decides to emigrate, boarding a ship for Canada. But the ship sinks, and Piczenik goes down with it.
The narrator declines to comment on Piczenik’s demise, leaving us to decide what to make of it. We may be tempted to conclude that Piczenik has it coming, that he reaps his just reward for worshipping a false god. But Roth presents Piczenik’s theology as a mild, un-subversive sort of Jewish deism:
Now, the ancient god Jehovah had created everything, the earth and the beasts who walked upon it, the sea and all its creatures. But for the time being—namely, until the coming of the Messiah—he had left the supervision of all the animals and plants of the sea, and in particular of corals, to the care of the Leviathan, who lay curled on the seabed.
Or The Leviathan may look to us like a cautionary tale about the peril to traditional provincial folk of entering the modern world. After all, it is trains, ships, and plastics that lead to Piczenik’s undoing. But since the shipment of coral to an inland village like Progrody would have depended on the establishment of a modern system of commerce, it would be a mistake to see Piczenik as that system’s victim; he partakes of it from the outset. Nor does it seem likely that Roth would knowingly produce such a tale when he was no traditionalist at all but a cosmopolitan committed to the an imperial ideal in which sectarian differences are overcome by identification with and service to the state. But the conditions under which Roth was working in mid-1930s Europe must have made that ideal seem positively quaint. It was only a matter of time before the Leviathan, the collective entity formed as a stay against brutality, would turn brutality itself into a mass art, and few saw it coming more clearly than Roth himself:
As for the celluloid corals, [Piczenik] placed them on the copper tray of the samovar, and he set fire to them and watched them burning with a blue flame and a terrible stench. It took a long time: there were more than fifteen pud of fake corals. Indeed, all that was left of the celluloid was a gigantic heap of gray-black scrolled ashes, and a cloud of blue-gray smoke twisting round the oil lamp in the middle of the room.
That was Nissen Piczenik’s farewell to his home.
Perhaps The Leviathan should be seen as Roth’s farewell to the continent whose flames would have consumed him had he lived long enough for them to reach him: he died in 1939 at the age of forty-four. The extent to which he chose to drink himself to death is uncertain. Sometimes his death is accounted a suicide, sometimes not. Either way, flight doesn’t seem to have been an option. There are comparable suggestions of choice and redemption in the description of our hero’s end:
More than two hundred passengers went down with the Phoenix. They were drowned, of course.
But as far as Nissen Piczenik was concerned, who went down at the same time, one cannot simply say that he was drowned along with the others. It is truer to say that he went home to the corals, to the bottom of the ocean where the huge Leviathan lies coiled.
Indeed, the very name Piczenik, with its echo of the Slavic root for the words for “writer” and “scribe”—piczmennik is “writer” in Ukrainian, for example—invites us to think of the hero as a stand-in for Roth and so the ersatz corals that put Piczenik out of business as some sort of cheapened literary product, perhaps the journalism and genre fiction that Roth was forced to turn out at such a manic rate. But we wouldn’t want to take the comparison much further. To ascribe particular correspondences to the elements of the story would be to try to turn it into the kind of fable or parable that its representation of modern experience transcends. If it stands for anything, Piczenik’s isolation stands for the vacuum in which his story seems to be told. The implied audience that infuses traditional moral tales with their immemorial hopefulness, a sense that one way or another life will go on more or less as it has, is absent. The Leviathan issues from a world where fables and parables exist to transmit manners and customs toward one where the fundamental things, including the manner of transmission, would no longer apply. Oblivion alongside the lord of the depths must have seemed by comparison almost like a holiday on ice.