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Job: The Story of a Simple Man by Joseph…

Job: The Story of a Simple Man (1930)

by Joseph Roth

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Mendel Singer is a good, simple, pious Jew who's always done his best to serve God, his community and his family. He certainly hasn't had an easy time of it, but as he starts to look forward to the end of his life, he can be happy that he will be leaving all his four children better-placed in life than he could reasonably have hoped for. But then God, through the agency of the First World War, smashes everything Mendel depends on with a series of devastating hammer-blows.
Or, to put it another way, the biblical story of Job transposed to a Galician stetl and the Jewish quarters of Manhattan in the early years of the 20th century. But with a twist, because Mendel finds his redemption not in his faith but in the searing flame of his anger with God, which allows him to rediscover his buried humanity.

Up to 1929, Joseph Roth was effectively a very successful journalist who had also written a few books: with the publication of Hiob he suddenly established himself as an important - and bestselling - novelist. The book came out at about the same time as Berlin Alexanderplatz, but with its aggressively simple "fairy-tale" narrative style and its subjective, mythical theme, Roth was clearly signalling that he didn't want anything to do with modernist expressionism or "the new objectivity".

Roth is probably also being deliberately provocative in setting the book in such a very Jewish context, against the background of the sort of small town where he grew up himself. Unlike Mendel, Roth was a pretty astute observer of politics, and he had a good idea of the way things were headed in the Europe of the late 1920s (although he was still working for a German paper, after 1926 he only accepted assignments outside Germany). He knew that the Jewish culture of Eastern Europe had little chance of surviving in between the equally hostile political forces that were emerging in Russia and Germany, and he wanted to make a record of it before it was too late.

(I accidentally bought this in a Suhrkamp school edition with lots of unnecessary, distracting notes, but the small selection of critical essays in the back of the book were worth having) ( )
2 vote thorold | Aug 28, 2017 |

It begins like a legend and it ends like a fairy tale: Joseph Roth's novel Job, the Story of a Simple Man, as the subtitle says.

Mendel Singer is a “pious, God-fearing and ordinary . . . everyday Jew,” who lives the life of a poor school teacher in Zuchnow, a shtetl in the then Russian part of Galicia. It's the early 20th century and the lives of the Jews were not only threatened by poverty but also by the frequent pogroms. Emigration or involvement in one of the revolutionary political groups were the only real way out of this misery; for all the others the only relief from their difficult situation lay in the imagination. It's the world that is described in the novels and stories of Scholem Alejchem, Isaac Bashevis Singer or Isaak Babel, or in the paintings of Marc Chagall.

Mendel Singer's life is not different from many others: he is married, has two sons and a daughter and his life is rather uneventful. Things change when his fourth child, his son Menuchim is born. Menuchim turns out to be not able to speak (except for the only word "Mama" he is mumbling again and again) and he can not walk properly either. Menuchim's presence changes the whole dynamics of interaction within the family. His father gives him much more attention then to the other children, in the hope that this will enhance his development, his mother Deborah is visiting a famous rabbi in the next town to ask his advice, while in the meantime even the usual household routine suffers:

She neglected her duty at the stove, the soup boiled over, the clay pots cracked, the pans rusted, the greenish shimmering glasses shattered with a harsh crash, the chimney of the petroleum lamp was darkened with soot, the wick was charred to a miserable stub, the dirt of many soles and many weeks coated the floorboards, the lard melted away in the pot, the withered buttons fell from the children’s shirts like leaves before the winter.

Menuchim's siblings don't really like their brother who is such a burden to them and in one specific moment even make a half-hearted attempt to kill him, fortunately without success.

When the children grow up, things go worse and worse for Mendel Singer. While his son Jonas joins the army (usually most Jews in Russia dreaded the moment when their sons had to go to the army where they were exposed frequently to the rudest forms of anti-semitism) and even likes it there, his second son Schemarjah is deserting and emigrating to America where he soon changes his name to Sam.

The biggest problem beside Menuchim who doesn't show any sign of development is Mendel's daughter Mirjam, who has several affairs with soldiers and even cossacks, who had frequently a prominent role in the anti-semitic pogroms. The only way to save his daughter from the path on which she was embarking seems for Mendel Singer the emigration to America. An invitation from Sam, who sends also the money for the ship tickets through his new American friend Mac, will make it possible.

But there is a problem: the sick Menuchim cannot travel (the immigration officers at Ellis Island would send whole families back in such cases). Mendel and Deborah make for themselves all kind of excuses. If Menuchim will be healthy one day, he will join the family. In the meantime, he will stay with a good and caring family who will live in the house of the Singer's. Deborah remembers the words of the famous rabbi: "Don't ever leave him!" And also on Mendel, who is by then estranged from his whole family except for Menuchim to whom he feels particularly close, the moment to say goodbye is heartbreaking.

The second part of the book describes Mendel Singer's and his family's life in New York. Sam, together with his reliable business partner Mac are successful and able to provide a comparatively good life to his family. Jonas is writing a letter from Russia with some good news about Menuchim who surprisingly started to speak. Sam and his wife have their first child. Mirjam is having a regular job in Sam's company. For the first time in his life, the sorrow seems to disappear from Mendel Singer's existence. But only for a short while.

WWI breaks out and again everything changes for Mendel Singer. After some time he loses contact with Jonas, who went missing and is maybe dead. And also from Menuchim there are no more news anymore. Mendel fears the worst. After America enters the war, Sam also enlists for the army. Only a short time after he was shipped to Europe, he gets killed in combat. When Mac brings the bad news, Deborah has a breakdown and dies. Mirjam has to be admitted to a mental hospital after the outbreak of an unexplicable mental illness, probably schizophrenia.

Mendel Singer is withdrawing more and more from life. The most remarkable thing is that he stops praying. He is angry with God. What has he done to deserve such a fate? The parallel with the biblical Job is obvious.

Still, even after the complete collapse of his existence, life has a few surprises left for Mendel Singer. When a grammophone record plays a beautiful melody from his home region, Mendel finds out that this touching record is called Menuchim's Song. And one day the composer of this song is by a strange coincidence giving a concert with his orchestra in town and is investigating about an old man, Mendel Singer. He wants to bring him some news from his son Menuchim...

Job is a great novel. It is very touching, without being sentimental. It is written in a very beautiful prose. It is well-composed. It has very interesting parallels not only with the biblical Job, but also with Joseph, Jacob's youngest son. And it is asking interesting questions regarding belief and moral. It is a story that will stay with you for a very long time when you read it.

Joseph Roth knew about what he was writing. He was born himself into the world he is describing in Job, but he had the chance to grow up in Vienna. In the 1920s and early 1930s he worked as a journalist for the best European newspapers. His salary when he was working for the liberal Frankfurter Zeitung is said to have been the highest of any journalist. Beside from that Roth was an extremely productive author of novels and stories.

For those who don't know him Job is (beside Radetzky March) probably the best starting point to discover his work. Since Roth objected Austro-Fascism as well as Nazism, he was forced into exile, where he drank himself slowly to death. His catholic funeral in Paris 1939 was attended by his friends, by Otto von Habsburg, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, by representatives of the Jewish community, and by a delegation of the Austrian Communist Party. His grave is at the Cimetière parisien de Thiais, where also Paul Celan and Yevgeni Zamyatin, Leon Sedov and the Albanian king Zog are buried. ( )
2 vote Mytwostotinki | Dec 14, 2015 |
Roth's adaptation of the story of Job in the person of a Russian Jew. Adaptation is a bit of a strong word actually. Not quite sure what to make of it. Isn't picking one of the pillars of Western literature a little ambitious, something a little too deeply established for such an unassuming retelling? Can you really wring any more insight out of the book of Job if someone shuffled the names around a bit and substituted historical turmoil for the wind of God? Roth has a gift for elemental storytelling, but it seems more the labour of love of someone going through a personal spiritual renaissance than having anything new to bring to the table. ( )
  mattresslessness | Feb 4, 2014 |
This novel was written in 1930 and reissued by Archipelago Books last month. Mendel Singer is a pious and ordinary Jewish man who is barely able to provide for his wife and children as a teacher of young children in early 20th century Russia. His life has been one of struggle and misery, compounded by a loveless marriage and the birth of his last child, who is severely delayed and epileptic. His two adult sons are called into military service; Jonas joins the Russian Army willingly, but Shemariah deserts to America, leaving Singer with his wife, their promiscuous daughter and their afflicted son. A rabbi instructs Mrs Singer to never leave the young Menuchim, and predicts that his situation is not a hopeless one, but one that will take many years before he begins to improve.

Years later, as the Singers sink deeper into poverty they are encouraged to emigrate to America by their son, who has found success in New York. Torn between their responsibility to Menuchim, their familiarity with their neighbors, and the possibility of a better life in America, the Singers decide to emigrate. However, new challenges await them, and for Mendel his personal suffering is magnified, as his faith in God is severely tested.

This modernized retelling of the Biblical story of Job was very well done, with sympathetic and realistic characters, and excellent portrayals of the crushing poverty and struggles of pre-revolutionary Russia contrasted with the chaos and stresses of life in New York's Lower East Side, and is highly recommended. ( )
10 vote kidzdoc | Dec 17, 2010 |
This deceptively simple story of a "simple man," a retelling of the Job story set in an early 20th century Russian shtetl and in New York City, grew on me as I read it. At first, it seemed as though Roth, surprisingly, was writing a version of a typical Yiddish shtetl tale, but gradually his usual themes of lost worlds, borders, interactions with officials and the people who always spring up to help with dealing with officials, and longing for what is lost begin to appear, this time in the dying days of Tsarist Russia, as opposed to those of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As in some other works I have read, Roth demonstrates his talent for portraying the beauty and grandeur of the natural environment.

Mendel Singer is the "simple man" of the title, a Torah teacher and pious Jew in a small town on the western edge of Russia. But, oh the troubles he has. As the translator's afterword (in the new Archipelago edition that I read) puts it, "his youngest son is born with what seem to be incurable disabilities, one of his older sons joins the Russian army, the other deserts to America, and his daughter is running around with a Cossack" (actually, with several Cossacks). When Mendel and his wife and daughter move to join the son in New York, who has been quite financially successful, at first life improves a little, although both parents are distraught about leaving the disabled son behind. Then, even worse troubles develop, Mendel questions his faith and grows old, and then . . . the not so unexpected miracle.

Both realistic and a fable, the story is compelling because of Roth's lyric writing, the palpable sense of loss, and the portrayal of life in both the pastoral shtetl in Russia and the urban version of the shtetl in New York City.
7 vote rebeccanyc | Nov 28, 2010 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Roth, Josephprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Matic, PeterNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Oranje, WilfredTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Terreni, LauraTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Thompson, DorothyTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wagener, HansEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Hace muchos años vivía en Zuchnow un hombre llamado Mendel Singer.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0982624603, Paperback)

"Job is perfect. . . . a novel as lyric poem."
—Joan Acocella

Job is the tale of Mendel Singer, a pious, destitute Russian Jew and children's Torah teacher whose faith is tested at every turn. His youngest son seems to be incurably disabled, one of his older sons joins the Russian Army, the other deserts to America, and his daughter is running around with a Cossack. When he flees to America with his wife and daughter, further blows of fate await him. In this modern fable based on the biblical story of Job, Mendel Singer witnesses the collapse of his world, experiences unbearable suffering and loss, and ultimately gives up hope and curses God, only to be saved by a miraculous reversal of fortune.

Born in 1894 in a small Galician town on the border of the Hapsburg Empire, Joseph Roth, author of more than fifteen novels, was one of the central figures of the émigré intellectual opposition to the Nazis. Roth is among the greatest Central European writers of the twentieth century.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:59 -0400)

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Archipelago Books

2 editions of this book were published by Archipelago Books.

Editions: 0982624603, 1935744356

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