December 29, 2007

The Legend of the Holy Drinker

Joseph Roth is a novelist who is less appreciated in the English world than he ought to be. Roth's fine novella- the Legend of the Holy Drinker- is the story of Andreas, the drinker of the title, and his miraculous progress towards death. Roth himself was an alcoholic, meandering like his character through the streets of Paris as he wrote this novella- and knew that whereof he spoke. The novel though accomplishes two things- one less profound but which lies in a tradition which runs backwards through Oscar Wilde of using the lives of the poor, reconfigured as fairy tales, to reinforce lessons for the rest of society. The other more interestingly adopts the point of view of the poor saint to remind us of the ugliness of human kind and the redemptive quality of a good soul. Andreas is cut off from human society, served a prison term for a murder in defence of his mistress, is a drunkard, unwashed and with a torn shirt and yet he is a saint- without malice or forethought- who lives in a present generosity, a figure of true amour de soi, he aims for his own good without attacking the good of others and he is, as he constantly says a man of honour.

This trope has been used before- Dostoevsky's idiot, Prince Mishkin has some simularities to the artless drunkard Andreas. But Roth wants us to see how Andreas's story relates to our own stories, our own thoughts- fairy tales have meanings and we need to understand Andreas at a deeper level in order to appreciate what Roth is saying. Andreas's drink frequently we are told drives his memory away. Memorylessness is a key feature of his character- Andreas doesn't change though the world around him does and drink is his instrument to drive his memory away. In Roth's story drink is the weapon that the saint uses to obliterate his own memories- his sense of self. Furthermore it obliterates his artfulness- Andreas is not artful and loses money to wasters and to theives- he is easily diverted by a pretty face or ankle and easily conned. He is so easy to con, so easy to deceive and persuade though precisely because of his attitude to life. He does not act but merely flows through life- like a river he can be diverted but he follows the course that the valley sets for him. And he uses drink to control any temptations not to follow it.

Consequently the unnatural aspects of the fairy tale- the fact that Andreas keeps accidentally coming across money which sustains him is a feature of the character examined. Like everything else, sudden riches just crop up in Andreas's wake. He is improvident- but is so because he just expects more to pop up and to generate a life for him. Life for him is not something that is thought through, examined and analysed but something that just happens to him. That perception of life means that he avoids all kinds of comparisons (though not jealousy of the girl he loves)- he is natural and unaffected. Roth portrays him as such but also leaves us in no doubt that Andreas is incapable of living in modern society- like a Skimpole without the lie he leaves a trail behind him of destruction and improvidence. The point is that because he is a saint he cannot be a citizen- because he is a Christian, he cannot be a consumer. Roth's tale takes place in a dreamingly Catholic Paris- St Therese is central to it and at some point I will return to this tale to discuss its theology. But at the centre of it is this character and ultimately this character's strength which is also his flaw- his saintliness which leads to his inability to live as a modern citizen. Roth though leaves us in no doubt that this failure to survive in modern society is not a downfall- for Andreas events all have the same character- even death. When he dies, he goes to sleep without concern- the consequence is that whereas he has lost everything that we might think matters- none of it does matter to the Holy Drinker.

Like Mishkin he points out to us the illusion of society and the difficulty of living a moral life within the world- the Holy Drinker is a standing rebuke to the way we live now.


Sean Jeating said...

Read your post, Gracchi, jumped up, took Roth's narratives off the shelf and re-read the "legend". Effect: I "had to" re-read the other stories, too, the complete volume. :)
Thus, thanks for (robbing me some hours sleep) the surprising and wonderful suggestion.

Gracchi said...

Sean that's precisely the reaction I was hoping to inspire! :)

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Buon anno, Gracchi.