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The Legend of the Holy Drinker

Joseph Roth, translated by Michael Hofmann <em>Granta, 100pp, £6.99

Joseph Roth was a chronicler of interwar Europe, one of the last significant voices of the cosmopolitan, sensual Continental culture that fell to the Second World War. This novel was published at the end of the period, in 1939, the year of Roth's death. We follow a tramp called Andreas, who lives on the banks of the Seine, through a series of seemingly chance encounters that allow him briefly to escape his world and to live well. Throughout the story there is an engaging sense of the possibility of the fantastic, but nothing other-worldly ever occurs. Rather, beneath the semi-mystical tone, there is an astute and ironic commentary on the stuff of real life; only money causes Andreas's life to change, and a self-conscious foolishness changes it back again. Roth's is a thoughtful magical-realism. The prose is pared down and unobtrusive, and the tale itself is tightly structured and quick, but still meditative. Hofmann's new translation does much to capture the author's celebrated lightness of touch. Only occasionally are his sentences less elegant than one assumes Roth's original must have been.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, And now the trouble really begins