Since my first read of a Joseph Roth book, “Hotel Savoy”, I’ve been keen to investigate more of his work – and so I used the excuse of World Book Day to send away for this volume, which sounded quite intriguing!

confession

Published in 1936, “Confession” is a short novel/novella (190 pages) set in Paris and narrated by a writer. The (unnamed) author lives opposite a Russian bar, the Tari-Bari, and spends much of his time popping in and out. It’s full of émigrés, eking out their lives in exile, but one particular character catches his eye. The habitués of the cafe don’t realise that the author can understand Russian and one day he overhears a couple of fellow drinkers referring to the interesting character as “our murderer”. But the ‘murderer’, one Golubchik (‘little dove’ in Russian) knows more about the writer than he thinks, and after the bar owner has closed and locked the doors, he settles down to tell them his story.

And what a story it is! Ranging from rural Russia, through the pre-War Okhrana Russian secret service, to Paris and then the war, the tale he tells is of a man born into poverty, denied his real heritage and seeking love and acceptance. I won’t give too much away, but this is a fascinating piece of storytelling – utterly gripping and involving. The story absorbed me, along with the other cafe habitues, until it suddenly switched back to the present for an unexpected and surprising ending!

roth_josef_ia_1_1

Roth is an excellent writer, and really gets inside the head of Golubchik. We feel his loneliness; the hurt and bitterness at being denied the use of the name of his rich (blood) father; the depth of his passion when he first falls in love.The prose is beautifully atmospheric, like this piece which describes the sense of being swept away from reality, isolated in the locked bar and detached from the rest of the world:

“…it seemed as though Time had ceased; and the hands on the white (clock) face were no longer simply black, but frankly ominous. Yes, they were as ominous as eternity. They were unchanging in their obstinate, almost treacherous, immobility, and it seemed to us as though they stood still, not because the clock work had stopped, but from a sort of malice and as if to prove that the story which Golubchik was telling us was an eternally recurring, eternally hopeless story, independent of time and space, of day and night. And since time stood still, the room too, in which we were sitting, became exempt from all laws of space; and it was as though we were no longer on solid earth, but floating on the eternal waters of the eternal sea. It seemed as though they were in a ship. And our sea was the night.”

Roth is often bracketed with Stefan Zweig although I must say that, having read their works closely together, I wouldn’t say they’re particularly alike. Zweig’s work is really, really intense – you could almost say overwrought – and I think too much at one time would be like having a fabulously rich meal at every sitting. However, Roth’s work, though it has passion, has somehow more depth – he is intense, but not too overdone!

“Confession…” was a great read – involving, intriguing, entertaining and with a cracking ending! Highly recommended, and I’ll definitely be reading more Roth!