Weights and Measures, by Joseph Roth
Once upon a time in the District of Zlotogrod there lived an Inspector of Weights and Measures whose name was Anselm Eibenschütz.
That’s the first sentence of Weights and Measures. Those first four words are among the most iconic in storytelling. Immediately they create a sense of distance but also of the fabulous. Here they are the precursors to a story about a local government inspector’s marital problems and his attraction to a local criminal’s woman. What could be fabulous in that?
Herr Eibenschütz, the inspector, is a former artilleryman who resigned his service in the army at the urgings of his wife.
He had married, as almost all long-serving non-commissioned officers are in the habit of doing. Ah, they are lonely, the long-serving non-commissioned officers! They see only men, nothing but men! The women they encounter flutter past them like swallows. They marry, the non-commissioned officers, to keep hold of at least one swallow, as it were.
I thought that the most beautiful of images. It shouldn’t really work as a paragraph. It contains a great deal of repetition (as do several other passages). Even so it does work. It reads like a fairy story; a fable. It captures a palpable sense of loneliness and the sheer need for another human being to call one’s own.
Eibenschütz sadly did not choose his swallow well. He was happy as an artilleryman and is less so as an inspector of weights and measures. He doesn’t even work for the central government as he is entitled by virtue of his old rank, but only for the local municipality. He takes his task seriously though and travels through the district accompanied by his imposing gendarme checking the honesty of the local traders and shopkeepers. It is unfortunate that they are all dishonest and that none of them has an accurate weight or measure save those they save for his visits. The old inspector was not so scrupulous in his duties.
Eibenschütz then is an honest man in a land of thieves. All are corrupt save him and this does not make him loved. At home things are little better. He captured his swallow, but not love.
For a long time now he had made a habit of going to sleep as soon as they climbed into bed at night, into the two beds pushed closely together, and he no longer spared a glance for her naked body as she undressed before the mirror, perhaps in the hope that he might desire her still. Sometimes she asked him, standing there naked, whether he loved her. She really meant whether he found her beautiful. ‘Yes, of course!’ he said and yielded to sleep, not least to escape the pangs of conscience which his lie might yet produce.
There’s an extraordinary air of melancholy to this book. It opens with Eibenschütz married. His happiness in the army and his loneliness at being without a companion are both already past. Much worse though than being alone is being with someone for whom you have no feeling. This is a book suffused with loneliness.
Soon Eibenschütz suspects his wife of having an affair. She seems too happy and too beautiful. Here only the illicit are ever happy. Rectitude has no rewards.
Suddenly, too, he saw how she had altered. A new, large, tortoise-shell comb held the knot of her thick dark-blue-gleaming hair together. Large golden earrings which she had not worn for a long time, earrings on which dangled tiny delicate golden discs, trembled on her earlobes. Her dark-brown countenance had recovered quite a youthful, indeed a maidenly, ruddy hue. One might say that she looked again as she had looked in the past, as a young girl, when he had first met her in Sarajevo, where her uncle, the master-at-arms, had invited her for the summer.
I won’t say too much more. Eibenschütz discovers the identity of his wife’s lover and and learns that she is pregnant by him (he realises when from nowhere she speaks of how good it would be for their marriage to have a child). His home is no longer welcoming. “Not even the cat would come up to him, as it had done in former times, and allow itself to be stroked.” In his sorrow he takes to frequenting a border tavern owned by the notorious outlaw Jadlowker. It is there that he sees the gypsy woman who shares Jadlowker’s bed, and becomes infatuated with her.
As plots go this one couldn’t be much simpler. It’s a story of love, rivalry and infidelity. There is nothing original to it. It does not aim for originality. What there is though is a clash of ways of life. Eibenschütz is an agent of the state. He tries to impose its rules on a region where by his standards normality is crooked. Jadlowker lives on the border. He is rumoured to have murdered a man in Odessa with a sugar-loaf. He is Eibenschütz’s opposite. He is chaos and lawlessness. He is on the boundary between civilisation and a great dark forest beyond which lies another world (or, more prosaically, Russia).
Like the Austro-Hungarian Empire itself Eibenschütz tries to impose order where there is no place for it. It is in a sense a heroic enterprise, but it cannot succeed. Jadlowker by contrast is free. He has no government to report to and no morality. His freedom is a freedom to do what he wills. He is a killer and a thief.
Roth makes the district of Zlotogrod breathe. He captures its customs such as the way the people rush out in the middle of the night to celebrate the arrival of spring; heralded by the first cracks appearing in the ice which each year coats the local river. The government is far away and they have their local doctors and local courts and when a man needs order he goes to one and when he needs freedom he goes to Jadlowker’s.
The heart here though is Eibenschütz. As he falls genuinely in love with Jadlowker’s gypsy he begins to notice the world about him. He notices the birds singing in the spring and their absence in the winter. He notices the stars overhead and how they seem not meaningless lights as they used to but friendly companions in the night. Nature and the cosmos both change to match the moods of Eibenschütz, Jadlowker and others.
At first I thought the matching of nature and mood thematic. I thought Roth was choosing for the seasons and the sky to follow the narrative. Then I realised that he was doing nothing of the kind. Nature and the sky remain unchanged throughout the book save that the seasons turn as they always do. Men just change their interpretations according to their sentiments and find meaning where there is none.
Weights and Measures is a fable, but it is a dark and sly one. The world here seems suffused with meaning, but gradually it became apparent that the meaning was only ever that which the characters gave it. It was written in 1937 and it contains no hope. The best that can be achieved in Zlotogrod is to leave it.
This is not a well known Roth. I found few reviews of it online and it hasn’t the recognition factor of Hotel Savoy, The Radetzky March or The Legend of the Holy Drinker. It’s not one of his major works. It is, however, beautiful and haunting and superbly written. I’ll finish with one final quote. Here Eibenschütz’s gendarme has been speaking of his own troubles after hearing of those of Eibenschütz himself.
Eibenschütz had long since ceased to listen. But it did him good that a man was speaking beside him, just as it sometimes does one good when the rain is pouring down, even if one does not understand the language of the rain.
The language of the rain. Roth shows a world which is venal and mundane and then makes it fabulous through the sheer beauty of his art. I intend to write a post soon about my personal canon; the works I consider central to my concept of literature. Roth will be on it.
The copy of Weights and Measures I read was published by Peter Owen Classics and translated by David Le Vay. Given how the language sang I’ll look out for Le Vay’s translations in future.