Joseph Roth, touched by grace

Joseph Roth, touched by grace

Austrian-Jewish writer Joseph Roth revisits the biblical myth of Job in a book published between the wars, before the author was forced to leave his country.

We first came across Joseph Roth (1894-1939) thanks to Pierre Assouline, in his dense “Lives of Job”. In it, he describes the novelist, bloated with alcohol, exiled to Paris, rue de Tournon, and writing “The Weight of Grace”. This novel, originally entitled “Hiob”, is a must-read. For Mendel Singer, a devout Jew in Tsarist Russia, is a modern-day Job and the hero of this poignant novel.

A man struck by misfortune

Set in present-day Zuchnat, Poland, Mendel is a God-fearing man who teaches children the Bible and leads a simple life, punctuated by daily prayers. But tragedy follows tragedy, forcing him to emigrate to the USA with his wife and daughter, to be reunited with one of his sons, Chémariah, who has already emigrated, leaving behind his last disabled child, Menouhim.

Faith alone as support

Joseph Roth’s harsh, austere style is a must-read. His words describe the immobility and monotony of days in the countryside, where there’s nothing to do but work, pray and watch your family grow up. This is a world without distractions, with almost no means of transport. And the whole first part of the novel sees Mendel wandering from misfortune to misfortune. It’s only in the second part, set in the USA, that the light emerges. But how? It would be a pity to tell you, but let’s just say that Mendel, who is a believer, then overcome by doubts, finally has the opportunity to experience God’s infinite grace on his behalf. God he sometimes doubted, but, like Job, never denied.

One question remains: why does Pierre Assoulline, an erudite man if ever there was one, describe Roth writing this novel in a café on Rue de Tournon, when it was finished in 1929, published in 1930, and Roth returned to Paris in 1934? Perhaps because this false story appealed to him more than the real one. He is, in fact, influenced by the myth of Job, and his book (which deserves a column in this webzine) teems with suggestions for further reading. Despite his approximations (which we’d like to think serve a literary purpose, and not an enterprise to falsify historical facts), we’d like to thank him for his “Lives of Job”, which are one of those crossroads books: they’re teeming with references to other works we haven’t yet heard of. And once finished, they make us want to read and read again.


Joseph Roth “Le poids de la grâce”, Editions J’ai Lu, 252 pages, 1992

Jean-Marc Grosdemouge