But then comes the lament of a motor horn, sounding like a wounded beast, and from far off comes the confused sound of the streetcars’ bells, whistles shrill, trumpets cry like children. A dog who has been crushed howls like a human, becomes human in the hour of its miserable death, chains and bolts rattle from doors and again a shot rings out.
From the university comes Marinelli with fifty young people armed with carbines, to reinforce the students. The fire engines come. Their hoses send forth cold jets of water that falls with a painfully powerful hiss among the people. For a few moments the crowd scatters. Then it reassembles. Little groups form and develop. A shot strikes a hose. On the pavement lie firemen’s helmets. The hose is torn. Police clatter up in lorries. The street paving rumbles. The windowpanes tremble. The police are at once dragged down, stamped on, bloodied, scattered and disarmed. Workmen smash carbines over knees. Women are swinging sabres, pistols, rifles.
From the grey northern quarters more hordes come pouring, carrying household implements, pokers, spades, axes and shovels. High up above, a machine-gun stutters. Someone lets out a cry, and at once thousands have turned to flee. A thousand hands are raised, pointing nowhere. From every rooftop, guns are pointing. From every rooftop machine-guns stutter. Behind every projecting wall crouch green uniforms. Black muzzles are poking out of every window.
Someone shouts” ‘Soldiers!’
(The Spider’s Web, by Joseph Roth)
“It was a victory for law and order.” This street battle makes Theodor’s reputation, and he rises quickly to a respectable position in the state machine: Head of Security. A position that didn’t exist until his friends convinced the high officials to create it: a man who saved the privileged from the working classes, and who is married to an aristocrat (another gift of the day’s violence), and who belongs to a far right group, close to the authorities, needs to be rewarded for all the kicks and punches he lands on the proletariat.
It is an interesting feature of modern life, and arises naturally out of it: jobs can be created before there is any work for them to do. Bureaucracy, a modern Prometheus of original employment. Once created the work naturally flows in. How odd and interesting. Does the job create the work? It seems it often does… Of course, there are jobs where there is never any work; I’ve known a few myself. The hero in Richard Yates’ classic Revolutionary Road is a wonderful example from corporate America; dispelling the myths of the busyness of these private bureaucracies.
Theodor is a typical lower middle class man. Hard working and competent, but with no talent, whose greatest time was during the war. For four years he served a cause bigger than himself; he didn’t have to think, for years told what to do by an institution that protected him, used all his manly energy, channelling his disenchantment towards the English and French, and their allies. After the war he becomes a tutor to a rich Jewish family. He dislikes it, inevitably – now merely a servant to a private family; where he has to suppress the usual prejudices of his class and outlook. His pride is hurt, and his inferiority is forever on show – to himself most of all. He is a second rate human whose best years are behind him; how hard that is to accept. A Dr Trebitsch saves him. He talks the politics of the radical right; suggests he join one of its secret organisations. He is in the army again! He meets his old comrades, and his old leader, Prince Heinrich. Although it is a shock to be in bed with him. Theodor prefers the ladies, big breasts and large laps that smother him in flesh.
He infiltrates a leftwing group, and betrays them to the authorities. This begins his rise up the party. Later he consolidates his ambition through killing his superior: his only aim to sit atop the party apparatus. But he does not have the talent to do so… As a child he had to learn his books by rote, while others simply absorbed them; like breathing it was so easy and unconscious; they did not even think about it. Of course he remembers those talented Jews. His resentment started early…
Every hour bore a strange aspect. Everything surprised him. Everything which happened was frightening, because it was new, yet it vanished before making any impression. His timidity taught him to be careful, to work hard, to train himself with ruthless determination, but again and again he discovered that his preparation was insufficient. He would then work ten times as hard. Thus he had forced his way to second position in his school. First came the Jew, Glaser, who drifted smilingly through breaks, carefree and heedless of books, but who in twenty minutes could turn in an impeccable Latin exercise, and in whose head vocabularies, formulae and irregular verbs seemed to sprout effortlessly.
Later he lives off them. Herr Effrussi one of the richest men in Berlin. The intervention of an ideologue, a burst of an ambition, and much violence, and he reaches the lower floors of the party. He can do no more, he will never be number one: for he does not have the talent; has to work too hard; he has to think too much; for it does not come naturally. How resentful it makes him feel. There is no justice when it comes to skill and ability…
He needs someone else. And sure enough Benjamin Lenz pops up. The book takes a funny turn. Just like Roth’s Right and Left the book suddenly shifts its focus. There we were taken from Paul Bernheim to Nikolai Brandeis; from a scion of familial decline to the founder of dynasties. Here its Lenz who pushes Theodor aside. Lenz is a natural schemer and informer; a born spy, he is so good at it. If there was a guild of spies he would be its master. Such ability! To betray everyone, and retain their trust; it is the magic of genius, an inexplicable talent that reveals itself in action.
Although apart from his relationship to his family, to which is he is very close, Lenz is a psychopath. Destruction is all he cares about:
How Benjamin Lenz loved these times and these people. How he grew among them, and prospered and gathered power, secrets, money, pleasure and hatred. His gloating eyes drank in the blood of Europe, his half-deaf ears seemed to hear the clash of weapons, the sharp crack of shots, the howling of the mighty, the last groans of the dying and the overwhelming silence of the dead.
Lenz, the millenarian intellectual. An all too common occurrence in Europe’s disastrous history. Although Lenz is more honest than most: it is the destruction of the old order that attracts him, and he revels in it quite consciously. He is the man of the times, the post war society in flux and decay, ripe for kicks and punches, sword charges and gun shots… He works behind the scenes, and knows everyone; he is a scholar of the underworld and the underbelly of power. He works hard, just like Theodor, whose master Lenz becomes, but success comes very easily – he has the gift, that so many lack. This is why Theodor needs him: Lenz can do things he can’t. He catapults him into the high rooms of state. Although later… Ah! You will have to read the book.
Lenz is an idealist. Theodor merely ambitious: he wants worldly power. Lenz will never be rich, for he is always giving up private comforts for the ever-present struggle to bring his world about. He will never grow fat and easily contented. He will always be in danger. He is living each day anew; creating the future always in the present moment. Theodor is different. Once power is acquired he relaxes into the comforts of high officialdom; a rich bureaucrat, who takes his comforts for granted until he realises how fragile are the buttresses supporting his world.
Conspiracy, paranoia, sudden death… He rose through violence; he climbed high by standing on the backs of the corpses he killed; it is a world he has left behind, and which he cannot talk about. How easily, he now realises, the process could be reversed; how simple to fall down a lift shaft; a bullet in the head, his entrails carved out… Power, it seems, can make you insane. Here is another echo of Roth’s Right and Left: there Paul Bernheim was haunted by a moment of weakness, when a Cossack tried to kill him. When alone and depressed that incident returns to him; and he imagines the Cossack riding around Europe, looking for his old enemy, his sabre ready to finish the job.
And so the book motors to its end. The powerful bureaucrat, his building built on weak foundations, and the powerful schemer, who has no building at all, living on the pressure of the times. Who will succeed; triumph even? We can guess, but will never be sure…