Your profession has a clumsier, but for that reason more evident, symbolism. It is symbolic of our generation of returned soldiers, whom everyone hinders in our attempts to play a part, make a decision, play a violin… in the spiritual content of the atmosphere, which is more powerful than its content of electricity, there will float the distant echo of your single notes… the frustrated longing of our whole generation will remain as immortal as it was unfulfilled.
Roth is referring to the failure of the Great War generation; defeated by their fathers who started it, and which is here symbolised by Arnold’s current job. His life punched out of him, he has been turned into a figure of fun:
He was wearing baggy trousers, a tight-fitting jacket, and a light-coloured top hat with a wide ribbon.
‘A genuine clown!’ I cried.
‘Just look!’ continued P. ‘Take a look at this face! This face has had twenty thousand thick ears! It has a dog-like face melancholy. It looks so sad because it cannot say how sad it is. Think of his entrance. He comes on stage, unsuspecting, had no idea that the public is sitting in the stalls. He is a fathead, and he looks like one, like someone who only needs a meal and a drink to put him in a good humour. He wants to play a piece on his violin. But as soon as he is ready to play another clown comes on, a self-confident one, also a fathead, but a fathead with ambitions, who knows very well that there is a public, a director, wages. This clever one gives our Arnold a thick ear. Arnold has played precisely two notes. But these two notes, which he plays before the other one notices, are so clear, so heavenly, that all the audience is sorry that Arnold doesn’t play on.
This seems pretty clear, and sums up the book very nicely: the pompous, ever confident, so talkative and dream soaked, Zipper Senior never giving his son the chance to perform properly. We have been reading about the pathos of a youth’s failure; its atmosphere like a house abandoned before it has been fully built. And there are moments of extraordinary pathos in the book, particularly around Frau Zipper, who is herself defeated by her contemporaries; crushed between the poverty of their daily life and the fantasies of her husband, who subdues her with the tyranny of his optimism – he is the eternal child, and all his words are broken promises. Yes, this passage seems very clear. Father and son are symbols of two different generations; the younger never getting a look in, except to cry mournfully, because they have been ruined by the war for which their fathers are responsible.
But then P.’s monologue changes:
Do you know this one? Of course. You’ve already spotted it, and now you know that Arnold’s musical gift is just sufficient to play those two notes divinely. There’s your novel!’
Roth is poking fun at a particular intelligence, the kind that rules Hollywood today, which believes a screenplay must have one immediately identifiable idea that can sell a film on an advertising poster. Although this sudden shift, from a coherent story, suffused with symbolism and the rich details of a well-observed life, to a sales pitch, is exactly what happens to this novel; and destroys its aesthetic unity. Before this intrusion the creator’s vitality had been able to soften the edges of his symbols, the well fed stomachs of his characters flowing over the waist bands of their bespoke trousers and skirts, making them ambiguous and vague. But now he brings the hard form of his original idea too clearly into focus; so that Roth is like a friend at the cinema, poking us in the ribs to point out the villain in the grey mackintosh. Was the novel too close to the author, its point too important for him, to leave it to the understanding of the reader; now confused, he realised, by his artistry…
It is possible that the novel hadn’t followed his original allegorical plan. Arnold’s father not quite the fantastical monster he saw in his mind’s eye, when he first conceived the character... over a drink in a café, with some grandfather shouting over his left ear about peace and declining civility. Discipline I say! Discipline! The only way is to squeeze them into a good trench. Do you hear me? Young man! Do you hear what I say? We must squeeze them up into a good old trench. Scare them into obedience. They’re rascals otherwise. Wild animals! Only a good war can cure them.
Zipper Senior is not such a man. He has charisma. And he is funny. He is not unintelligent. Often we like him; indeed we like him a lot. It’s just… he’s not quite human.
His optimism is a like a bullet-proof car, speeding around town knocking down its inhabitants. You daren’t cross the road or… marry him. His wife made that fatal mistake. Now all his family are his victims. We see this from early on, where, after his childlike quality is described, we watch Zipper Senior at the dinner table, cruelly dominating his wife with his jokes and his sarcasm. And also his unreachable presence: he lives within his own self-created universe that others cannot penetrate. For completely oblivious to the outside world, which he creates in his own image, paints it, almost, on his own eyelids, he cannot be reasoned with or influenced – he is always right. Imagine that! Imagine living with such a personality every day… We feel sorry for his wife, whose existence he effectively nullifies. We expect our partners to respond and adapt to ourselves, for there must be some “give” in their characters, because we need to change them as they invariably change us; it is the only way we can confirm our own being. If this is not possible, if they remain always themselves, that is always the same, they become tyrants, no matter how benevolent their personalities; for the other person always has to submit to them, as Frau Zipper does in this novel. He doesn’t see her! And so she ceases to exist – made invisible by her own husband.
He cheerfully sends his sons off to war…
But it is hard to dislike Arnold’s father. He is a good talker. He likes to meet people, and is always making connections to improve his social standing; allowed on the station platform when the Kaiser comes to town, or given permission to walk across the grass because he is friendly with the park attendant… All are pointless social gewgaws, but because they are so cheap and useless, and he attaches so much importance to them, we can’t help but laugh, and so like him. He is a lovable fool, led astray by his own fictions. He is too unthinking and dreamy, too pathetic, to be bad; and so we continue laughing and feel sorry for him.
Roth writes pathos better than he does hate.
Then, as with so many of this author’s books, the novel suddenly changes focus. Initially a character study of Zipper Senior it changes to become one of his youngest son, Arnold. There is a short middle section when the war happens; and where the oldest son Caesar goes mad, the experience turning the father’s hair white. For a moment the narrator believes his character has changed… Later he realises he is just the same. Living now on dreams of Arnold, who has married a successful movie star.
Arnold represents the aimlessness of the post war generation. Destined to fill the state bureaucracies he finds that he cannot keep to the routine; preferring the company of bohemians in the Viennese coffee houses. Not that he has any intellectual or artistic talent – he just likes to listen and be around writers and musicians. And they get used to him, and like him; the silent spectator to their games and endless talk. With his life becoming increasingly aimless, and potentially destructive, the narrator, Joseph Roth, suggests that Arnold marry: it will give you some shape and a purpose – if only going out to buy clothes on a Saturday afternoon, he says in his clinching argument. He gets a wife! His first love who, after not seeing for years, he finds amongst the city’s drama schools. This is typical Arnold, who is too lazy to discover someone new. Erna is beautiful. But she is also completely detached and self-centred; using her good looks and intelligence, and her drama skills, to manipulate those around her. Yes, you have noticed, Erna is like Arnold’s father, but with one major difference: she does not have his innocence - she sees the world all too clearly for that. It is made, she believes, for her benefit only.
For reasons that are not obvious, an insurance policy during the bad times?, she marries him. It is the unhappiest period of Arnold’s life, as Erna uses her personality to become a successful film star; which means essentially performing off screen rather than on it; making the right connections and creating the sellable stories to ensure her fame – is she a lesbian out of inclination or column inches? She is the mirror image of Zipper Senior, who fails in life because his connections and stories are poor and dysfunctional. Unlike Erna he is too stupid to understand how the world really works.
There are a few years of dizzying success, then she has a fall; and her career ends. They downsize, and while living together for the first time properly as a couple Arnold stops loving her. The post war dream reduced to just one more petty bourgeois life; that is falling apart… They have no money. They are getting poorer… So Arnold, like his father before him, goes to Monte Carlo and wins at the casino.
Erna goes to America and resumes her film career.
And Arnold becomes a clown.
And Zipper Senior? We believe he died a happy man…
It seemed to me that only now, for the first time, had I established the similarity between father and son, now that they were quarrelling over a subject about which they were really in agreement. I noticed in Arnold’s expression the same mark of a lost and childlike happiness which had so fatally branded the old man’s face. Except that in Arnold’s case it was veiled in melancholy. It was as though the son were already aware of being a figure of fun, and had thus attained tragic stature, while his father exhibited the same characteristic with the victorious pride of a man who believes that, precisely because of it, he will ultimately triumph.
If father and son are so alike it is hard to draw a moral about the generations; except the pathetic one suggested here. They are the same limited persons, destined always for the life of the second rate. Only their mood is different; with traces of suffering in the soldier son replacing the naïve optimism that dominated before the war. In his book White Cities, which are sketches of his time in France, Roth describes a film he saw set in the period around the fin de siècle…[i]
We see the Parisian crowds of 1910, turned out to see the French president, men carrying rolled-up sausages of black silk (which are umbrellas in a state of repose), with pince-nez on broad ribbons that sway in the breeze like hammocks for flies, with cravats spilling out across chests like floppy mattresses on bedframes. We see women with long trains that look like carpets that have accidentally gotten caught under their feet, in wraps that suddenly and dramatically bell out at the hips, in the little bonnets of all kinds teetering on top of vast, unsteady towers of hair, and therefore held in place with kitchen skewers. The women all look like round towers, wide at the bottom, narrower further up; when they stand up, their dresses hide their feet, actually the dresses are fixed to the sidewalk by means of a wire grid. At the very top the tower are three gibbering glass cherries….
We sit in front of the whole deceitful misery of our fathers, who appear to have invented the cinema purely to show us themselves in their full absurdity, and we laugh, we laugh…
Zipper senior is the human embodiment of that generation. And yet, and yet… the new post war world is little different; only the styles have changed. Realising what he had done did Roth react against himself, and so force the ending? Did he decide to ignore the performance he had created? Did he get up from his theatre seat… and stand… and turn around… to shout into our faces: Look! Look at that. There. Just there. Look! This is what I mean! See! See!
If we are wise we will peek over his shoulder and peer around his thickening waistline…
(Review of Zipper and his Father)
[i] Another sketch in that book suggests the model for Arnold:
“That evening it dawned on me that there was nothing else open to me except joining a circus, though not to be a bareback rider or an acrobat! That’s not for us Jews. I’m a clown. And my very first appearance in the circus, I’ve been utterly convinced that I haven’t broken with the tradition of my forefathers at all, but that what I am is what they should have been. Admittedly seeing me would have come as a shock to them. I play the concertina and the harmonica and the saxophone, and I’m hugely relieved that people don’t know I can play Beethoven.”