Review: The Coral Merchant by Joseph Roth

The Coral Merchant is a collection of six stories by Joseph Roth. The second didn’t appeal to me, but the others were extremely good, with “The Bust of the Emperor” being a stand-out. This is the first time I’ve read Joseph Roth, so I can’t speak to the quality of the translation, but the writing is smooth with a touch of dry humor. The collection is a good mix of long and short stories, but one (“The Rich House Opposite”) might be a little too short.

These are the stories included in this collection:

Gabriel Stieglecker doesn’t earn enough money and requests a 20p raise from his boss. He doesn’t get it, but does get a lucrative job offer from someone else. His best course is obvious to the reader. But to Gabriel, the decision is nuanced and difficult. “Career” is one of those stories that’s recognizable on a deep level; it’s the reason that it’s easier to give advice than to take it—everyone thinks their story is the one with extenuating circumstances.

“The Blind Mirror”
It’s not clear to me whether the awkwardness around Fini’s first period at the beginning of this story is because the author is a man, or because this collection was written in the 1930s. Events in Fini’s life are strangely paced, and the ending felt too sudden. This is the only story in the collection that didn’t work for me.

“The Rich House Opposite”
This story is similar to “Career” in that it feels like a fable with a moral at the close. A man looks at the fancy house that’s opposite his and wonders about the man who lives there. It has a neat little turn at the end, but it feels incomplete, especially when placed against the last three stories of the collection.

“The Bust of the Emperor”
The narrator begins with a plea that the reader forgive the insertion of a “historical and political preamble,” which is rarely a good way to start. But this particular preamble works well—enough information to set up the story, and not so much that it’s like reading an encyclopedia. “The Bust of the Emperor” follows an old Habsburg count as he wrestles with ideas of nationality and his own irrelevance in the aftermath of the first world war.

“The Leviathan”
The story about a coral merchant that’s promised by this collection’s title. Slow to start, it follows a merchant who’s obsessed with coral. He’s widely respected and lives according to routine until another coral merchant turns up. Like “Career” and “The Rich House Opposite,” it feels more like a fable than a fully developed story.

“The Legend of the Holy Drinker”
The story of a homeless drunk who runs into a streak of unexpected cash and spends much of it on alcohol (though in classier establishments than usual) while trying to repay a debt. It’s frenetic and strangely uptempo. Of the six stories, I expect this one and “The Bust of the Emperor” will most stick in my memory. 

Overall: 4.5 (out of 5.0) A good collection with only one missed note. In all cases, the stories have very definite endings which I appreciate in short fiction. I’ve been reading other authors lately who write single scenes, or “a day in the life,” that are occasionally moving but lacking in resolution or closure. I much prefer this style of short fiction that has a well-defined character and a clear story arc.

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pushkin Press (via NetGalley).
Image credit: Goodreads

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.