allure of the cover

The Calm Ocean Some books demand to be read based on their covers alone. Such is the case with The Calm Ocean by Gerhard Roth, which I was surprised to find sans ugly hardcover binding on the university library’s shelves. The bright red background initially draws the eye, which may then focus on the fox, specifically the head, also depicted in primary color. Illuminated by the rising sun (or moon) behind it, the highly stylized fox is looking back across the face of the book, into the unknown. The eye might now wander up to the title of the novel, which seems to contradict the rural scene represented on the cover. One begins to wonder about this contrast, and whether the fox is significant in any way, as well as what the title says about the book.

The Austrian writer Roth is a relatively new discovery for me, thanks to a recommendation last year from a friend over at Goodreads. Roth’s early work falls into the broad soup of ‘experimental’ fiction, lacking the more traditional trappings found in realist fiction. But he grew closer to realism over the years, though I find his take on it to be palatable. It’s as if he took the experimental skeleton he crafted as a younger writer and hung some strange costumes on those angular bones. Murky and sometimes even hallucinatory, Roth’s post-experimental fiction is not to be overlooked simply because it began to dress in new and bizarre realist outfits. Of course I say this while now reading only my second of these later works (the first Roth book I read, The Will to Sickness, was much more experimental; the second one, The Lake is a later work). But I have a feeling (partly based on other descriptions/reviews I’ve read), that I am right about Roth in this regard.

In his writing, Roth is concerned with sifting through the social and political culture of his home country of Austria, both past and present. Most of his books resemble mystery novels, at least superficially. They are not traditional mysteries at all, though, and readers who simply must find out all the details of what happened should probably stay away. At this point in my reading of the book, The Calm Ocean already recalls the The Lake in that it also concerns a man away from home, in an unfamiliar provincial place, feeling disoriented and alienated. Since my reading thrives on characters like this, I was drawn in immediately. I’m still early on, but I already know that it will live up to the promise of the cover.

Roth has completed two ambitious cycles of works, each of which consists of novels, essays, and documentary volumes: Die Archive des Schweigens (The Archives of Silence) and Orkus (Hades), the former consisting of seven works, and the latter of eight. Unfortunately, many of these works are still unavailable in English, though Ariadne Press has been doing an admirable job in bringing some of them into English translation, with their focus centered on ‘Studies in Austrian Literature, Culture & Thought’. Hopefully these current offerings from Ariadne, as well as Atlas Press and Burning Deck (each of which has published one of Roth’s earlier books in English), will grow in popularity among English readers and thus attract more translation efforts in the future. Roth certainly ranks with Thomas Bernhard as a contemporary Austrian writer very much worth reading (Elfriede Jelinek and Peter Handke being two others on my list of to-reads).

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1 Comment

  1. That’s a truly fantastic cover! I’m going to have to check out Roth. And in a semi-unrelated vein, I’m eager to hear your thoughts on Jelinek, who makes me feel as if I’ve been drenched in stale bodily fluids and a heavy coating of senseless humiliation.

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