A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
“The Legend of the Holy Drinker is Joseph Roth’s last work of fiction, quite deliberately so. Like Andreas’s repayment of the two hundred francs, it was his last detail. Again, like Andreas, he took his time over it, didn’t rush – as most of his books were rushed – but worked at it slowly, with pleasure and pride, for the first four months of 1939. At the end of the fifth, he died. He was not quite forty-five years old.”
So writes translator Michael Hofmann in his Note to Granta’s 2000 edition of Roth’s ‘secular miracle-tale’. In many ways there is little more to be said about this perfectly crafted diamond of a story. Arguably Roth’s masterwork, mined from his own life and foretelling his own death, it is a minimalist classic – longer than a short-story, shorter than a novella and weaving a spell that never entirely releases you.
On a spring evening in 1934 a gentleman of mature years descended one of the flights of stone steps that lead from the bridges over the Seine down to its banks. It is there that, as all the world knows and will hardly need reminding, the homeless poor of Paris sleep, or rather spend the night.
One such poor vagrant chanced to be walking towards the gentleman of mature years, who was incidentally well-dressed and had the appearance of a visitor, disposed to take in the sights of foreign cities. This vagrant look no less pitiable and bedraggled than any other, but to the elderly well-dressed man he seemed to merit some particular attention: why, we are unable to say.
The vagrant is Andreas: a lost soul and an alcoholic, but a man of honour still. The well dressed man is an enigma: all we know of him is that he has recently converted to Christianity having read the story of St. Thérèse of Lisieux and made up his mind to lead a life of poverty.
He gives Andreas two hundred francs, telling him that if his conscience will not allow him to accept it as a gift then, when he is able to repay it, he should give it to the priest at the Chapelle de Sainte Marie des Batignolles where there is a statue of little St Thérèse.
The gift triggers a series of small miracles in Andreas’s wretched life. He’s offered a job, he finds money in a second-hand wallet he buys to keep his new-found riches safe and people from his past materialize on the streets of Paris as if by magic.
Several times he has enough money to repay the debt, and several times he makes his way to Saint Marie des Batignolles, fully intending to do so – but every time, something happens to divert him from his purpose until the very end: until his very end.
You can read almost anything into The Legend of the Holy Drinker that you want to because Roth left us no pointers. He told his tale and left it to stand or fall on its own merits.
Were the encounters truly miracles, or were they just a series of coincidences which Andreas’s alcoholic brain merely interpreted as miracles? Was he truly trying to repay the money, or does the ease with which he was distracted from his purpose tell another story? Did he finally find redemption at the feet of little Thérèse, or was that too the delusion of a clouded mind?
Turning the story into a film should, in theory, have been almost impossible. The fragile spell of Roth’s prose (superbly translated by Hofmann) would have been all too easy to destroy in the transfer to the visual medium of the cinema. Fortunately the man doing the transferring was Ermanno Olmi – no mean weaver of fables himself – and his 1988 adaptation of The Legend of the Holy Drinker is in every way as much of a masterpiece as its source work.
Utterly faithful to its original, beautifully filmed and cast with startling originality, it takes about three times as long to watch as the novella takes to read because the story is told substantially without words. They’re only added when necessary to explain and move the story onwards.
As Andreas, Rutger Hauer turns in what is probably the finest performance of his career – a masterclass in stillness and non-verbal, facial acting that every young actor (and several not-so-young actors I can think of) should be made to sit down and watch. You literally can’t take your eyes off him, and if you did, you’d miss something.
The only time your eye wanders is during his two encounters with the ‘well-dressed man’ – a late-career cameo from a visibly ailing Anthony Quayle that is every bit as spellbinding as Hauer’s.
There are very few books or films that I revisit willingly, but The Legend of the Holy Drinker is one of them and I know that I’m not alone.
Many books stay with you for a long time after you’ve read them, but Legend is one that has never let me go.
Granta. 2000. ISBN: 1-86207-471-2. 100pp.