Today I will discuss Joseph Roth’s last novella, The Legend of the Holy Drinker. In this work, published only months before his own untimely death, Roth again devotes his attention, and sympathy, to the loser. This time, though, the story is even more personal, because it eerily foreshadows Roth’s own death. In fact, Roth himself called it his last testament.
The holy drinker in question is a homeless man in Paris named Andreas Kartak. At the beginning of the story the only thing Roth tells the reader is that he lives under the bridges over the Seine. Later on, Roth fills in Andreas’ background. Andreas originally left his native village of Olschowice in Polish Silesia to work in the French coal mines. But he soon ran into trouble. When one day he sees his landlord savagely beating his wife, Caroline, with whom he had become friends, Andreas steps in to protect her and kills his landlord. This is the act that lands him in jail. Since his release he has wandered around Paris during the day and slept under bridges at night. The only other shelter Andreas found was in cafés.
Andreas has been doing this for some while when Roth begins his narration. In the first chapter, a genteel-looking man approaches Andreas and offers him 200 francs. The stranger’s only condition is that Andreas pay the money back to the shrine of the “little St. Therese of Lisieux” in the chapel of St. Marie des Batignolles. It turns out that this gentleman has recently become a Christian and given up his well-furnished home for the bridges over the Seine. He then walks back into the shadows.
From this point onwards, the novella portrays Andreas’ attempts to do something worthwhile with this gift and his struggle to repay “little Therese,” as he calls her. He starts out well. He buys a new suit and briefcase and persuades a wealthy man to hire him for a temporary job. But once the job is over, he spends the money he earned on liquor. Andreas then starts running into a series of old acquaintances. Some want to help him out, others are only interested in his 200 francs, while others discard him as just an old memory. Andreas just searches for wine, women, and song, while remembering episodes from his life.
Every Sunday, however, Andreas is resolved to pay back his debt to “little Therese.” He hears church bells ringing and, stuck in sin as he is, he knows where his duty lies. But getting to the church is never as easy as deciding to go there. Sunday after Sunday he somehow fails to make it to “little Therese.” On the last Sunday, Andreas makes it all the way to the church square, but again he runs into an old acquaintance, a drunkard just like him, who coaxes him, despite his protests that he needs to go to Mass, into a nearby café. There they drink their Pernod, until a little girl enters and walks past them. When Andreas finds out that her name is Therese, he immediately offers her the money, but she won’t take it. She does tell him, however, that her parents are attending Mass; this reminds Andreas of his duty, and his own desire. Unfortunately, as he is thinking of leaving, he collapses in the café. Since there is no doctor there, the waiters carry him into the nearby sacristy to see if the priests can help. There Andreas breathes his last, reaching into his pocket for the 200 francs.
Andreas had not been able to find a roof to sleep under, to stay sober, to hold down a job for a long time. He had been a loser for a long time. Yet in the end he succeeds; he brings the money to “little Therese” and dies, hopefully, at peace with with God. Andreas was right to persevere in hope.
The novel then ends with this line, which Roth obviously meant to apply to himself: “God grant all us drinkers such an easy, beautiful death!”