The German Jewish writer Joseph Roth, whose letters are newly translated, chronicled the death of 19th century Europe and the rise of its darker heir
The rediscovery of Joseph Roth has been one of the happiest literary developments of the last 10 years—perhaps the first time that the word “happy” could be used in the same sentence as Roth’s name. Roth, born in the town of Brody in Austrian Galicia in 1894, was one of the best-known journalists in 1920s Germany, a master of the impressionistic personal essay known as the feuilleton. With the 1932 publication of The Radetzky March, his novel about the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he joined the first rank of fiction writers as well.
Within a year, however, the Nazis took power in Germany, making it impossible for Roth, or any German Jewish writer, to live and work in the country. Roth spent the next five years living hand-to-mouth in France, cranking out short novels at a terrific pace in an increasingly hopeless attempt to support himself. He died in 1939, a victim of alcoholism and of history, at the age of just 45—though to judge by photographs of his booze-ravaged face, he already looked like an elderly man. As it turned out, this premature death came just in time, for if Roth had still been living in France after the German conquest in 1940, he would surely have been sent to a concentration camp.
Several of Roth’s books were published in the United States in the 1920s and ’30s, but after his death his reputation nearly vanished here. Over the last decade, the translator Michael Hofmann has led a major effort to reintroduce Roth to America, translating many of his novels and stories as well as collections of his journalism. There is still no English-language biography; it would take a fearless biographer to disentangle the truth of Roth’s life from the many myths and legends he liked to propagate about himself. Instead, Hofmann has now produced Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters, a big collection of Roth’s correspondence, which allows us to trace the stages of his difficult life—and gives some unsettling insights into his understanding of Jewishness.
Unfortunately—but, given his harried existence, understandably—most of Roth’s letters are lost. Though A Life in Letters runs to more than 500 pages, it has, as Hofmann points out in his introduction, no letters to Roth’s parents, his wife, his lovers, or his best friends. The bulk of the correspondence before 1933 consists of letters to his editors and colleagues at the Frankfurter Zeitung, the prestigious liberal newspaper where he was a staff writer. After 1933, by far the most important recipient of Roth’s letters is Stefan Zweig, another German Jewish literary émigré, and the Roth-Zweig friendship emerges as the real drama of the book.
Still, the letters are enough to give a vivid sense of what Roth was like. As a very young man, writing from Vienna to relatives in Brody, he is precocious, haughty, and dandified: “What can I wish for you? Three kingly things. … The golden crown of imagination, the scarlet cloak of solitude, and the scepter of irony,” the 22-year-old tells his younger cousin. In 1917 Roth enlisted in the Austrian army, and over the next year he accumulated experiences that would shape his writing. Indeed, he deliberately blurred the line between his life and his fiction, often telling people that he saw combat and was taken prisoner by the Russians, when in fact he spent most of his time working on an army newspaper. Unfortunately, this crucial period is represented by just two brief letters.
When the correspondence really picks up, in 1925, Roth is already a well-established journalist, a star of the Frankfurter Zeitung. Not just a star, in fact, but a prima donna: Many of these letters involve Roth’s complaints that he is not getting the best assignments or the highest rates. “I am not an encore, not a pudding [i.e., a dessert—Hofmann writes British English], I am the main dish,” he lectures his editor. What remains constant, and significant for Roth the writer, is his deep discomfort with Germany, which leads him to idealize just about every other country as an alternative. In France for the first time in 1925, he is rhapsodic: “I feel driven to inform you personally that Paris is the capital of the world, and that you must come here,” he writes his editor Benno Reifenberg. “Whoever has not been here is only half a human.”
France especially gains by contrast with Germany: “Any chauffeur is wittier than our wittiest authors,” Roth writes, and later, “I don’t see the point in being a German writer. [Paris] is like being on top of a tall tower, you look down from the summit of European civilization, and way down at the bottom, in some sort of gulch, is Germany.” It was a bitter blow when he was denied a permanent Paris assignment and forced to come home. “I feel Germany right off the bat, and all of it at once,” he writes in 1931, after another trip abroad. “Every street corner expresses the awfulness of the whole country. It has the ugliest prostitutes. … The men are all scoutmasters on display. … The feeling as though your genitals were gone, nothing left!”
The 1920s were a boom time for German journalism, and for Roth. Yet even in these letters, we hear his constant complaints about money, and his stratagems for getting more of it. Often this involved what Hofmann calls a “scorched-earth” strategy with publishers: Roth had a habit of accepting more assignments and book contracts than he could possibly carry out, and he always had to work frantically to catch up. One story, which Hofmann tells in a footnote, is suggestive. Roth had promised to write a novel for serialization in a Munich newspaper. When he delivered the manuscript, he accidentally included a page on which he had written a dozen times: “Must finish novel in three days! Must finish novel in three days!” The newspaper, disturbed at the evidence of Roth’s working practices, rejected the novel. It is no coincidence that his masterpiece, The Radetzky March, was also the book on which he spent the most time—two years, an eternity by Rothian standards.
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