Navigate to Arts & Letters section

The Curse of Joseph Roth

The story of the greatest, and maybe the drunkest, Jewish novelist you’ve never heard of

David Mikics
September 02, 2022
Original image: PJRStamp/Alamy
Original image: PJRStamp/Alamy
Original image: PJRStamp/Alamy
Original image: PJRStamp/Alamy

The greatest novel about World War I was written by a self-fabulating, alcoholic Jew who loved the Habsburg empire. Joseph Roth, author of The Radetzky March, had a flair like nobody else for large-scale lying. Roth spent his days and nights in the cafés of Paris and Berlin, where he wrote, drank, smoked, and traded witticisms with fellow emigrés. His wife went mad and he lost hope, but he kept on writing. In Paris and Berlin he lived out of three suitcases, moving from hotel to hotel. He finally drank himself to death shortly before the Nazis invaded Poland.

Roth has never gotten the attention he deserves, partly because he was no daring modernist but an old-fashioned fiction writer whose models were Tolstoy and Stendhal, and who is just as voraciously readable as these masters. His novels yearn after the stability enjoyed by earlier generations, but he knows that the old truths have crumbled to pieces. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was Roth’s half-imaginary fatherland, and The Radetzky March shows how it fell apart, only to be replaced by a new brutal world of ardent nationalism. The brutality reached its height with the Nazi menace, just as Roth ended his life.

Roth was born in 1894 in Brody, at the far northeastern tip of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, just a few miles from the Russian border. The town was full of Jewish merchants, and its main industry was smuggling goods across the border. Roth never knew his father, who left shortly before Roth was born, went insane, and spent his last days in a wonder rabbi’s court in Berlin. Roth wrote, “He must have been a remarkable man ... he spent all his money, probably took to drink and died when I was sixteen, a madman.” (In fact Roth’s father died when he was 3.) “His specialty was melancholy, which I inherited from him,” Roth added. Always adept at reshaping his life story, Roth sometimes told friends that his father was a Viennese munitions manufacturer or a Polish count.

Escaping his possessive mother, Roth drifted to Vienna, where he made his rounds through the cafés. The young Roth played the role of a dapper, aristocratic Habsburg officer, with a waxed mustache, narrow trousers, walking stick, and coat with upturned collar. He wrote in a 1919 autobiographical sketch about his student years in Vienna:

I felt that no one would admit my right to be an exception, and that they would see my striking loneliness as arrogance. So there was nothing else to do but to strengthen my arrogance and become more dismissive than I already was. A lot of women liked this behavior of mine ... I had perfect suits and perfect manners—a well-traveled, elegant man of the world ... I lied plenty, told stories about foreign lands, talked knowingly about women. I learned the real craft of the writer and the confidence man: how to formulate things.

Drafted into the Austrian army during World War I, Roth seems to have spent most of his time at a desk job, censoring letters. Though he was 10 kilometers from the action, he saw terrible scenes, he said. During the war he began drinking heavily for the first time.

Roth later said that he was a lieutenant in the war and earned several medals, including the Silver Cross. He wrote, “I spent six months as a Russian prisoner of war, escaped, and fought for two months in the Red Army, then two months flight and return home.” This was all a lie.

Roth was never a Russian prisoner, but he did visit the Soviet Union as a journalist in 1926. A skeptic about both communist and Slavophile mythology, he wrote to his editors, “I am immunized to what goes by ‘Russian mysticism’ or ‘the great Russian soul,’ and the like. I am too well aware—as Western Europeans are apt to forget—that the Russians were not invented by Dostoyevsky. I am quite unsentimental about the country, and about the Soviet project.”

The whole Soviet world seemed to Roth a “monstrous apparatus,” with each person either a bureaucrat, functionary, or worker, and schoolchildren taught a “banal optimism” that he associated with America. There was no romance in Russia, only lust, a fact reflected in his haunting 1927 novel Flight Without End, where an ardent woman communist seduces the hero and proves devoted to propagandistic debate and bouts of quick sex rather than love.

Roth was jealous by nature, and wary of women. He wrote in a notebook, “A naked woman conceals more than a man in a fur coat ... She gives herself to men not to experience, but to satisfy her curiosity, and when she looks desirous, she is only curious.”

But in 1919, in Vienna’s Café Herrenhof, Roth met his future wife, Friedl Reichel, the daughter of Viennese Jews. The next year Roth abruptly decided to move to Berlin. “I’m going to Berlin,” he said, “because in summer you can spend the night on a park bench and then fill yourself up with a bag of cherries.” But Roth was no itinerant hobo. He started writing at a furious pace, as he would for the rest of his life (before he died at age 44, he published 17 novels and over a thousand brief essays).

Friedl followed Roth to Berlin, and his treatment of her became increasingly oppressive. A friend, Ludwig Marcuse, told Roth’s biographer David Bronsen, “In the beginning I knew Friedl as an attractive, smart, and lively woman of Vienna. But Roth’s type was the elegant, restrained lady, and he refashioned his woman until he made her his literary creation and robbed her of her naturalness. She had to perform under his direction, and he directed her into ruin.”

Roth would tell Friedl, “You looked at yourself too long in the mirror today. You’re stupid.” He once stood up at a café table crowded with journalists and accused Friedl of sleeping with a famous violinist. After he led his sobbing wife away, the rumors started to fly: Was Roth impotent?

In 1923 Roth wrote his first novel, The Spider’s Web, in which he mentions Hitler, probably the first novelist to do so. The same year Roth began writing short essays—feuilletons—for the Frankfurter Zeitung, about everything under the sun, from barbershops, skyscrapers, and saunas to amusement parks and movie theaters. Everyday life was his beat. He turned his eye to sauntering, well-dressed pedestrians as well as the desperate homeless.

But the publication didn’t give Roth the respect he deserved. He said to his friend Benno Reifenberg, in April 1926: “I am not an encore, not a pudding, I am the main dish ... I don’t write ‘witty glosses.’ I paint the portrait of the age.” He described his feuilletons as “wonderful colorful soap bubbles ... real rainbow bubbles.” And so they were. Roth’s essays, like those of Walter Benjamin (another FZ contributor), have ingenuity and richly observant flaneurship. He is the lonely curious stroller in the heart of the city, open to all passing scenes.

In 1925 Roth and Friedl moved to Paris, which became his favorite city—Michael Hoffman’s translation of Roth’s feuilletons from this period is titled Notes from a Parisian Paradise. But there was a catastrophe looming. In March 1928 Friedl had a total breakdown. Delusional and disheveled, tearing at her hair, she insisted she was surrounded by enemies.

Roth took Friedl, now far gone, to a wonder rabbi who prayed over her fervently, like someone possessed. Friedl sat for hours in agony, her silence broken only by savage sarcasm and groaning. Trying to get through to his wife, Roth pretended to be insane, getting down on all fours and running back and forth. Friedl responded with scorn, “No, no, that doesn’t work for you.”

Friedl was sent to the psychiatric hospital Am Steinhof, in Vienna, where Roth visited her. Her head shaved, her features slack, and voicing bitter hatred of her parents, Friedl was sexually obsessed. Once, on the advice of the doctors, Roth had sex with her on the floor of her rubber-lined cell. On his next visit, she tried to attack him, and from then on he was allowed to see her only through a peephole.

Roth blamed himself for Friedl’s breakdown. He had left her alone too many nights. He had been controlling, madly possessive. After she was sent to Steinhof, Roth, unable to face the truth, told friends that Friedl had died. In fact, she would be murdered by the Nazis’ euthanasia program in 1940, surviving Roth by a little over 10 months.

From 1928 on, as Friedl descended into mental illness, Roth’s drinking became uncontrollable. His colleagues were astonished to see him dead drunk, lying in the street. Alcohol would be Roth’s constant companion until his death. With high irony, he liked to recite the Yiddish apothegm, “Shikker is er, Trinken mus er, Vayl er is a goy” (He’s soused, he has to drink, because he’s a goy).

Roth never stopped writing, even when drunk. But the years of alcoholism took their toll. To Stefan Zweig, his closest friend during the treacherous decade of the 1930s, he wrote: “Never did an alcoholic ‘enjoy’ his alcohol less than I did. Does an epileptic enjoy his fits? Does a madman enjoy his episodes?” A girlfriend from the 1930s, the writer Irmgard Keun, told Roth’s biographer that Roth had to spend an hour every morning throwing up. “He’s as skinny as a starving child, but his spleen is terribly swollen,” she said. “I don’t know what’s left to save.”

And yet the heavy drinking didn’t seem to hamper Roth’s ability to write. He had the careful craftsmanship of the realist author who relishes the tiniest detail. Roth’s attention to small things also shows in his enthusiasm for watches. He claimed he could read the riddle of the world in their delicate movements. After buying a watch he would return to his hotel, take it apart and then reassemble it.

Like his interest in watches, Roth’s polished manner and fine clothes show his desire for order in the midst of chaos. But writing was his chief stay against dissolution, best pursued amid the hubbub of a café. With a glass in his hand, Roth would write rapidly, his pen rushing about, one friend said, with the precision of a soccer midfielder. From time to time he’d toss a barb into the conversation, while still working. An extravagant tipper, Roth liked to pick up the bill for anyone at his table, and he spent heavily on drink, especially schnapps.

As his marriage with Friedl was dissolving, Roth wrote to a friend,

I become more and more lonely ... everything stirs and upsets me, the conversation at the next table, a glance, a piece of clothing, a walk. It’s really not “normal.” ... I peel the surface from things and people, lay their secrets bare—then they can’t believe me any more. I am dangerous to respectable people, simply through my knowledge of them.

“Only when he was melancholy could he be witty,” a friend observed about Roth. “He was like a diva, he had moods,” said another.

Roth had several other relationships after Friedl, notably with Andrea Manga Bell, whose husband, a Cameroonian prince, had returned to Africa, leaving her and their two children behind. Bell and Roth lived through a tumultuous, seven-year affair, described by one friend as a “moralischer Katzenjammer”—they were like a pair of cats howling about their rights. Once Roth asked a friend to accompany him to a meeting with Bell in a café, since he knew she carried a revolver and he was afraid she might use it.

Bell was sexually captivated by Roth, as she told Bronsen (whose biography, not yet translated into English, is essential reading for anyone interested in Roth). “Really, Roth was ugly, yet he was strangely attractive to women,” she remembered. “I’ve never known a man with so much sexually attractive power. He went slow like a snail, everything was curbed in him, not a single impulsive gesture; he lurked—every expression was thought out. But he could be tender like no one else, and I was a fool for him, completely.”

Roth’s short novel Rebellion, published in 1924, features a hapless war veteran who has returned to Berlin, like Franz Biberkopf in Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. Roth’s protagonist, Andreas Pum, has lost a leg on the eastern front, and makes his meager living as an organ grinder in the streets of Berlin. Andreas is thwarted at every turn, reduced to desperation by a society that cares nothing about people like him. “Although he was a white-haired cripple,” Roth writes, “he didn’t give up his spite ... he stayed alive only to rebel, against the world, against the officials, against the government and against God.”

Andreas Pum is a Job-like Kleinmensch, the little man who kicks against his fate. In the end, though, he appears meek and sober-minded rather than defiant. His rebellion comes to nothing, as usual in Roth’s works—he gets into a fight with an insolent businessman on a streetcar, and goes to jail as a result. Andreas ends up as a corpse on the dissecting table in an anatomy school.

Roth’s magical final work, The Legend of the Holy Drinker, depicts a similar ne’er-do-well, but turns the theme inside out. The alcoholic hero, clearly Roth himself, is astoundingly lucky—money keeps turning up in his pockets. He appears strangely blessed, despite his useless life, as long as a caring cosmos, or perhaps God, averts his drift toward self-ruin.

In 1930 Roth wrote Job, the story of an Eastern European Jew named Mendel Singer, whose little son is both lame and unable to speak. Heartbreakingly, Mendel abandons his son when he moves to America. But his loss is remedied one Seder night many years later when the son, who has become a brilliant musician, appears out of the blue, like a miraculous Elijah. Roth plays the recognition scene between father and son for both suspense and acute pathos, echoing the Bible’s Joseph story. Job was a commercial success, though Roth didn’t make much money from it. Marlene Dietrich said it was her favorite novel. It even became a Hollywood movie, though the studio turned Mendel into a Tirolean peasant and the novel’s wonder rabbi into a Franciscan monk (“Mendel Singer Gets Baptized” was one reviewer’s headline).

At bottom, Job is Roth’s fantasy about the recovery of Friedl, who becomes the son in the story (Mendel also has a daughter sent to an insane asylum, a clear reference to Friedl). “A curse hit me, even more than Friedl,” Roth remarked. “I’m enough of a believer to believe in curses.” Job, like the biblical story, ends with the lifting of the curse. He becomes a believer, at least in his own marvelous fiction, as he will in The Legend of the Holy Drinker, which is the Catholic counterpart to the Jewish Job. (Though never baptized, Roth sometimes called himself a Jewish Catholic.)

Two years after Job, on the cusp of the Nazis’ victory in Germany, Roth published his magnum opus The Radetzky March (it was serialized in 1932 in the FZ, and came out as a book the next year). The Radetzky March begins with the story of Joseph Trotta, who saves Kaiser Franz Joseph from a bullet at the battle of Solferino and is knighted for his heroism. His son, the district captain, becomes a middling Habsburg official, a man who respects tradition and, above all, the kaiser.

The district captain’s son, Carl Joseph, grandson of the hero of Solferino, is the main character of The Radetzky March, and a clear stand-in for the book’s author. The wistful, naïve young man has an affair with a married woman who tragically dies, an episode redolent of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education—Roth admired Flaubert more than any other author. Carl Joseph befriends a Jewish officer, the doomed Max Demant, who dies in a duel—a quiet and plaintive Chekhovian episode. In the army the young lieutenant starts drinking, and disastrously runs into debt. Receiving an unexpected visit from his father, Carl Joseph is too drunk to get up off the floor to greet him, a painful scene that Roth knew from experience.

Roth’s attachment to the Habsburg Empire centered on the grand figure who was “not elected, but anointed,” the kaiser. In February 1938, he journeyed to Vienna with the approval of Otto von Habsburg, the only man, Roth thought, who could save Austria from Hitler, if only a way could be found to restore Habsburg rule. The dream died hard.

Roth portrays the kaiser with great affection in The Radetzky March. This old man, the longest serving monarch in Europe, is naïve but sly, softly nostalgic, slowly losing his memory but supremely loyal to the idea of the empire that he embodies. “The moment the Kaiser shuts his eyes, we’ll crumble into a hundred pieces,” one character predicts. As The Radetzky March nears its close the kaiser dies, and the empire goes down with him. Carl Joseph is killed in World War I while fetching water for his troops. Roth, in the novel’s affecting final pages, describes the district captain’s restless mourning for his son.

The novel radiates Tolstoy’s empathy for his characters and it has Tolstoy’s range, too. Roth also emulates Buddenbrooks, another multigenerational family saga, though he claimed to despise Mann. But while Mann’s German, like Kafka’s, is sinuous and complex, Roth’s is straightforward. Always direct, he has the most seductively readable style among German language authors.

The Radetzky March evokes the comfort supplied by time-honored order and propriety. But Roth also invokes the abyss of loneliness and self-doubt concealed by the old-fashioned code of honor. The endless passage of years, the falling apart of empires, and the death of fathers and sons all imply a fathomless melancholia. Alcohol is a well of oblivion, a tempting means of escape.

In particular, Roth was deeply pessimistic about the Jewish future. In March 1933 he wrote to Stefan Zweig that in 50 years’ time the Jews would no longer exist. He reminded Zweig that they were both fundamentally European, and nonreligious: “We come from ‘Emancipation’ ... rather more than we come out of Egypt.”

In later years Roth described himself as a Catholic, yet he never renounced his Jewish identity. “In any big city I look for Jews from Radziwillow [Brody’s neighboring town],” he said. “I am a patriot; I have a Jewish heart.” Jewishness was to him an irreplaceable talent or gift. “A gifted Jew: we never know whether it’s his talent or his Jewishness,” he quipped. The Yiddish language, Roth said, was a “collective fate, and Yiddish is the fate-speech of the Jews.” (Yet he wrote in German.)

Accordingly, Roth could be sympathetic to Zionism at times. “Zionism is the only way out: patriotism, okay, but for one’s own land.” But as far as the fate of the Jews was concerned, he inclined toward hopelessness. In June 1932 Roth wrote to Zweig, “They mean to burn our books, and us along with them.”

One day in May 1939, Roth, surrounded by friends at his Parisian café, heard the news that Ernst Toller, another Jewish writer fleeing the Nazis, had hanged himself in New York. Greatly agitated, Roth collapsed and was taken to a charity hospital, the Hôpital Necker.

Roth took four days to die in his hospital bed, strapped down by the doctors and screaming for alcohol. At his grave there were loud arguments between Catholics and Jews, and between communists and Habsburg loyalists. Everyone wanted to claim Roth, yet no one could place him.

In The Radetzsky March Roth describes the time before the Great War:

That was how things were back then. Anything that grew took its time growing, and anything that perished took a long time to be forgotten ... People lived on memories just as they now live on the ability to forget quickly and emphatically.

Roth was a man of memories, lodged in the past. A few weeks before his final collapse in the café, he asked his friend Soma Morgenstern to sing two songs from their Galician homeland, one Jewish and one Ukrainian. Roth sat on a park bench, leaned on his walking stick, and wept.

David Mikics is Professor of English at New College of Florida. He recently edited The MAD Files: Writers and Cartoonists on the Magazine that Warped America’s Brain, and is also author of Stanley Kubrick.

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.