Joseph Roth in Albanian dress / Courtesy of the Leo Baeck Institute, New York
Reading Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters is like sitting across a café table from Roth himself after he’s had a few. He holds nothing back. He rages, jokes, pleads, and sobs. “Don’t be upset,” he says—imagination supplies a wagging forefinger—“if my letters are full of impatience and even irritations. It so happens I live and write in a continual state of confusion.”
No standard biography of Roth exists in English, but this collection of his letters, superbly translated and judiciously edited by long-time Roth advocate Michael Hofmann, provides a more intimate portrait than any biography could. Roth’s letters are a study in authorial candor: in vino veritas, at least in part, for some of them were composed while he was drunk, getting that way, or hungover—the grim trinity that dominated his life more and more until he died of it, plus weltschmerz, in Paris in 1939. He was just short of 45 and had come a long way to die so young. He left behind one masterpiece, The Radetzky March, in which, in a series of vivid set-pieces, he evokes the reality of life high and low during the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s long decline, a vast theme encapsulated in the Trotta family, who ascend to nobility and imperial favor from provincial origins on the obscure fringes of the realm.
Moses Joseph Roth was born on those fringes in 1894 in Brody, Austrian Galicia, near modern Ukraine. From the Middle Ages on, kingdoms and empires had risen and fallen there: Poland and Lithuania in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; France and Prussia in the eighteenth and nineteenth; Russia and Germany in the twentieth. At best, this made for an involuntary cosmopolitanism. At worst this political-cultural fluidity made for exile or death, or exile and death, at the hands of Cossacks, Nazis, Soviets.
In Roth’s case, the sentence was self-imposed. Once Austria-Hungary was gone, it was all over. For Roth, as for many Austrian Jews, the Habsburg era in Central and Eastern Europe had provided comfort and a modicum of civilization. Jews were protected in bourgeois society and promoted in the armed forces. At the time of Roth’s birth, Brody was one of the seats of Central European Jewish civilization, heavily populated by a burgeoning middle class, to which his own family belonged. His upbringing was atypical, however, because he never knew his father, Nahum, who succumbed to mental illness and vanished soon after his son’s birth. “His specialty was the melancholy which I inherited from him,” Roth wrote.
Mother Miriam raised the boy. She was a cultured woman, “a Jewess of strong, earthy Slavic constitution,” but somewhat overprotective, not to say domineering, in a tradition equally mitteleuropäische and Jewish. Orbiting the tiny ménage were numerous aunts, uncles, and cousins who instilled in Roth a profound aversion to bourgeois family life, even to the very concept of the home. “Nothing ties me,” he growled in a letter dated 1925. “I am not sufficiently sentimental to believe in categories like future, family, etc., etc.”
Having graduated from the local gymnasium, Roth lost no time escaping Brody. He had no regrets in leaving behind his relatives, dealings with whom, Hofmann observes in one of many wry asides, “left him neuralgically sensitive to any subsequent combination of money and advice.” The freshly minted exile’s first stop in the wider world was the nearest large town, Lemberg (subsequently Lvov, USSR, now Lviv, Ukraine), where in 1913 he began his university studies before transferring to the University of Vienna to study philosophy and German literature. There he dropped the “Moses” from his name and started to publish: a poem here, an article there.
When World War I broke out, Roth was unaffected at first. He was immersed in his studies and caught up in the romance of being a literature student in Vienna. Certain passages in his letters around this time exhibit a lyrical Romantic strain that later migrated from his correspondence into his novels.
I went out. It was gorgeous . . . . The song of the last scythe hangs unseen in the air. In the clouds there’s still a last verse of lark song. The dandelions have a patriotic shimmer. Somewhere in the distance, smoke rises vertically into the sky. The ground is decked out in all the cast-off glory of the trees. And in the air there’s the bitter whiff of steaming earth and wet foliage.
The idyll was short-lived. In 1916, Roth, although (briefly) a self-styled pacifist, left university and volunteered to serve in the Imperial Habsburg Army fighting on the Eastern Front. Like many others, he later exaggerated the perils of his military career, painting himself as a reluctant hero in retrospect, a prisoner-of-war in Russia, a dashing Austrian officer. He was actually a humble noncom, sitting at a desk. But at the time he was frankly grateful to be away from danger: “The location has one great advantage: it’s about 6 miles behind the lines,” he says in a letter to his cousin Paula.
When it was all over, he subsumed the events into his insatiable yearning for the lost empire. “My strongest experience,” he said, “was the War and the destruction of my fatherland, the only one I ever had, the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary.” Others—many of them Jews who had nowhere else to turn, no ethnic homeland to point to—felt the same way. “Austro-Hungary is no more,” Sigmund Freud wrote on Armistice Day, 1918. “I do not want to live anywhere else. . . . I shall live on with the torso and imagine that it is the whole.”
Roth was too much the realist to entertain Freudian illusions. He moved on, ending up in Berlin, swarming hornet’s nest of political intrigue and creative decadence he celebrated and despised in equal measure until his contempt took over: “Who in all the world goes to Berlin voluntarily?” His disdain for Germany and its people is almost exultant; he describes the atmosphere of one provincial town as “like that five minutes before a pogrom.”
In spite of his distaste for Germany, the Weimar years were good to him, professionally. Jewish writers were still being published, cultural life was vibrant, and liberal newspapers provided an outlet for the young writer. But just as he was starting to make a name for himself, he ushered redundant worry into his life by marrying, in 1922, his unstable girlfriend, Friederike (Friedl) Reichler. Permanently unsettled by life, and even more so by the eccentricities of her husband, she soon developed signs of schizophrenia, and eventually had to be institutionalized.
As his world darkened a little more, he threw himself into his work. He wasn’t the first writer to dodge reality by immersing himself in his writing, or in drink, but he was one of the few who managed to do both successfully, at least at the beginning. His first (unfinished) novel, The Spider’s Web, was serialized in an Austrian newspaper in 1923.
I am not sufficiently sentimental to believe in categories like future, family, etc. etc., Roth wrote.
Throughout the 1920s he wrote prolifically, traveling incessantly throughout Europe on assignment, juggling disillusionment and nostalgia. In the process he found himself becoming increasingly disgusted with contemporary society, notably Germany and its rising Nazi Party, but also with the institutions of the day, such as the newspaper publishers who employed him in a capacity beneath his talents, in his opinion. “I don’t write so-called witty commentaries,” he sniffed. “I sketch the features of the age. . . . I am a journalist, not a reporter, I am a writer, not a fashioner of lead articles.”
A writer he was, first and last. Throughout the 1920s he continued to publish: Hotel Savoy and Rebellion in 1924, realistic novels about contemporary politics; Flight Without End, Zipper and His Father, and Right and Left, all three heimkehrerromane, or novels about soldiers coming home, only to discover they have no home to come back to; and in 1930 the resonant Job: The Story of a Simple Man, his most Jewish book, a fable of Jewishness, in which the aged protagonist, Mendel Singer, a long-suffering exile from the Old World, is rescued from squalor in a New York slum by his rich and successful son.
It sounds like ideal material for a Hollywood weepie, but when the book was actually made into a Hollywood movie, Sins of Man, it contained no Jews. “Your Hollywood-style Job is said to be, well, exquisite,” the celebrated Austrian playwright, biographer, and novelist Stefan Zweig wrote to Roth. “They’ve turned Mendel Singer into a Tyrolean peasant . . . I simply have to see it. I will roll in the aisles on your behalf.”
The Zweig-Roth correspondence dominates Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters. Zweig was one of the most famous men of letters of his era, a fine memoirist and essayist but overall a less-than-great writer. There was too much mush in his romances—Letter from an Unknown Woman, The Royal Game, Marie Antoinette—for that. Roth was never as rich or as famous, but his fiction, especially The Radetzky March, was better.
Zweig knew this, and there’s a hint of deference in his letters to Roth, whereas the latter’s missives to the man he usually addresses as “Dear esteemed Stefan Zweig,” although respectful of his friend’s standing, contain less deference than irritation and despair: “Don’t make me itemize the sorrows that are besetting me”; “Any friendship with me is ruinous. I myself am a wailing wall, if not a heap of rubble”; “Physically I’m fucked. I’ve got no money. I owe enormous amounts”; and so on. But occasionally Roth speaks to even-tempered, civilized Zweig in the voice of an Old Testament prophet, especially after Hitler’s accession to power in January 1933, which precipitated Roth’s departure from Germany for good:
It will have become clear to you now that we are heading for a great catastrophe. Quite apart from our personal situations—our literary and material existence has been wrecked—we are headed for a new war. I wouldn’t give a heller [penny] for our prospects. The barbarians have taken over. Do not deceive yourself. Hell reigns.
Such prescience, when so many chose to turn a blind eye, came easily to Roth, who had nothing to lose by facing the facts, being pessimistic by nature and rootless by choice: “I am never at home,” he wrote, “just wander around aimlessly, I can’t stand to be in a room.” Not for him the bourgeois hopefulness of a Zweig, the gilded Viennese who had home and money. (Having lost both to the Nazis, Zweig emigrated to Brazil, where he committed suicide in 1942.)
But Zweig wasn’t above a little moralizing himself; the self-destructive tendencies of his friend worried him, and an elder-brother note creeps into some of his letters to Roth:
I’ve been imploring you for years, adjust to the reality that as a German Jewish author nowadays you’ll only be lucky enough in certain exceptional circumstances to earn money, and that the writer’s life is historically a pretty unprofitable one. Don’t try to force an income for yourself that’s impossible, that’ll only get you into warped contracts, tangles, and these unceasing difficulties!
Of course Roth was keenly aware of his own financial failings, and knew all about his prospects. One of the Nazis’ first acts of public barbarism, in March 1933, was to burn books deemed un-German, including Zweig’s and Roth’s The Radetzky March, which had been published the year before. The Nazis showed perversely good taste in their targets: The Radetzky March is a masterpiece, one of the three great novels of the Habsburg twilight, the other two being Robert Musil’s unfinished, ruminative The Man Without Qualities and Jaroslav Haek’s bitterly hilarious The Good Soldier vejk (both writers’ work also ended up in the Nazi flames).
Of the three, The Radetzky March ranges widest and deepest. Musil’s intellectual detachment hampers his and the reader’s empathy, and Haek’s biting satire bites too hard at times. But The Radetzky March’s melancholy is broad and all-embracing, evocative of the lengthening shadows of a late-summer evening with the rumble of thunder on the horizon. The long shadows are those of the Empire Roth loved, the thunder that of its approaching end.
In its portrayal of everyday detail, and its empathy with human nature, The Radetzky March calls to mind Joyce and Kafka.
In the book, a family, the Trottas, rises from provincial obscurity in the Empire’s distant borderlands and comes into nobility when young Lieutenant Trotta saves Kaiser Franz Joseph’s life at the Battle of Solferino in 1859. Promoted on the spot to captain, Baron von Trotta retires to a tranquil life, raising a son, Franz, who grows up to be a plodding government functionary, a district captain. Known to one and all as Herr von Trotta, Franz is secure in his belief in the eternal world of the Habsburgs. But he wakes up to the coming of the end times through the maunderings of his foolish (and alcoholic) son, whom he has tried to raise in his own image, as a loyal servant of the Empire.
Herr von Trotta sat helpless next to his son. . . He felt that cries of help were coming out of the boy, and he could not help! He had come to the borderland to find a little help himself. For he was all alone in this world. And this world too was going under. . . . His son was likewise alone and perhaps, being younger, was closer to the collapse of the world.
The collapse is nigh, but the eponymous Strauss march—played regularly at military barracks throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire—goes on until the performance becomes ragged, the players lose their footing, and the band disperses in the first driving rains of the storm that ends the world. In the final pages, bringing the story full circle from the battlefield of Solferino, the old kaiser’s body is entombed in the vault of the Capuchins in Vienna, and nearly simultaneously Herr von Trotta is buried in a funeral attended by no one except a few local dignitaries, including his doctor and the mayor, who speaks at the ceremony:
His funeral oration, like all speeches during that period, began with the war. The mayor went on to say that though the District Captain had given his only son to the Kaiser he had nevertheless gone on living and serving . . . ‘I would like to have added,’ said the mayor, ‘that Herr von Trotta could not outlive the Kaiser. Don’t you agree, Herr Doctor?’
‘I don’t know,’ Dr. Skowronnek replied. ‘I don’t think either of them could have outlived Austria.’
Roth’s compassion is deep, but his sense of historical irony is deeper. Combined with his elegant, witty language, they give The Radetzky March its timelessness. With its sprawling panoramas, such as the battle of Solferino that opens the book, the emperor on military maneuvers, and the final mighty thunderstorm, The Radetzky March resembles War and Peace. But in its portrayal of everyday detail, and its empathy with human nature, it calls to mind Joyce, or even those other Jewish Austrians from the fringe, Italo Svevo and Franz Kafka. Here, for example, is Roth’s shrewd reading of the old kaiser’s state of mind when dealing with his entourage:
At times he feigned ignorance and was delighted when someone gave him a longwinded explanation about things he knew thoroughly. For with the slyness of children and oldsters he liked leading people down the garden path. And he was delighted at their vanity in proving to themselves that they were smarter than he. The Kaiser disguised his wisdom as simplicity: for it does not behoove an emperor to be as smart as his advisers.
And here the emotional repression typical of Herr von Trotta’s class is on clear display as the old man clumsily bids his son farewell:
He glanced tenderly at his son. But then he instantly feared that someone would notice that glance, and he lowered his eyes . . . He held the hat in his left hand and threw his right arm around Carl Joseph’s back. He kissed his son on both cheeks. And always he wanted to say, Don’t cause me any grief, I love you, my son! All he said was, “Stay well!”
In the words of the critic Joan Acocella, Roth “had a nineteenth-century style and a twentieth-century vision.”
Roth never sustained this degree of artistic excellence again. He descended, slowly but surely, like the Trottas. By the mid-’30s, German publishers were no longer allowed to have Jewish names on their books. Friedl’s illness was a constant worry and reproach, as Roth struggled to pay for her care. He endured spasms of desperation, laid bare in this emotional plea to Zweig:
I still beg you to continue to think of me as a sensible person subject to occasional fits of madness but broadly in control, and as a conscientious friend who only writes like this in hours of clarity. I have debased and humiliated myself. I have borrowed money from the most impossible places, despising and cursing myself as I did so. And it was all because never in my life have I had anything like a secure financial base, never a bank account or savings. Nothing, nothing, just advances—expenditures, expenditure, advances, and until the Third Reich, I had publishers. . . . I feel obliged to come before you quite naked, my dear friend. Whatever you do, you cannot judge me more harshly than I do myself. I abuse you too, with the desperate selfishness of someone putting the life of his friend in danger by clinging to him like a drowning man clinging to his rescuer. . . . I have drunk nothing while writing this to you. I am stone-cold sober.
His motives weren’t entirely selfish (nor was he often so temperate in his drinking). He was supporting not only his institutionalized wife, but also several friends and relations. Yet, while the heights of The Radetzky March were out of his reach, he retained enough creative energy to turn out exceptional work such as his haunting Napoleon fantasy novel The Hundred Days and his own epitaph-novella, The Legend of the Holy Drinker, two of the finest short works of the century, even if Roth himself failed to see it: he called The Hundred Days “my stupid book” in a letter to the Franco-German writer René Schickele.
This is the first and last time I’ll ever tackle anything ‘historical.’ Devil take it—in fact, I think it was the Antichrist in person who got me into it. It’s improper to want to form existing, historical events all over again—and it’s disrespectful too. There is something godless about it—only I can’t quite say what.
Or godly. Life was closing in on Roth when he wrote The Hundred Days, and it, like so much historical fiction, is a novel of escape. But it is also a novel of great sensitivity and resonance, in which Roth turns his attention from one emperor, Franz Josef I, to another, Napoleon I, during the three months between Elba and Waterloo—the “Hundred Days,” the twilight of another empire. His Napoleon is a vivid depiction of waning greatness.
The Emperor remained standing for a while on the last step. He cast a lingering glance up at the sky, as if searching among the countless stars for his own. His white breeches shone with a ghostly luminescence. His black hat was reminiscent of a little cloud, the only one visible amid the clear sky. He stood still, as in one of his many portraits, alone in the vast calm summer’s night, although the gentlemen of his retinue were following closely behind him on the steps. He was alone and lonely, and he was searching for his star.
Much of the novel is told from the point of view of Angelina, a Corsican laundress who has always worshipped her famous compatriot, first from afar, and later, after joining the Imperial household, from close up. While Napoleon feels more and more certain of impending disaster—Waterloo dead ahead—Angelina knows only that her love, a blend of religious belief and earthly passion, is endless, and everywhere, even in the laundry room, where one day she washes Napoleon’s handkerchief.
With all the love of her foolishly impassioned young heart, she began to wash the handkerchief. It seemed to contain a special message from the Emperor. . . . She hid it under her clothes at her breast, and as she felt the wonderful fabric at her heart, she began to feel that it was hers to keep. It was rare to find things of this type in the Imperial laundry. It had not entered the laundry in the usual way, but had come to Angelina on its own; as a greeting, perhaps a message who knew?
Finally, Napoleon is defeated, a world ends, another begins, and in the breach is Angelina, doing battle for her fallen emperor against a Bourbon mob. She is trampled and thrown to the ground and lies dying next to a mocking effigy of the deposed monarch. “She could not distinguish fake from genuine and her eyes perceived the real Emperor next to her, lying close to her battered body.”
The Hundred Days is a meditation on the nature of greatness and love’s dogged loyalty, interwoven with the well-balanced irony that is Roth’s trademark. It’s a sad little gem.
Sadder still, yet lovely in its melancholy way, is Roth’s swan song, The Legend of the Holy Drinker, in which the soft blue light of heaven glows behind the drinker’s altar—the altar of St. Theresa of Lisieux, as it happens, to whom Andreas, a homeless drunk who lives under the bridges of the Seine, has pledged 200 francs as a token of thanks, having been given that sum by a stranger in the first of several small miracles. One of the first effects of the windfall is to restore Andreas’ sense of proportion; a man of his stature needs more!
And all at once he, the possession of money had never meant a thing, began to have a sense of what money was worth. All at once, he felt that the possession of a single fifty-franc note was demeaning to a man such as himself, and that, to appreciate his true worth again, he urgently needed to reflect on the subject at leisure, and over a glass of Pernod.
And lo and behold, he gets more. The miracles continue, in 200-franc increments. He takes a break from sleeping rough. He encounters an old flame and is able to rent a hotel room for a nostalgic cuddle. He runs into an old friend and buys him drinks. A normal life even seems possible, as he slowly adjusts, losing along the way his appreciation for the magical intervention in his life. “There is really nothing that people get used to so readily as miracles, once they have experienced them two or three times.”
But eventually the miracles come to an end and Andreas does repay the debt—with his life, in the vestry of the church of St. Theresa, accompanied by a girl dressed all in blue named Thérèse, who appears suddenly and unexpectedly and who may or not be the manifestation of yet another miracle, of visiting heavenly grace. “May God grant us all, all of us drinkers, such a good and easy death!” exclaims the last line, hopefully, almost desperately.
Alas, Roth’s death was neither good nor easy. His world was breaking apart faster than the West’s hopes for peace. His last letter sounds a grim note. “May I count on you to advise me in the course of the afternoon. I am very fearful. Please. Your old Joseph Roth.”
On May 27, 1939, not long after he finished The Legend of the Holy Drinker, he died in Paris of pneumonia. It was a self-willed end. He could have stopped drinking. He could have found a steady job. He could have escaped to America and made a new life for himself, like so many of his compatriots, and Mendel Singer in his novel Job. The final letter in the book is a tantalizing glimpse of a door never opened. It is from Dorothy Thompson, the president of the American PEN Club, inviting Roth to New York. “We would like you to be present and hope your plans will allow a visit at this time,” Thompson writes. “May we have your early acceptance?”
The question hangs there, forever unanswered.