Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters

Joseph Roth

Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters

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Frontispiece: Joseph Roth on a railway platform, somewhere in France, in 1925.

Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters

For my friend Rosanna Warren

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Joseph Roth, age three

Joseph Roth’s student ID at the University of Vienna

Joseph Roth’s military training company

Friedl Roth with dog

Joseph Roth in Paris, with two friends from Brody

Joseph Roth with the trademark newspaper

Joseph Roth with Heinrich Wagner

Joseph Roth with Bernard von Brentano in the Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris

Joseph Roth in Albanian folkloric costume, in 1927 in Albania

Joseph Roth with Friedl in Berlin, in 1922

Joseph Roth with Paula Grübel and a friend

Joseph Roth in the company of Dutch writers in a café in Amsterdam in 1937

A signed portrait of Joseph Roth


Nothing to parents (but Joseph Roth never saw his father, Nahum, who went mad before he knew he had a son, and reacted to his overproud and overprotective mother, Miriam, or Maria, to the extent that he sometimes claimed to have her pickled womb somewhere). Nothing to his wife (poor, bewitching Friedl Reichler, who after six years of a restless, oppressive, and pampered marriage disappeared into schizophrenia, and left him to make arrangements for her, and pay for them, and wallow in the guilt and panic that remained). Nothing to the lovers and companions of his last years — the Jewish actress Sibyl Rares, the exotic half-Cuban beauty Andrea Manga Bell, the novelist Irmgard Keun, his rival in cleverness and dipsomania — nothing to perhaps his very best friends (with such a protean, or polygonal character as Roth’s, who contrived to present a different aspect of himself to everyone he knew, it’s hard to tell for sure) — Stefan Fingal, Soma Morgenstern, Joseph Gottfarstein. Except to family, very few — initially, I had the sense, none at all — in the intimate Du form, and most of those there are, ironically, to near-strangers, because they had served, as he had, briefly, in the Austrian army, where it was form to address a brother officer, even if one didn’t know him from Adam, as Du. Very few early — barely a dozen before 1925, when Roth, thirty, a married professional, a published novelist, and an experienced vagrant already on to his third country and maybe his fourth newspaper, gets his big break as a journalist, in Paris, for the liberal Frankfurter Zeitung. Very little explicitly or frontally about aesthetics, ambition, writing, shop (references to the novels, when he does talk about them, are so grudgingly or airily unspecific, it’s often impossible to be sure which one of them he’s talking about). Little in the way of chat, description, narrative, confession, or scandal — this was a man with books to write, and columns to fill.

So why read them? If they have little bearing on his literary output, and are not even addressed to the people who mattered most in his life? Well, to get a sense, first of all, and in the absence of a biography in English, of the stations of the man’s life, his classic westward trajectory (like that of Flight Without End or The Wandering Jews) from the Habsburg crown land of Galicia just back of the Russian border, on the edge of Europe if not of the civilized world, in quick, brief stages to Vienna, to Berlin and Frankfurt, and then to Paris — a sort of schizoid Paris, first (in 1925) the paradisal place of the fulfillment of hopes and dreams, and then, after 1933, the locus of exile, disappointment, trepidation, punishment. It was like day and night. And, within the context of that broad, simple, westward movement, the endless, frenetic stitching back and forth among Frankfurt, Berlin, Paris, Vienna, Amsterdam to wherever he had temporarily pitched his tents; the long, journalistic visits to the south of France in 1925, to the Soviet Union in 1926, Albania and the Balkans in 1927, and Italy and Poland in 1928; the many tours the length and breadth of the German regions throughout the 1920s, for what became a sort of dreaded and dispiriting enemy terrain to which his newspaper bosses were quite deliberately dispatching their acutest, most high-strung war correspondent (the atmosphere in one particular town, Roth noted, was like that “five minutes before a pogrom”); the number of places (eleven, by my count) where he stopped to compose his masterpiece, The Radetzky March, between 1930 and 1932, on the face of it, his most comfortable circumstances ever, with a monthly retainer, less journalism, and Friedl cared for; and then the places of exile, where one has to picture him practically as a mendicant, borrowing or scrounging train fare, leaving Paris for Amsterdam to haggle over a new — and newly ruinous — publishing contract, or for Marseille because there was the prospect of free accommodation, albeit of a sort detested by this self-described “hotel patriot,” or Ostend, so that he might have daily access to his, alas, always pedagogically minded patron, Stefan Zweig. This swarming movement is one of the points of these letters.

Then to get something where the writer’s own character and predicaments are front and center, neither adapted nor softened nor broken up among his stories and novels. To understand something of the circumstances in which these stories and novels were written; first, up to around 1930, competing for breath with hundreds upon hundreds of iridescent-colored soap bubbles (his metaphor) of articles for daily newspapers (most of his life, Roth was much better known as a columnist and feuilletonist than as a novelist); then against the clock, both his personal clock and the unignorably ticking collective clock of the 1930s, bringing (as Roth in particular very well foresaw) war and genocidal murder to millions. Writing novels no one realistically wanted; for publishers as hard up as he was, who wrote him (the Dutch ones) flinty, respectful letters in broken German; a diminishing number of readers; in return for desperately small advances already received, spent, and borrowed against. At one stage, he had the haunting sense of being able to read the begging letters through the surface of the narrative prose. To see him correctly, as a sort of lemming among lemmings, an unusually farsighted and fearless and bloody-minded lemming, quick to sink his teeth into the flanks of René Schickele or Stefan Zweig or Klaus Mann when they stepped out of line. Some of their wounded, plaintively reasonable, or plain defensive replies are included. To understand that this grievously disappointed and multiply broken man somehow continued to align himself toward the true and the beautiful in his articles, and the beautiful and the true in his books; that, long past having anything himself, he went on helping others — a tailor, a charwoman, a doctor, a fellow veteran stuck in Switzerland; that even as he seemed to lapse into unreality — a scheme on the very eve of the Anschluss, in February 1938, to meet the then Austrian chancellor Schuschnigg, to talk him into backing the restoration of the Habsburg monarchy — in other parts of his mind he was as mordant and accurate and graceful as ever.

Roth is both contradictory and changeable, and always, always vehement with it. Something in him can’t abide and doesn’t understand hierarchies; that’s why he was never able to find a niche and defend it at the FZ—that newspaper that was all niche and pecking order. He doesn’t pace himself or moderate himself or disguise himself. “I am wriggling in a hundred nets,” he brilliantly puts it. There is turbulence, emergency, thrashing around, panic wherever he is. He doesn’t deal in anything less than an ultim ...

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