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
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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
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
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