Joseph Roth: Going Over the Edge

The following essay will appear, in somewhat different form, as the introduction to Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters, translated and edited by Michael Hofmann, to be published by Norton in January. The accompanying letters between Roth and Stefan Zweig are from the book, which is the the first translation of the correspondence of Roth (1894–1939), author of The Radetzky March, among many other works.

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Joseph Roth, Paris, circa 1925

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 (Stefan Fingal, Soma Morgenstern, Joseph Gottfarstein), though 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.

Except to family, very few—initially, I had the sense, none at all—in the intimate du form, and most of those 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 nomad 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 about aesthetics, ambition, writing (references to the novels, when he does talk about them, are so grudgingly or airily unspecific that 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 Crownland 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. (In this way, it reminds one of Brecht’s Hollywood: “God/Requiring a…

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Copyright © 2012 by Michael Hofmann.