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The Empire of Joseph Roth

The Radetzky March

by Joseph Roth, translated by Eva Tucker, translated by Geoffrey Dunlop
Tusk/Overlook, 319 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Hotel Savoy, including ‘Fallmerayer the Stationmaster’ and ‘The Bust of the Emperor’

by Joseph Roth, translated by John Hoare
Tusk/Overlook, 183 pp., $8.95 (paper)

The Spider’s Web’ and ‘Zipper and his Father’

by Joseph Roth, translated by John Hoare
Overlook Press, 245 pp., $9.95 (paper)

The Emperor’s Tomb

by Joseph Roth, translated by John Hoare
Tusk/Overlook, 157 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Flight Without End

by Joseph Roth, translated by David LeVay
Tusk/Overlook, 144 pp., $8.95 (paper)

The Silent Prophet

by Joseph Roth, translated by David Le Vay
Tusk/Overlook, 220 pp., $9.95 (paper)

The Legend of the Holy Drinker’ and ‘Right and Left’

by Joseph Roth, translated by Michael Hofmann
Overlook Press


Published During His Lifetime

Hotel Savoy (1924)

Die Rebellion (1924)

Die Flucht Ohne Ende (1927)

Zipper und sein Vater (1928)

Rechts und Links (1929)

Der stumme Prophet (1929)

(fragment in Die Neue Rundschau)

Hiob (1930)

Radetzkymarsch (1932)

Stationschef Fallmerayer (1933)

Tarabas, ein Gast aud dieser Erde (1934)

Le Triomphe de la beauté (1937)

Le Buste de l’Empereur (1934)

(German publication 1964)

Das falsche Gewicht (1937)

Die Kapuzinergruft (1938)

Die Geschichte von der 1002 Nacht (1939)

Published Posthumously

Die Legende vom heiligen Trinker (1939)

Der Leviathan (1940)

Der stumme Prophet (1966)

Das Spinnennetz (1967)

Die Büste des Kaisers (1969)


Strangely, while I have been writing about Joseph Roth, the wheel of Karma—or historical consequence?—has brought Roth’s territory back to a reenactment of the situation central to his work. In Roth’s novels—and supremely through the lives of the Von Trotta family in his masterpieces, “The Radetzky March” (1932) and its sequel “The Emperor’s Tomb” (1934)—we see the deterioration of a society, an empire, in which disparate nationalities have been forced into political unity by an overriding authority and its symbol: the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the personality of Emperor Franz Josef. There the rise of socialism and fascism against royalism led to Sarajevo and the First World War. After World War II the groups that had won autonomy were forced together again, if in a slightly different conglomerate, by another all-powerful authority and its symbol: the Communist bloc and the personality of Joseph Stalin. Now restlessness and rebellion, this time against the socialism that has not proved to be liberation, brings once again the breakup of a hegemony. Passages in Roth’s work, about the Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs, could with scarcely a change describe what has happened in Yugoslavia in 1991.

Roth: he looks out from a book-jacket photograph. Just the face in a small frame; it is as if someone held up a death mask. The ovals of the eyes are black holes. The chin pressed up against the black shadow of a mustache hides stoically the secrets of the lips. A whole life, in bronze, seems there. And there’s another image in that face: the huge sightless eyes with their thick upper and lower lids dominating the width of the face have the mysteriously ancient gaze of a fetus, condemned to suffer the world.

Je travaille, mon roman sera bon, je crois, plus parfait que ma vie,” Roth wrote.1 Prefaces to some translations of his books give the same few penny-life facts: born in 1894 in Galicia, served in the Austro-Hungarian army during the First World War, worked as a journalist in Vienna, Berlin, and Prague, left for France in 1933, wrote fifteen novels and novellas mainly while taking part in the émigré opposition to the Nazis, died an alcoholic in Paris in 1939. I failed to find a full biography in English.2 After having reread all Roth’s fiction available to me, I am glad that, instead, I know him in the only way writers themselves know to be valid for an understanding of their work: through the work itself. Let the schools of literary criticism, rapacious fingerlings, resort to the facts of the author’s life before they can interpret the text.

Robert Musil, Roth’s contemporary in Austria-Hungary, although the two great writers evidently never met, put into the mouth of his Ulrich, 3 “One can’t be angry with one’s own time without damage to oneself”; to know that Roth’s anger destroyed him one has only to read the great works it produced. The text gives us the man, not the other way around. The totality of Joseph Roth’s work is no less than a tragédie humaine achieved in the techniques of modern fiction. No other contemporary writer, not excepting Thomas Mann, has come so close to achieving the wholeness—lying atop a slippery pole we never stop trying to climb—that Lukács cites as our impossible aim.

From the crude beginnings in his first novels, The Spider’s Web (1923) and Hotel Savoy (1924), the only work in which Roth was satisfied to use the verbal equivalent of the expressionist caricaturing of Georg Grosz or Otto Dix, through Flight Without End (1927), The Silent Prophet (1929),4 and all his other works with, perhaps, the exception of the novellas Zipper and his Father (1928) and Fallmerayer the Stationmaster (1933), his anti-heroes are almost all soldiers, ex–prisoners of war, deserters: former aristocrats, bourgeois, peasants, and criminals all declassed in the immorality of survival of the 1914–1918 war. This applies not only to the brutal or underhand necessity that survival demands, but also to the sense that, in the terrible formulation of a last member of the Trotta dynasty, they had been “Found unfit for death.”

All the young are candidates for the solutions of communism or fascism when there are no alternatives to despair or dissipation. Their fathers are unable to make even these choices, only to decay over the abyss of memory. All, young and old, are superfluous men to an extent Lermontev could not have conceived. Women are attendant upon them in this circumstance. Roth, although he often shows Joyce’s uncanny ability to write about women from under their skin, sees them according to their influence on men. “We love the world they represent and the destiny they mark out for us.” While his women are rarely shown as overtly rejecting this male-determined solution to their existence, they are always unspokenly convinced of their entitlement to life, whether necessity determines it should be lived behind a bar, in a brothel bed, or as an old grande dame in poverty. No better than the men, they connive and plot; but even when he shows them at their slyest and most haughtily destructive, he grants them this spiritedness. If one reads the life (his) from the work, it is evident that Roth suffered in love and resented it; in most of his work desired women represent sexual frustration, out of reach.

The splendid wholeness of Roth’s oeuvre is achieved in three ways. There’s the standard one of cross-casting characters from one novel to the next. There’s the far bolder risk-taking, in which he triumphs, of testing his creativity by placing different temperaments from different or (even more skilled) similar background in the same circumstances in different novels. There’s the overall paradoxical unity of traditional opposition itself, monarchic/revolutionary, pitched together in the dissolution of all values, for which he finds the perfect physical metaphor: the frontier between Franz Josef’s empire and the tsar’s empire, exemplified in Jadlowsky’s tavern, which appears in both The Radetzky March and Weights and Measures. There, the rogue Kapturak, a Jew whose exploitation of others’ plight stems from his own as a victim of tsarist anti-Semitism, hides the Russian army deserters he’s going to sell to labor agents in America and Australia. The only contacts between men are contraband; commerce of this kind is all that will be left of the two monarchic empires fighting each other to a mutual death, and the only structure that will still exist in the chaos to follow; the early twentieth-century class struggle will arise from that.

Roth’s petite phrase in the single great work into which all this transforms is not a Strauss waltz but the elder Strauss’s “Radetzky March,” in honor of the Austrian field marshal who was victorious against Sardinia. Its tempo beats from the tavern through Vienna and all the villages and cities of Franz Josef’s empire, to Berlin in those novels where the other imperial eagle has only one head. For Roth’s is the frontier of history. It is not recreated from accounts of the past, as War And Peace was, but recounted contemporaneously by one who lived there, in every sense, himself. This is not an impudent literary value judgment; it is, again, the work that provides a reading of the author’s life. Here was a writer obsessed with and possessed by his own time. From within it he could hear the drum rolls of the past resounding to the future.

Musil’s evocation of that time is a marvelous discourse; Roth’s involves a marvelous evanescence of the author in his creation of a vivid population of conflicting characters expressing that time. His method is to show a kind of picaresque struggle on the inescapable chain of the state. He rarely materializes as the author. There is his odd epilogue to Zipper and his Father, apparently some sort of acknowledgment that this, his most tender book (for while their situation makes both Musil and Roth ironic writers, Roth is tender where Musil is detachedly playful), is a form of the obeisance to the past that is autobiography. And there is his prologue to The Silent Prophet, his most politically realistic and least imaginatively realized book. In this prologue he comes as near as he ever will to an authorial credo with respect to his pervasive theme, the relation of the individual to the state. He says his characters are not

intended to exemplify a political point of view—at most, it [a life story] demonstrates the old and eternal truth that the individual is always defeated in the end.

The state or empire is the leg iron by which his characters are grappled. The political movement against the state, with the aim of freeing the people, in Roth forges a leg iron of its own by which the revolutionary is going to find himself hobbled.

Roth manages to convey complicated political concepts without their vocabulary of didacticism, rhetoric, and jargon. In the bitter experiences of Franz in Flight Without End, disillusion with the revolutionary left conveys what must have been the one-time-revolutionary Roth’s own experience more tellingly than any research into his life could, and points to the paradox that runs through his novels with such stirring dialectical effect on the reader. The old royalist, capitalist, hierarchic world of Church and State, with kings assuming divine authority on earth, their armies a warrior sect elected to serve as the panoply of these gods, is what he shows ruthlessly as both obsolete and bloodthirsty. But the counter-brutality of the revolution, and the subsequent degeneration of its ideals into stultifying bureaucracy—surely the characterizing tragedy of the twentieth century—leads him to turn about and show in his old targets, fathers, mothers, the loyalist, royalist landowners and city fathers, enduring values in the very mores he has attacked. This hardly provides a synthesis for his dazzling fictional dialectic. One who came after him, Czeslaw Milosz, expresses the dilemma:

Ill at ease in the tyranny, ill at ease in the republic,
in the one I longed for freedom, in the other for the end of corruption.5

The ten years between 1928 and 1938 seem to mark the peak of Roth’s mastery, although the dating of his novels in terms of when they were written6 rather than when they were published is often uncertain, since in the upheavals of exile some were not published chronologically. The Radetzky March (1932), Weights And Measures (1937), and The Emperor’s Tomb (1938) are both the culmination of the other novels and the core round which they are gathered to form a manifold and magnificent work. Zipper and his Father (1928) and Fallmerayer the Stationmaster (1933) are a kind of intriguing coda, a foray into yet another emotional range suggesting the kind of writer Roth might have become in another age, living another kind of life. Not that one would wish him any different.

  1. 1

    In a letter to his translator, Blanche Gidon, quoted by Beatrice Musgrave in her introduction to Weights And Measures (Everyman’s Library, 1983), p. 9. Roth lived in Paris for some years and two of his novels, Le Triomphe de la beauté and Le Buste de L’Empereur, were published first in French. Le Triomphe de la beauté probably was written in French; it appears not to have been published in German.

  2. 2

    I have been told that the standard German biography, David Bronsen’s Joseph Roth: Eine Biographie (Kiepenheuer and Witsch, 1974), is now in the process of translation for Roth’s English publisher, Chatto and Windus. Another biography by Nat Cohen of Toronto is planned for publication by the Overlook Press.

  3. 3

    Robert Musil, The Man without Qualities, Vol. I (Secker and Warburg, 1961), p. 64, translated by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser. Musil was born in 1880, and though long neglected as a writer outside German-speaking culture, was not forgotten as long as Roth. Musil became a figure in world literature in the Fifties; Roth’s work had to wait another twenty years before it was reissued in Germany, let alone in translation.

  4. 4

    The Silent Prophet was edited from unpublished work, with the exception of fragments published in 24 Neue Deutsche Erzähler and Die Neue Rundschau in 1929, and published after Roth’s death, in 1966. The English translation by David Le Vay was published in the United States by the Overlook Press in 1980. The work appears to have been written, with interruptions, over several years. The central character, Kargan, is supposedly modeled on Trotsky.

  5. 5

    Czeslaw Milosz, “To Raja Rao,” Selected Poems (Ecco Press, 1980), p. 29.

  6. 6

    The dates I give are generally the dates of first publication, in the original German.

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